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London - Most kitchen cupboards are - in the words of food writer Bee Wilson -”graveyards of passion that died”: filled with those endless gadgets we thought would change our lives but which now gather dust.
And from an expensive juicer used twice in five years to a milk frother for cappuccinos that never got out of its box, I’m more guilty than most.
So imagine my curiosity when I heard about a kitchen gadget that can do everything. That’s right - it weighs, chops, blends, kneads, steams, juices, grates, whisks, simmers, mills and crushes, replacing more than 30 kitchen appliances in one unit.
Its name is the Thermomix and it’s a bit of a secret among foodies.
Apparently, Heston Blumenthal has nine of them in his Fat Duck restaurant, while in France and Spain it’s the number one wedding-list gift, with enough sold in each country to supply every single household.
And when I mentioned its name to my foodie friend, it turned out she bought one two years ago and uses it every day.
So why don’t we all have one? Partly because they cost £885 (abou R12 500), but also because youhave to go directly to the company or a demonstrator.
That said, if it lives up to the hype and can replace my cupboards of unloved gadgets, it might be worth it.
So to test its multi-tasking credentials, I decide to cook a three-course dinner party menu with the Thermomix. I’m talking home-made bread rolls, smoked salmon dip, creamy pea soup, beef stroganoff and treacle tart. The kind of meal, frankly, that would usually reduce any sane hostess to tears.
One of the quirks of the machine is that it requires a demo from a trained operator, which comes included in the price, along with delivery and a 300-page recipe book.
So my borrowed Thermomix arrives with Janie Turner, a woman who fell so in love with the machine when she encountered it 11 years ago that she abandoned her previous job to become the sole UK distributor.
As befits her role as High Priestess of Thermomix, Janie, 55, is evangelical. “It’s just the most fantastic product,” she says. “When you try it, you won’t look back. It’s so much easier to eat well with one of these.”
She and her husband John run the UK branch of the company and so far have grown the business through demonstrations and word-of-mouth.
“That’s been our strategy and it’s really paid off. When people buy one, they tell their friends how amazing it is.”
Certainly, it doesn’t look too bad. It could be a blender with its stainless steel 2.5 litre bowl for the food that snaps into a simple white body unit.
It doesn’t take up much room given all it can do. For as well as chopping, this thing weighs and cooks, too. It’s a food processor that thinks it’s a celebrity chef.
My only criticism is that it all seems a teensy bit Seventies - an impression borne out by the cookbook, which is reminiscent of my mum’s ancient Magimix recipe collection: spiral-bound, with no photos and patronising exhortations such as “perfect for busy moms”.
Janie talks me through the machine. There is a button for weighing, another for pulsing, another to cook, another for kneading. It doesn’t take long to realise why a two-hour lesson is a requirement.
But I can see that once you’d got the hang of the Thermomix, it would be easy to use. Rotate it one way and it chops. Rotate it the other and it stirs.
There’s also a steaming basket that sits on top of the steel bowl, as well as a spatula for scraping down the sides of the bowl. But that’s it. A refreshing change from the multitude of clip-in parts these things normally require and which I always lose within a week.
We start by making sweet pastry for the treacle tart, which takes only six seconds of blending. As someone who has never made any kind of pastry, it seems disarmingly easy.
We follow up with the filling for the tart. We chill the mixture in the fridge and then move on to the bread.
The Thermomix obligingly kneads the dough in just three minutes. I remember the kneading process taking my mother considerably longer by hand. Even breadmakers take much longer.
Then, we turn to the creamy pea soup and dip. The dip takes mere minutes. Here, it acts like a traditional blender - but graciously washes itself up afterwards.
‘It’s easy to wash the Thermomix between courses,’ says Janie. ‘Just fill it with water and a tiny squirt of washing up liquid and set it off for a minute. It cleans itself.’
I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything this gadget doesn’t do - perhaps it could tackle my tax return?
The soup is a cinch. We add shallots and olive oil and pulse, then soften them by turning on the cooking function, before adding the peas, stock and double cream.
Now we turn to the beef stroganoff. We toss onion halves, garlic, leeks and oil into the Thermomix bowl to chop. It’s a liberation to bypass the usual onion-induced tears.
We can then saute in the same bowl before adding the beef and other ingredients before turning the whole thing on to cook for 29 minutes. Meanwhile, we bake the tart and the bread rolls in a conventional oven. Baking is the only part of the meal that isn’t done in the machine itself.
“I think we can forgive the Thermomix that, don’t you?” says Janie brightly. “It’s working so hard.”
The smell of fresh bread fills the house as my guests arrive. Everyone is impressed with the starters.
“Are these home-made rolls?” they ask incredulously and all praise the delicious dip. The soup is also a hit and looks impressive - bright and silky smooth.
The stroganoff is the only part of the meal where I think the Thermomix doesn’t trump traditional cooking. Everyone knows slow cooking is key to a successful stew. Given its haste, however, the flavour is still great, which is praise indeed.
But it’s the treacle tart that’s the real hit. It’s a big golden wedge that looks good and everyone tucks in.
So would I buy a Thermomix for myself? Possibly. I can see how useful it would be if you cook a lot. It drastically shortens cooking time and reduces the number of pans you use, making this dinner party menu totally manageable.
It would be great for whipping up quick meals for my toddler and it’s truly liberating not to have to chop vegetables or use a separate set of scales.
It also has a whole range of functions I didn’t even explore. It can make ice cream in just three minutes. And it can also peel a single clove of garlic, should you so wish.
The downside is that you have to keep emptying the bowl.
“But you could buy a separate one like most Thermomix devotees,” says Janie.
And also that the texture of everything it produces is a bit similar - finely milled, slightly cakey - reminding me of the results of my short-lived dalliance with a breadmaker.
And then there’s the price - £885 is an awful lot. But if money were no object, I’m fairly sure I’d splash out. Who knows, perhaps it could be the last kitchen gadget I’d ever buy. -
* In South Africa, go to www.sathermomix.com.