20 Nov 2007

The first(?) example of molecular gastronomy in music

More music than science lately, but this one is inevitable:
Recently, the
improvisational electroacoustic jazz band Food released their fifth record named "molecular gastronomy"!

Furthermore, seeing the track list, I was baffled by the rather specific concepts taken directly from molecular gastronomy (MG), such as khymos (Martin Lersch's blog), spherification and texturas (ref. the Texturas series by Ferran Adrià at el Bulli) and heston (Blumenthal, at The Fat Duck).

At first, I wondered whether this was a joke, serious, or somewhere in between. Qualitywise, this is by no means a joke. Both from previous recordings and this one, Iain Ballamy (sax) and Thomas Strønen (drums/perc) prove that they are among the foremost in their field, no doubt. Other band constellations they are engaged in confirms this as well.

So, is it possible to hear the gastronomy in the music? (ref. previous posts on food and chemistry/food vs. music). That's a difficult question, and I'm not sure whether I should look for it either. My experience with using other senses than my ears as impulse to improvisation is that things become rather banal if one lets the impulses become too evident in the music. One example when we (Quest) played together with the Norwegian poet and author Lars Amund Vaage reading his poems about sheep farmers from the book "Det andre rommet". The one percussion instrument to be extremely careful about in that context, at least in my opinion, was the (cow) bell.

Anyway, I guess taste, aroma etc. are such unfamiliar impulses to use in music compared to visual (i.e. pictures) and text, that the effect of these may be difficult to discern (I'd really love to have a chat with the Food-guys about this).

I'll surely spend time listening to this, food/gastronomy references or not. Strønen is no doubt a favourite in terms of combining energy, cool-factor and elegance. Coupled with the long mellow saxophone lines of Ballamy and keyboards/effects, the result is simply great music.


Post-comment after more listening, 16. December 2007:
After running the album a few more times, the question of hearing the food in the music is still a long shot to me. What is pretty clear, however, is that the music is closely connected to many of the track names; it's easy to relate/associate the music to the words. Examples are the machine like percussion (especially the bells) in "apparatus", the less rythmic and soft lines of "texturas", and the last track "alchemy" which is a synthesis (or maybe a distillate) of several of the other tracks. So, the search for food/gastronomy in music goes on, or maybe it's already there, the fault being in my mind or expectations?

Track list:
red algae
nature's recipe
the larder chef

13 Nov 2007

Food, science and pupils'/students' experience of success

Cooking is a discipline that is often heavily focussed on a successful result. Sometimes this is a good thing, but other times focus on achieving is not necessarily the best strategy in terms of learning. In these cases, a science perspective may be just what is needed.

In Norway, cooking in school has had a rather strong feminine focus, possibly because the approach has been home cooking and home related questions rather than a more masculine gastronomical /restaurant perspective.* This focus prevails, and I don't complain about that. On the contrary, I think a home focus is the right approach in a school setting.

One thing I find that these two approaches have in common, though, is that achieving a successful result (dish) often is the main focus, and in that respect I think there are things to be done. My point is:

if the pupils/students end up with is a bread that hasn't leavened, would that be regarded as a failure? If the goal is achieving an optimal product, the answer is probably yes. If learning is the goal, I'd say no. In fact, it may be an excellent impetus to learn something about baking, yeast, leavening etc.

In fact, nothing spurs me more to experiment than when a recipe tells me by all means to avoid doing something, such as getting egg yolk in when whipping egg whites, or whipping the double cream past the whipped cream-stage. Sometimes, "sabotage experiments" may very well be the ultimate way of learning and experimenting with food (and may result in surprisingly good or interesting products as well).

Through science and research, we learn that a result is a result is a result...; a negative result may be as informative as a positive one. If it is true that "a drop of success will create a pound of persistence", then why not turn what could be seen as a failure into an interesting result from which one may learn from? Maybe this could spur towards a more gender neutral home economics (in Norway: Food&health) teaching?

Also, in many cases the unlikely results and the odd combinations may be the ones that lead to new experiences and wonderful dishes, such as the unlikely purple mashed potatoes made by all blue potatoes (there are no colourings added and the picture is not manipulated).

Photo: Erlend Krumsvik

(* The masculine/feminine thing is more of an observation, rather than an opinion of mine. Personally, I'd really like to see a more equal gender distribution among both the mentioned groups/perspectives, such as a male home economics teacher in primary school...)

24 Sept 2007

A great loss

Not long ago, I was told that the Swedish physicist Hans-Uno Bengtsson regrettably had passed away. A great loss for many of us that appreciated his unique way of illuminating the science in everyday life, and, to me, the physics in food and drink.

Hans-Uno Bengtsson was associate professor at the Department of Theoretical Physics at Lund University, Sweden. According to Wikipedia, Lund University web pages and people I've talked to, he was also an outstanding lecturer. My experience with his work is his writings on the physics of food and drink, although he published a host of other texts on physics, both scientific and popular. To Scandinavian readers, I'd recommend the two books any time

- "Koka soppa på fysik" ("Cooking soup on physics"[?]), a collaboration with the chef Jan Boris-Möller.
A collection of short texts on various food subjects, connecting apparently unrelated subects in an elegant and subtle way

- "Kring flaskor og fysik" ("On bottles and physics"), together with sommelier Mischa Billing.
A conversation between the two authors leading the reader through a meal, discussing various likely and unlikely subjects on the way.

My fascination about these two books is his special ability to interweave complicated physical subjects into the food and drink in a way that makes me gasp from the physics and maths without being put off (i.e. discussing adiabatic expansion in connection with the little "cloud" that arises when a champagne bottle is opened). In fact, in the bottles vs. physics book, he leaves the calculation in the book, but separates it in such a way that the reader very well may skip this part without loosing the thread. Also, the great aesthetic sense that characterises these two books, reveals a great gift both in terms of language/writing and visually.

Finally, I was fortunate enough to experience him a few times on a food programme on TV ("Mat"/"Food" with Tina on Swedish television), amongst others discussing the most efficient way of cooling your champagne: wrap it in a wet towel, strap it on your motorbike and go for a ride :)

I've been hoping for more food- and drink related contributions by Hans-Uno Bengtsson. Unfortunately that won't be, and as I've understood, I'm not the only one that will miss further contributions from Hans-Uno Bengtsson, who left us far too soon.


22 Jul 2007

A short note on taste/food as a impulse to making music

Spurred by a recent comment a previous posting about chemistry and music, I thought I'd leave a few thoughts about chemistry/taste/scent/aroma vs. music; most of all just to have them written hem down, really.

At the moment I haven't come any further with this apart from day to day musing. The main idea is that as a large proportion of taste is in fact aroma; what is perceived through the nose receptors rather than the tongue. In our "improjazz" band Quest (www.questmusic.no and myspace music) we've used both visual arts (photography) and text/poetry as impulse to making improvised music. These are both impulses received by our senses (visual and auditory). However, taste and aroma are very powerful impulses in association making. Just imagine how the smell of a dish that you've not tasted since you were a small child, or the perfume of the grandmother you spent a lot of time together with as young, may set you right back to situations years back in time in a way that few other impulses do. To me this happens especially in smelling and/or tasting food I had a lot of as a child, or had in a special situation.

So, my thoughts these days circle around the possibilities that lie in using smell as impulse for me as a musician to create music, in the same way as hearing a poem or seeing a photography/painting/picture. I suppose this leans towards some sort of performance art, although other arts than music aren't my field of expertise in any way.

Finally, one interesting thing I came across through Martin's khymos blog was Aroma jockey. This relates very closely to the thoughts above, but to me it seems like he uses recorded music. I'd love to see where this could lead in cooperation with live musicians.


16 Mar 2007

Does "light" really mean light? - part II

A follow-up on the last entry, comments and Brian's Diet Coke Floating blog entry

The comments on the last entry on Coke density spurred my curiosity, and I decided to follow up with a few experiments:
  1. What's the density of different kinds of Coke? I did a simple experiments, weighing measured amounts of Coke (ca. 100 ml) and got the following result. I did the same measurement for water and corrected this according to standard water density values from a web based water density calculator:

  2. What about water density as function of temperature? The density changes according to the reference values are small, far too small to make a difference (my cans/bottles held between 13 and 21 deg. C), as seen from the density curve as function of temperature (the same density calculator used):

    And, of course, the density-temperature difference should not be very different from water to Coke, so at temperatures of high water density, the same should apply to Coke.

  3. Experiments should always be tested for repeatability, so I used two cans of coke. Also, I tested whether the same would happen for Coke bottles (500 ml plastic bottles), and if the same would happen for Coke Zero. The pictures below tell the whole story. The difference between Coke Light and Coke Zero, from the ingredients list, seems to be the sweeteners. Coke Light contains Sucralose and Acesulfame K, while Coke Zero contains Aspartame and Acesulfame K.

What seems really strange to me is the measurement of Coke light and Coke Zero having densities lower than water, especially the light variety which is well below any temperature dependent variations. How can it be that a water solution with dissolved matter has lower density than water? Carbon dioxide? I don't think so. Carbon dioxide is still matter dissolved in water and should contribute to a higher density rather than lower (regardless of its density in pure, gaseous form).

Anyway, the safe explanation to the floating Coke light is of course the air pocket (both in cans and bottles), and I think I'll stick to this as the main explanation rather than densities of Coke. Ordinary Coke is a clean cut case, anyway.


12 Mar 2007

Does "light" really mean light?

In a simple demonstration playing around with light products floating/sinking in water a fascinating contrast emerges.

Try submerging the following two pairs of products: ordinary and light mayonnaise, and diet coke (or other cola vs. cola light).

Light mayonnaise floats lower than ordinary mayonnaise. In the case of the soft drink, cola light floats while ordinary cola sinks! What's going on?

The term in question is density:

The main ingredients in mayonnaise are water and fat/oil:
Ordinary mayo: 80% fat, 16% water
Light mayo: 40% fat, 50% water

Fat floats in water. A larger proportion of fat makes the mixture closer to pure fat and vice versa.

Cola can be considered as water with some dissolved material. Ordinary cola is, as such, a sugar solution with a few other additives (taste, aroma, colour etc.).

Cola light contains the artificial sweeteners Sucralose and Acesulfame K. Both are far sweeter than table sugar, sucrose (650 times and 180-200 times, respectively, ref. Belitz). Thus, far less sweetener is needed. If we assume that all other ingredients are the same, then far less material is dissolved in the light version. The same total volume with less material --> lower density. Thus: pure cola light would float up in ordinary cola taken that they didn't mix.

In both the mayo and cola cases, there is some air (or trapped gas) inside the tube/can. This makes the tube/can float higher than in the case of the pure mayo/cola. However, as long as the volumes are the same, this doesn't make any difference. If it wasn't for the air, both cans would in fact sink, and the experiment wouldn't be.

A question of using and understanding scientific concepts
The concepts relevant to this is not only "light", but also (amongst others) "(chemical/dietary) energy" and "density". If something floats, we usually say that it's "lighter than water". However, two kilograms of wood is heavier than one kilogram of water, but it still floats. To me as an adult, it's probably easy to grasp, but placing this in an educational context makes it important to use the correct terms. So, "cola has higher density than cola light" would be more correct.

It's quite easy to put this to the test: measure both the volume and weight of a can/bottle of cola and compare. The one that sinks (highest density) weighs the most taken the same volume. Another version of this experiment is concealing the labels, letting the students know the content without telling which is which. The task is then to use knowledge and reasoning to deduce which is which.

Using the term "diet" rather than "light" would of course make the whole case less diffuse, but then a fascinating aspect in the experiment and following discussion is lost. This is the reason for using "light" instead of "diet" in the first hand. However, this may be a nice way of introducing the energy concept of (chemical) energy, kcal and kJ, and contrast this against "light" used in different contexts.

Natural sciences are evidently not only concerned with nature itself, but just as much the language describing nature.


- Belitz et al., Food Chemistry 3rd ed., Springer 2004
- A Swedish version of the cola experiment at SkolKemi pages of University of Umeå

4 Feb 2007

Do we need to know about dispersions: addition

Slightly embarrassing, I forgot to include Hervé This' work on dispersions.

Hervé This has done some beautiful systematic work on dispersions which he has termed "Modelling dishes". He has several publications on this, but one of these is a paper in British Journal of Nutrition: "Modelling dishes and exploring culinary ‘precisions’: the two issues of molecular gastronomy". It's (at the moment, at least) free for download through IngentaConnect.

Although probably not suitable for the everyday school teacher (but who knows), this is great stuff for those with a more-than-average interest in science vs cooking.


Post addition, February '09: the Swedish book "Den tekniske kocken" (The Technological Chef") uses in a very consistent manner the different dispersion terms, and show graphically what sorts of dispersions are important in various foods and dishes (although the book recieved a harsh review, "worst cookbook of the year", in Matälskaren).

Reference: This, H., Brit. J. Nutr. 2005, 93, S139.

3 Feb 2007

Do we need to know about dispersions?

Most of the matter and materials that surround us aren't pure compounds or true, homogeneous solutions. If we want to give a science education that is relevant and connected to everyday life, why then is so much of the labwork we do focussed on pure substances and solutions? ...and will the home-/professional cook benefit from knowing a little about dispersions?

A look in the kitchen cupboard and fridge revealed, apart from water and air, the following pure compounds and true homogeneous solutions: sugar, salt, natron (sodium bicarbonate), some of the soft drinks, and some refined vegetable oils. All the other stuff is dispersions, i.e. more or less stable mixtures of compounds/phases that don't mix.

Dispersions and colloids
A related word is colloids, but to my knowledge the word dispersions has lately been adopted as a collective term for colloids, aerosols, foams and emulsions. A dispersion is a homogeneous mixture of two or more phases that are immiscible (won't mix). What is mixed are solids, liquids and gases. The table below gives an overview. In fact, it's quite an enlightening exercise to have a look around and try categorizing the stuff around you. Bread is a foam; cheese, most vegetables and meat are gels; milk, butter and mayonnaise are emusions, just to mention a few.

Click picture for full size version in new window. Click here for Norwegian version

Why dispersions?
In Norwegian school science books and science teacher training literature, matter is divided only into pure compounds and mixtures, see below. The problem with this is that students (and teachers) don't get a language to deal with the stuff that surrounds them. To most of us, foam is a known phenomenon, and emulsions are also known to some. However, these are secondary terms rather than the primary term dispersion.

The term dispersion is not mentioned in the Norwegian curriculum for primary,secondary and high school (Kunnskapsløftet, eng.: "The Knowledge Promotion"). Do I think the term dispersion should have been included in the curriculum? Maybe, maybe not. This new curriculum isn't meant to give detailed instructions to what should be taught, but to what competences the students should have inherited after a certain level. It's up to the school/teacher to fill he subjects with a content as long as the students achieve these competences.

So, if we want the kids to experience a science education related to their everyday life, rather than stuff they'll meet only in science lab, maybe we should start talking about (and playing with) dispersions.

Also, for those of us who would like to benefit from scientific knowledge when we cook, this may afford a good way of viewing ingredients and foods (i.e. previous entries on Tomato foam and Egg white foam).


Post comment:
Addition to this post in the following post "Do we need to know about dispersions: addition"

29 Jan 2007

Five cardinal rules in cooking

Inspired by Martin's blog entry "Ten tips for practical molecular gastronomy", I came to remember Östen Dahlgren's five cardinal rules in cooking:

  1. Be critical of recipes
  2. Stop and think - should I really do [it like] this?
  3. Keep in mind how the heat is distributed/transferred
  4. Keep in mind what is soluble in what
  5. Taste while you're cooking - often
(my translation)

Dahlgren has written the book "Laga mat - Hur man gör og varför" ("Cooking - How to do it and why"), which is a Swedish counterpart to McGee's "On food and Cooking".
Dahlgren's list is a simpler version of the ten rules that Martin lists up. Although less comprehensive, the short list is easier to keep in mind whenever you're cooking, and I think that's a virtue. I could have commented further on each point, but I think I'll keep it short this time.
What is soluble in what? Blueberry juice in chili oil
(Photo: Erlend Krumsvik)

Furthermore it seems to me that the various tips in Martin's list demand quite different degrees of knowledge and experience. "Learn how to control the texture of food" and "Learn how to control taste and flavor" demand quite a lot of either knowledge or experience (or both) from the cook. On the other hand, "Know what temperature you’re cooking at" doesn't demand much more than the skill of using a thermometer. Of course, Dahlgren's list also operates on different levels, but maybe less so than Martin's. Or is it maybe me seeing things a little too much through my own eyes here, being more accustomed to Dahlgren's rules knowing them for a longer time?

One of my personal favourites is by the way Martin's 9. tip, being imperative in science and science education: "Keep a written record of what you do! ".

Maybe should we go for a happy marriage, making one complete list for the Molecular Gastronomy enthusiasts and a shorter one for everyone else? A future post, either here or at Martin's blog, should certainly have two such differentiated lists. A joint venture?


21 Jan 2007

A kindred spirit

My first experience with the annual ASE (The Association for Science Education) conference was at The University of Birmingham 3.-6. January. A paradox was that I had to go all the way to England to find that one of the most interesting experiences was to be a Swedish lecturer.

A packed programme with hoards of parallel sessions, spanning most thinkable and unthinkable science education issues; from the highly inspiring/enthusing to the one that give you the feeling "I never thought it was possible to completely ruin something so inherently fascinating". However, one experience left all of the other sessions in the shadows: Hans Persson at the Swedish National Centre for Education in Physics (and The Stockholm Institute of Education) had two sessions: "Creativity in the Science Classroom" and "Curious About Science?". His approach to science teaching was so fresh, vital and inspiring that the session ended in the audience giving standing ovations (the first time I've experienced such after a conference lecture).

What makes this special? First of all, the strong focus on students' interest/attitudes towards science in addition to the knowledge. Interest before knowledge, maybe. If you don't enjoy dealing with science, you won't learn much. Other key factors are having courage to be truly playful and enthusiastic, and utilising every aspect of everyday life to impart science. I also share his quite strong criticism of the kind of science teaching that is separated from everyday life, i.e. lab equipment which its sole purpose is for use in science education, but which doesn't exist anywhere else (note that this primarily applies to primary and secondary school, college/university level may be quite a different ballgame).

The other thing that makes this stand out is that he managed to convince me that he's got a firm foundation for this approach, possibly both theoretical/ideological and empiric, both from primary/secondary school and teacher training. His book on concept building is sure to find it's way to my bedside table soon (only in Swedish, unfortunately, but he's published books in English as well).

Anyway, I don't think I've seen such a fresh approach to science education during my five years in the game, and I decided to post this although strictly it doesn't deal with food and science education (although he touched in on that as well).

A visit at his web page, which bears the subtitle "How can we awaken interest in science and then keep that interest alive?", gives a small glimpse of his thoughts and work. I find this so important that I've put the link in the permanent links list in the right hand margin.


Link: www.hanper.se (both English and Swedish, but the Swedish pages are somewhat more comprehensive).