It felt more like a carefully choreographed television show than a press conference. But then we were in the cavernous, shiny-floored studio that, for several weeks before, had been the recording venue for the BBC2 programme The Apprentice – You’re Fired.
On Monday the stage was decked out as if for Ready Steady Cook – a golden table with a stove top stage left, and seats arranged around a dining area to the right, in front of a backdrop of dancing purple and yellow lights. Hulking studio cameras and banks of harsh spotlights were trained on the table, and it therefore seemed entirely normal when a real TV presenter strode on stage to take charge of what was, ostensibly, a scientific press conference.
With a delivery more dramatic and assured than any regular scientific chair could probably have mustered, ITV newsreader Nina Hossain told the audience that they were there to witness a world first. “This will be the first time a burger made with cultured beef has been cooked and tasted. Please feel free to tweet about the event.”
The first guest on stage was the scientist whose team had designed and made the burger, grown from muscle stem cells in a lab, after more than five years of research. Physiologist Mark Post of Maastricht University said he had been moved to make the €250,000 (£217,000) patty after thinking about the crushing environmental impacts – from pollution and contribution to climate change – of global meat production. And, with rising populations and more demand for meat, those impacts were going to get worse. His backer, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, shared his concerns, he said.
Moments after Post unveiled his precious burger to the assembled audience – who were all too far away to see it properly – a chef, a food writer and a nutritionist were welcomed on stage, accompanied by ripples of applause.
Hossain explained that, because of the cost of the burger and the fact there was so little of it, only those on stage would have a taste.
On seeing the most expensive burger in the world, chef Richard McGeown of Couch’s Great House Restaurant in Polperro, Cornwall said it was slightly paler than those to which he was accustomed. He spent the next 10 minutes carefully watching the burger in the pan, probably mildly concerned about not breaking the thing in half when he had to turn it over. That would have been a pricey error. McGeown said that, in a pan with butter and sunflower oil, it cooked like any other burger – and was suitably aromatic. Hanni Rützler of the Future Food Studio, who researches food trends, was the first to taste it. “I was expecting the texture to be more soft,” she said at first. The absence of fat was noticeable, she added, which meant a lack of juiciness in the centre of the burger. If she had closed her eyes, however, she would have thought the cultured meat was definitely beef rather than a vegetable-based substitute.
American food writer and author of The Taste of Tomorrow, Josh Schonwald, was next. He said he had never been pleased by meat substitutes but, after chewing a bit, gave it full marks for its “mouth feel”, saying the bite felt like a conventional hamburger. But he also noted the absence of fat and seasoning.
“I can’t remember the last time I ate a burger without ketchup,” he said. Later he described the texture as “like an animal protein cake”.
Post said his next ambition was to improve the efficiency of the cell-growing process and to enhance the flavour by adding fat cells.
He hopes to create thicker “cuts” of meat such as steaks, though this would require more tissue engineering expertise, namely the ability to grow channels – a bit like blood vessels – that can feed the centre of the growing steak with nutrients and water. Similar technology had already been shown to work for medical applications.
Post was repeatedly asked two types of questions. The first: which other animal flesh could be grown in this way? The answer was almost anything. One questioner asked whether that included penguin burgers or lion meat. “I don’t like the smell of penguins, but I guess we can,” said Post. “You can do it with any sort of satellite [stem] cell from an animal.” Hossain noted that Post had not ruled out making a lion burger.
The second line of questioning the panel faced was various versions of “can I please eat some of the burger?” The answer was various versions of “no”. Not even a randomly chosen member of the audience, who would be more independent than the panellists chosen by the even organisers? No.
Which then made Rützler and Schonwald’s descriptions of the flavour and texture of the meat all-important in working out how “real” the cultured meat was. They talked at length about the bite, the intensity of the flavour, the meatiness, the unexpected heat at the centre of the burger and, of course, the missing seasoning.
But neither of them came out and said whether or not the €250,000 burger actually tasted like beef. – By Alok Jha © Guardian News and Media 2013
Image – AFP