Jelly good show: Bompas and Parr’s supper salon

22 November 2010

 Sensate (Bompas & Parr) by charles villyard, on Flickr
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Sensate (Bompas & Parr) by charles villyard, on Flickr

It’s not only good food that you get at our Supper Salon events; it’s strange and interesting experiences. We sent Jess Strangward to see what all the fuss about jellymongers Bompas and Parr was all about…

Jelly. Just the word seems to slip, slide and wobble in your mouth. The thought, or even the sight of the stuff, is enough to send anyone back to their childhood – whether you loved it or loathed it. For me, it was the ultimate dessert. It was the only one I could legitimately play with at the dinner table and as I got older, the play continued. I can’t count the number of times I’ve recreated the scene from Jurassic Park where a spoonful of jelly almost steals the limelight from the dinosaur roaring into view. Therefore it could be said that my legs turned to jelly as two dapper gents, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, Jelly Mongers and event dreamers, took to the floor at Wellcome Collection’s Supper Salon to tell us about their culinary explorations.

Bompas and Parr (B&P) mix up and mesh science seamlessly into their events. Their focus isn’t just on the food itself, but the environment that surrounds it. They explained that psychology experiments have shown that serving exactly the same chicken dish in different locations led to widely different experiences of the meal. Diners who ate in an army barracks complained that the chicken was rubbery and they weren’t sated, whereas those in a fine dining room raved about the tender chicken and their bulging waistlines.  B&P exploit this inconsistency: their events transform the everyday ritual of eating into a sensual experience – not to mention quite the grand event. But why jelly in the first place?

The inspiration to revive the popularity of this ‘unrivalled dessert’ emerged during a wander round Borough Market in their student days.  Unfortunately Borough didn’t share their vision and refused their request for a stall. Luckily they were undeterred, and with private funding started to experiment. The first hurdle to overcome was finding decent moulds. The best ones are copper but they are expensive and the kinds of elaborate mould designs they wanted to create called for a much more modern day solution than a burly blacksmith. The computer design programme, AutoCAD, that Parr was using for his architecture studies proved to be the perfect solution. They could now produce ceramic and plastic molds to whatever size and shape they desired.

B&P are the first to admit their first large scale event was a case of trial by fire; a jelly banquet in the quad at UCL for 2008 London Architecture Week. This included making a replica of the infamous Millennium ‘wobbly’ bridge. After meeting Norman Foster himself (they declined to say whether he threw a wobbly when it wasn’t working) the venture was deemed as much of a nightmare to construct as the original. The banquet also included a jelly ballet, accompanied by the sounds of wobbling jelly.

Since then B&P have not been ones to shy away from the experimental sides of jelly, and have even managed to create glow in the dark jellies, by exploiting the fact that quinine (found in tonic water) glows blue under UV light. What’s important though, is that whilst they may have made jelly seem more refined and sophisticated, they certainly haven’t taken the fun out of it – in fact – they’ve probably added a kids’ party sized dollop more.

B&P admit that they harness the power of the senses and space to fool and entrance you. At the Big Chill festival they created a Ziggurat of Flavour which was modeled on an 18th century Italian tradition where huge towers of food were erected by nobleman for festivals. They were exploring the idea of food as power. This made me consider how much of this concept still holds true. Is providing festival-goers with two of their ‘5 a day’ really going to compete with beer and burgers? Well it seems if you construct a giant tower of food complete with a vapourised fruit labyrinth and 20ft slide you’ll have them queuing around the site to have a go! Our modern relationship to food isn’t only based on its healthiness, but whether it’s organic, fair trade, seasonal – it’s a constant social negotiation. Luckily the Peyton and Byrne food ticks all of these boxes and while we tucked into our starter, B&P set us a challenge: design our own jelly mould.

There were, of course, rules – we had to be creative, colourful and remember to consider taste. We also had to ensure the jelly could stand up and able to easily be removed from a traditional style mould. Our table came up with a beer gut, swimming pool, boobies, prism of taste (special mention) and Buddha. But the winner, whose mold they will produce and use, was a sea scene.

B&P told us their motto is ‘what if’ and their ventures and events show just how successful that unrelenting enthusiasm and spirit can be. Their vapourised fruit labyrinth technique was first used to create an inhalable gin and tonic in the west end of London – they’d asked themselves what would it be like inside a cocktail? In order to ensure they got the concentrations just right they had to consult the specialists in extreme environmental research to see how quickly humans will feel the effect of the alcoholic vapours. Moreover vapourising anything could cause an explosion so they turned to their long time advisor Dr Andreas Sellar who they neatly described as the “go to person when Radio 4 needs someone to talk about bombs” – no better accolade! In timed slots of 15 minutes the suited and booted of the city donned hazmat suits and ventured into the cloud of Hendrick’s Gin and Tonic to inhale their way to happiness!

They continued this drinks theme after reading about Admiral Russell who in1694 filled a fountain with punch and had a 6 day party. They decided they wanted to flood the basement of a building with punch and with support from Courvoisier they began to plan. Here, B&P came up against their ultimate nemesis: Health and Safety (dum dum daaaaa). Luckily the solution was easy, every punter was treated as though they were entering a commercial kitchen although this did mean filling out a rather personal questionnaire about their, erm, digestive health. Everyone had to don hairnets and snoods (hairnets for beards). I was lucky enough to attend this event – imagine a shadowy renaissance basement with a swimming pool filled with russet liquid. I even sailed across it on a giant lemon slice float– the fumes from it were enough to make you giddy. It was a shame they didn’t have a slideshow to accompany their talk as they’re difficult to describe!

Of course the evening couldn’t end without us getting to taste their famous jellies that were flavoured with Courvoisier. They were delicious and the evening ended with the sound of spoons scraping across plates to finish up the last morsel. I, of course, saved the last spoonful to homage my favourite jelly film moment.

B&P are going from strength to strength. I’ve only ever caught glimpses of them at events I’ve attended. They’re always working, working, working in the background. Their quirky originality and sheer determination to push boundaries and create amazing worlds makes them the ultimate showmen – they put their audience and their pleasure first. Make sure you sign up to their next show.