illustration by Iguanodon
My eyes are full of jellies… waving like sea anemones
If you like bizzare eating rituals then you will love this. I present an interview with Sam Bompas, co-founder of Bompas & Parr, who love to play with their food. Bompas and Parr have not limited their horizons to jelly. They have taken the public ‘flavour-tripping’ in an experience involving a miracle fruit ( that’s ‘Synsepalum Dulcificum’ to you) which makes “lemons taste like toffee and vinegar like sherry”. They have also created a breathable alcohol installation. Now you can drink without holding one. The Independent has recently named them as one of “The 15 people who will define the future of arts in Britain”.
A few months ago I was searching for an interesting job to do. In the middle of this protracted and optimistic period of searching, I came across an article on their Black Banquet project. I emailed my cv to (the very open-minded) Sam Bompas and through the resulting dialogue – well, I didn’t get a job of course – but I did manage to get this interview. Which is pretty fantastic. Read on!
I: Who are Bompas and Parr and how did you meet?
SB: Sam Bompas and Harry Parr are the founders of Bompas & Parr, a fine jelly company that makes bespoke moulds and hosts spectacular culinary events. So we’ve learned a thing or two about jelly-making. Our business began when we applied to set up a stall at Borough Market for the summer of 2007. They turned us down, but we managed to pull in a couple of jobs making fresh fruit jellies for parties. After the Sunday Times included us in an article about the renaissance of traditional English food, business took off. We soon found that we couldn’t afford to buy decent antique moulds: the market has been cornered by collectors, who like to put holes in their moulds and hang them on their kitchen walls. Harry soon realised he could use the techniques he learnt as an architect to help us create our own moulds. Now, we’ve created bespoke moulds for all occasions – everything from birthdays to funerals. But if you’re not a trained architect or don’t have a collection of your own moulds, never fear. There is much that can be done using items you’ll find lying about your kitchen. In fact, we’re going to show you how you can get unbelievably creative with jelly.
Our first big jelly event was the Jelly Banquet at the London Festival of Architecture in 2008. We hosted a competition to find the Ultimate Jelly Architect – and discovered that it’s possible to attract more than two thousand people, and a lot of press, by presenting jellies with a bit of panache. In this case, we persuaded some of the world’s leading architects, including Lord Foster, Lord Rogers and Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, to design jellies, and our competition ultimately attracted more than one hundred designs from around the world. Some designs were of existing buildings, such as the Eden Project, while others were entirely new proposals. Lord Foster’s entry was particularly ambitious, representing his notorious wobbly Millennium Bridge. Others showed that there’s still life in jelly yet: Lord Rogers’s practice designed a beautiful modular jelly in the shape of their Barajas airport. A panel of design and food experts judged the entries on innovation, aesthetics and, most importantly, “wobble factor”.
Professor Stephen Gage, from University College London, summed up the architectural appeal of jelly like this: as babies, we first learn about our world by touching it and putting bits of it in our mouth. Part of our subconscious appreciation of shape may well be a dim memory of how it might feel in our mouth. Thus a dome is round and coolly satisfying, while a pointed building is like a sharp and dangerous knife. Jelly architecture returns architecture to the mouth, where we can once again taste it. Jelly is a brilliant way to rediscover how fun and versatile food is. It is not only figurative but has a life of its own – and how can you not think that the wobble is anything other than rude?
I: How did the breathable alcohol installation come about? You first created an installation in a shop space for the Hendricks Gin company in April this year. How long does it take to get intoxicated in a literal, gaseous ‘haze of alcohol’?
We worked with three different doctors on this. It all depends how you calibrate the machinery. At our installation it took forty-five minutes to get a 35ml measure inside you. But on the last night we ran pure spirit through the machines. We lost our work experience for two days – I woke up in Heathrow and Harry was discovered by his girlfriend without his shirt in Kings Cross four hours later. She had to come looking for him in a cab.
Iguanodon’s note. Here’s a quote from Sam’s business partner Harry:
“I’m interested in states of matter. Here we’ve vaporised a cocktail. In the future I would like to make a liquid banqueting table. In the 1905 Gondola Banquet the Savoy Hotel was flooded and the meal was eaten on a floating gondola surrounded by live swans with dessert presented on the back of a baby elephant. That would be the ultimate meal. ”
– Harry Parr
I: Would you consider yourself surrealists?
I: Have you seen Anthony McCall’s solid light films? Or more to the point have you ‘experienced’ them? The connection springs to mind as he is making light solid. You, on the other hand, are making something tangible and edible luminous.
SB: Totally inspired. It would be interesting to work with his projections mapping them onto a food landscape
I: Who knew that quinine (which many people will have taken as an anti-malarial) had fluorescent properties? You have been able to indulge in every artisan’s fantasy and work with a real, live scientist! You created a ‘Glow in the Dark Jelly’ in 2008 with the expertise of Dr. Sella from University College London. Is this how you normally approach an idea – think of a phenomena you want to combine with jelly and then work it out?
SB: Absolutely. We think of what we want to do and then work out who the best person is to make it happen. Here’s the scoop on the glowing jelly:
“Fluorescence is one of those truly magical atomic phenomena – an optical illusion that makes things look brighter than they are, making it central not only to safety equipment, but also to detergents and cleaning agents to give that “white than white” look. All manner of materials fluoresce. The quinine molecule, itself, is a natural product from the bark of the South American Cinchona tree that has been added to drinks for over a century. One of the first anti-malarial molecules, it began to be used by the British in India as a cure for fevers. The drug could be made more palatable by judicious addition of sugar and alcohol. Nowadays, the malaria parasite is resistant to quinine, but its bitterness adds a pleasant “bite” to the flavour of many soft drinks and mixers. And the blue glow is a delightful effect that adds ambiance to pubs and clubs. But if you don’t like the glow there’s a simple say to switch it off – simply toss a pinch of salt into your cocktail and kill the effect in an instant. ”
– Dr Andrea Sella of UCL’s Department of Chemistry
I: You mention that you are currently in your jelly phase. What foodstuffs would you like to work with in future? Could you describe a fantasy project, commissions and budget be damned?
SB: A two-hundred course meal for a single person. Actually working on a pitch for this at the moment and have already locked in the budget. That’s a course every five minutes for ten hours straight.
I: Would you ever consider making noisy food? Perhaps singing jelly? Something like that?
SB: Already done it. Our sampled jelly wobbling was the number one science video on Youtube for a while. It sounded pretty disgusting. The comments were worse though.
I: Who would you consider a contemporary of yours – given your creative interests and the materials in which you work?
Lily Vanilli. She makes cupcakes that bleed.
I: The company is two years young and you have achieved a huge amount since you founded Bompas and Parr in 2007. You must have a great work ethic. Could you describe an average working day?
SB: Pretty savage. Up at five for emails. Cook eight am until ten am then non stop meetings through ‘til seven. Then cooking and more emails.
I: Other than maybe throwing some jelly at a politician, which is maybe a form of soft, fruity assault – do you think jelly could be used for political satire?
SB: I’ve got Bojo’s mobile no and always invite him round to our events. He would be the chief jelly server.
I: Name something jelly shouldn’t be used for.
SB: The Olympic sport of curling.