"You might just think of refrigeration as a way to keep things cold. Then, when you start looking into it, you realise it's much more complicated. It can be a useful tool; it can harm some ingredients; you can use it to, essentially, rot and ferment foods; and the introduction of the modern, domestic fridge changed the way we eat."
In an airy development kitchen around the corner from Spitalfields Market, I'm talking to Josh Pollen, one half of the London-based food design duo Blanch & Shock. Pollen and his co-founder Mike Knowlden, who's busy arranging chopped carrots and pickled fennel at the bottom of a tray, collaborate with researchers, artists, and scientists on culinary events to bring ideas to life through food.
Their latest project, part of the Wellcome Collection museum's latest exhibition on electricity, tasks them with creating and hosting a five-course meal which charts the history of refrigeration and preservation of food—from zero reliance on cooling, to pickling and dry-aging, and the advent of the modern domestic fridge.
"There's a narrative to the menu," explains Knowlden. "It starts with a dish involving ingredients that have never been refrigerated, through to food kept at a temperature ideal for fermentation, and then to dishes which rely on refrigeration for their creation."
He continues, "The first course will be a salad using produce that hasn't been in a fridge—something that's surprisingly rare unless you're growing it yourself. We'll be serving some lovely leaves and tomatoes that will have been freshly picked from Loughborough Farm in South London."
Pollen chips in, "You shouldn't refrigerate tomatoes, strawberries, soft fruits, or leaves because they lose their flavour. But we're brought up in a culture where it just sits in the fridge."
To find out more about how we become so reliant on fridges, I talk to Helen Peavitt, food historian and author of soon-to-be-published Refrigerator: The Story of Cool in the Kitchen, on the phone. Peavitt has been working with Pollen and Knowlden on the Wellcome Collection dinner.
"Even in ancient Greece and Rome, they used ice to keep things cool but it was usually the preserve of the wealthy. They imported it down from the mountains and kept it in ice caves underneath the city," she explains. "In Britain, there was lots of pickling and fermenting going on, and if you were really lucky and there was a pond you could access, you could get ice. The wealthy would store food in ice wells or ice caves."
Peavitt tells me that once people started making ice in the 1840s, ice boxes—a precursor to today's domestic refrigerator—were kept in upper-class households.
She says, "In the mid-nineteenth century, companies flogging ice would also sell ice boxes. It was an insulated box but instead of powering it up like you do today, you would put a block of ice in it to keep food cool. From the 1920s, you see modern domestic refrigerators appear in America, but even until the 1960s, most British households still relied on pantries and larders or had an ice box to keep food cool."
"I think there was a hard sell on refrigerators in this country because they were expensive. People had to be persuaded that they were worth buying. Companies told people that they needed to buy fridges to keep food safe and hygienic through the hot months. Around that time, there's also an emergence of cookery which is associated with refrigeration, called cold cookery or cold cuisine. Dishes that required a refrigerator to make, like chilled vegetable salads or savoury jellies."
And it's an homage to cold cookery which Knowlden and Pollen will be serving for their third course. To the chopped carrots and pickled fennel he prepared earlier, Knowlden adds stock infused with agar agar and xanthan gum to make a vegetable terrine.
"We looked through these old recipes books that [Peavitt] gave us for ideas," says Pollen, gesturing to retro-looking copies of Cook With Cold and Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus. "They're produced by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Condition Engineers and General Electric Refrigerator [respectively]. They're adverts as recipe books. It's bonkers."
Knowlden tells me that, unlike demonstrating fermenting through serving kombucha or dry-aging with a hunk of beef, the era of cold cookery was more of a challenge.
"I was thinking about gelatin and about setting things in aspic but wanted to make a savoury jelly that's, um, pleasing," he explains while flicking through one of the books. "Look at this, red cabbage salad. It's cabbage that's been set into slightly vinegary gelatin and served on a lettuce leaf with mayonnaise. How can you take that idea and make something nice?"
Instead of jellied cabbage, Knowlden developed the vegetable terrine he's cooking today, which will be served with edible flowers and peas. As the terrine goes into the fridge to set, Pollen talks me through the final course—miso ice cream and banana bread with toasted rice and yogurt caramel.
He explains, "It's inspired by domestic leftovers and things people might have lying around the fridge for a long time. It started off by looking in our fridge downstairs which is a terrifying mess of everything we've done over the last few years!"
When I speak to Peavitt, she tells me that our increasing reliance on fridges has contributed to the problem of food waste.
"We're more reliant than we ever have been on refrigeration and I can only see that increasing because of the way the cold chain [the temperature-controlled way food is transported from the field to the shops to our homes] works," says Peavitt. "Also now, our homes aren't designed to have a large, walk-in pantry. Most of us are throwing food in the fridge, partly because in small homes and studio flats we don't have any other place to store it."
She adds, "So, Josh and Mike's dessert highlights the problem of having loads of things in our refrigerator that we don't end up using and then throw away."
Back in the kitchen, Knowlden slices into the now-set veg terrine and plates up. Despite my initial reservations about a carrot and fennel jelly, I'm pleasantly surprised.
Pollen sums up: "Even if we didn't have to create a menu that fit to a refrigeration concept, the dishes would still be linked to it. With any dish, you can see how refrigeration affects each ingredient and the cooking process, and find lots to talk about."
I'll never look at the humble fridge (and savoury jellies) in the same way again.