I make the little cakes individually and then insert them into the quail’s egg shells with tweezers,” explains Katie Franklin, the trendy twenty-something behind Pomp de Franc, an avant-garde cake company which specialises in catering for fashion events. Laid in front of her are trays of tiny quails eggs, filled with cake and topped with chocolate piping. It is an edible take on the classic ship-in-a-bottle. “The idea is you peel it as you would a boiled egg.” This is a fiddly process, I discover, but the nugget of dark chocolate and coffee-flavoured sponge inside is worth the effort. I can see why the fashion crowd would go for these bijoux creations.
Franklin is one of a group of food artists, artisans, performance artists, chefs and food scientists who have come to exhibit their kooky culinary wares at the Truman Brewery in London’s East End. They are all members of the Experimental Food Society, a venture set up by Alexa Perrin, and this is the society’s annual Spectacular – a two-day event in which members showcase their crafts for the public. Perrin, whose background is in food and drink PR, established the society in 2009 to show off the more creative end of the UK food industry. An early collaboration with Bompas & Parr, the duo who specialise in architectural jellies as well as more radical inventions such as breathable cocktails, led Perrin to other gastronomic pioneers, from food magicians to sugarcraft sculptors. Two years on, the society has 58 members with a single goal in common: to push the boundaries of culinary creativity.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and there is a festive atmosphere at the Truman Brewery. On the synthetic grass outside the exhibition rooms, two colourful vending vans are drawing considerable attention. At Ginger’s Comfort Emporium, Claire Kelsey is launching the UK’s first camel-milk ice cream. I am pleasantly surprised by the rose-flavoured scoop I sample: it isn’t at all musty, as I had feared, and it has a delicate fondant texture – somewhere between sorbet and gelato. Next door, Petra Barran of Choc Star, a mobile chocolateria, is attracting a queue for her “super high-energy truffles” made from 100 per cent Venezuelan cacao, which, I learn, is both low in fat and a natural teeth-cleaner.
The most spectacular exhibits are unquestionably in the baking arena, where some of the sculptures defy belief, in particular newcomer Scott O’Hara’s huge sugarcraft American harpie eagle and Paul Baker’s Eiffel Tower, ingeniously constructed from Curly Wurly bars. Even less edible-looking, but equally astonishing is the “levitating cake” by Annabel de Vetten, aka The Cake Conjuror – fashioned into a magician’s table, complete with trailing tablecloth of black velvet icing. At the next stand, Paul Wayne Gregory is wowing a small audience with his spooky chocolate doll’s house, made from 70 per cent single-estate cacao. Like many of the society’s members, this pastry chef-turned-chocolatier has links with the UK’s top chefs: his award-winning chocolates are served in Gary Rhodes’ restaurants. There are society members behind some of Heston Blumenthal’s gastromolecular creations too, such as his “exploding sorbet” conceived by food magician John Van der Putt. These must surely be some of the most unsung heroes of the food industry.
Better known is TV chef Stefan Gates, aka The Gastronaut, who is entertaining a small crowd with a jovial explanation of his Extraordinary Snackbox: highlights, we learn, include jellyfish salad, mealworms in yoghurt and, even more intriguing, the “bum sandwich”. It’s not what you might think (thank God), but a cheese and basil toastie-in-waiting: all you have to do is sit on it. This may not be the most sophisticated end of the culinary spectrum – but you have to admit, it is nothing if not experimental.