Tuesday 16 July 2013

Throwing wobblies

A little over three months to go before the Spier Secret Festival and already I am excited. I have had a tweet favourited by non other than Lily Vanilli!  The one in which I beg her to recreate these anatomically correct hearts for the Spier Secret Festival. Being slightly weird and loving a touch of the macabre, I feel I must eat a 'bloodied' red velvet heart. I simply must.  (And no, I do not wish to make my own, in case one of you smart arses were about to suggest that I do.)

So while contemplating any potential future joyous culinary surprises, I thought back to last years festival where jelly was celebrated and I got to meet and interview the loveliest two boys. Sam Bompas and Harry Parr of Jellymonger fame. And so I made some jelly in my new Jelly Baby mold. It was not, as the photograph shows a big (visual) success. But it tasted good (Cream Soda flavor!) and it squelched. And those things are terribly important when it comes to judging jelly...

(How jelly should not look: Effort by Sam Woulidge)

(How jelly should look: Effort by Sam Bompas and Harry Parr)

Here is the piece I wrote for Taste . It first appeared in January 2013)

Bompas & Parr. The name is reminiscent of an old-fashioned circus troupe, hinting at magic acts, bizarre spectacles and feats of great daring. Clearly, they were destined for this job. They, being 20-somethings Sam Bompas and Harry Parr who met one another when they were both 13 years old and playing in the same orchestra at Eton. The job being that of jelly mongers; the label the duo invented when, years later, having left potential careers in public relations and architecture respectively, they thought it a good idea to sell jelly to the public. As one does.

There is something nostalgic and wonderfully English about jelly. Something playful.  And it is only right that this underrated food has the charmingly polite and earnestly enthusiastic Bompas and Parr as its modern day champions. Their flights of fancy, natural curiosity and hints of eccentricity are just what jelly needed in order to reinvent itself as more than just hospital and nursery fare. Bompas and Parr have come a long way since they sold their first alcoholic jelly shots in a club, cleverly undercutting the bar in 2007. Digging into the past and imagining the future they have since then created savoury jellies, tobacco jelly, alcohol-infused ones, meat jellies (most notably an unpalatable zebra one) magical glow-in-the-dark jelly, black funeral jellies, impressive flaming jellies and rude jellies with gold leaf bits. designed beautiful jelly installations for London Fashion Week and have recreated famous landmarks in miniature jelly format for the architectural jelly banquet for the London Festival of Architecture. But most memorably in May 2012, they created the biggest jelly in the world using 55 000 litres of jelly, this happened in Bristol when they floated the historic ship Brunel’s ss Great Britain in a neon green sea of jelly. 55 000 litres of neon green jelly. How could anyone top that in terms of scale or sheer ridiculous splendor?

But it is with the small jellies that, I think, that Sam and Harry have the most fun. They seem to derive enormous pleasure from experimenting with flavours, shapes and colour. But what they love most is The Wobble. ‘What about sound?’ I asked them, alluding to the squelching sound that Nigel Slater referred to as ‘a sort of jelly fart.’ This led to earnest discussion. ‘The wobble and the noise are related to one another,’ explained Harry, before telling me how they had scientifically recorded the sound of a jelly wobble. ‘But I don’t agree with Slater’s description of the sound jelly makes.’ asserted Sam. ‘ It’s more lewd. It’s a smutty sound. A sexual sound.’ And then I blushed profusely.

Obviously, as young boys, neither Sam Bompas nor Harry Parr paid any attention to their mothers when told that they should not play with their food. Because play with food they certainly do. While jelly is, and will always be their first love, these food fantasists have ventured into other culinary arenas as well. They are famous for their food installations and once created an Artisanal Chewing Gum Factory, one that would have made Willy Wonka proud. Based on the principles of microcapsules releasing different particles as you chew, they sourced 200 flavours ranging from the orange, foie gras, vodka, damp earth to candy floss and quince and allowed visitors to create their own flavour-changing gum.  There have been flavour-tripping parties where guests ate miracle berries – a West African berry that makes bitter and sour foods taste sweet -before heading for the buffet and taste-bud confusion. They constructed a crazy golf course atop the rooftop of Selfridges in London and more recently created a decadent drive-thru underneath the store in an-almost-forgotten marble-floored basement. They are also big on Alcoholic Architecture, having installed a giant punch bowl, large enough to row across and containing 4000 litres of punch, in a London mansion for Cognac brand, Courvoisier. Even more impressive and enjoyable, I would imagine, would have been the walk-in experience created for gin company Hendrick’s. Here, to the accompanying soundtrack of liquid splashing and tinkling ice, visitors donned boilersuits and walked into a room being pumped full of gin-and-tonic mist, but the stay was a short one as the alcohol was absorbed through the lungs and eyeballs and anyone overstaying their welcome would end up getting completely trashed. The parties where ether-dipped strawberries were served led to verbal confusions as names were forgotten and nouns mixed up. And they have made Occult Jam for a surrealist art exhibition using a tiny snip of the late Princess Diana’s hair and infusing it in gin and then combining it with milk and sugar  - a creepy condensed milk of sorts.

On a recent visit to South Africa, as speakers at the Spier Secret Festival, those attending were lucky enough to experience the jelly side of things as well as the experimental genius that is Bompas and Parr. The jellies, boasting appropriately slutty wobbles and smutty sounds, were made of chenin blanc, granadilla and flecked with gold leaf were absolutely, potently delicious. The installation? Well, that caused more than a few sparks. Calling on their schoolboy love of science and being showoffs, they created a spectacular gherkin chandelier which consisted of 60 gherkins, each one drawing 500 watts of power. ‘A potentially deadly act.’ Harry warned me, ensuring that, once the pickles were powered up, I stayed well away from the eerie light, the fizzing, the spluttering sparks, the momentary illuminations and the sharp smell of burning pickle. ‘60 Gherkins will lay down their lives for this, for the purpose of bringing pleasure to 150 people,’ I recalled Sam telling me. I had been moved by his sincere explanation that while some wastage may occur, they try and stay well clear of what he terms ‘gratuitous waste’. ‘Food is an interesting medium for art. But food is also important. It has to be respected. The justification of some waste, lies in the potential joy it brings. You must worship food. Celebrate it. It’s what we do. It’s the way we make people happy.’

Where did it begin? And where will it end, I’d asked them that afternoon, while they were making jelly.
‘It began with cakes.’ Harry said. ‘My mum had Woman’s Weekly cookbooks with birthday cakes for every age. It was very compelling as a child. One year there was a blue jelly swimming pool, the next a telephone covered in sweets. The cakes were sculptural, it my first introduction to figurative food.’
And end? ‘It will end with Harry and I sitting in an old people’s home one day, ‘smiled Sam. ‘And someone will start boasting, ‘When I made chocolate waterfall…’ And we’ll be like ‘Well, we once floated a ship in 55 tons of jelly….’ And then they both laughed, like small boys, enormously pleased with the idea of themselves as old men, recalling the surreal magic they had once created.


  1. Too funny! Pickle chandelier. And where did you get those moulds?
    I love the cover of your book.