Banana-flavored vapors? A pineapple island?
These may sound like the makings of a Roald Dahl children’s book (he of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame). But at London’s Kew Gardens, visitors can now immerse themselves in such fantastic-sounding experiences like rowing down a blue-dyed boating lake to the aforementioned island, which features a 15-foot replica pineapple towering over a banana grotto.
Kew’s new, interactive food-themed exhibit, which just opened to the public, is designed to seduce people into engaging with edible plants.
“Worldwide, there are about 30, 000 different kinds of plants that we can eat,” says Angela McFarlane, Kew’s director of public engagement and learning. Yet, she says, we typically get about 80 percent our diet from only 12 kinds of plants, and half our calories come from just rice, maize and wheat.
To encourage visitors to think more broadly about plants as food, Kew enlisted Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, a young, hip duo known for their wild experimental food installations. The result is a surreal fruit salad that’s more Dali than garden party.
Bompas says the project provided a perfect chance for the team to create a dramatic display. “We want to give people unusual and interesting food experiences that give way to discussion,” he tells The Salt.
Bompas & Parr like to push the edge of food boundaries with experiments such as the banana cloud they created for the Kew installation — it uses humidification technology to release the smell and taste of the fruit.
They’ve also collaborated with sonic artist Mileece Petre, who helped them develop an installation at Kew in which plants respond to human touch. Petre designed a system that picks up on the electromagnetic emissions from plants and translates them into sound. (She explains the general concept of how it works in this video.)
“Each plant has its own sound,” Petre tells The Salt, “so when you touch it, you can hear it respond to you. It’s like an eco-jazz band for plants, so each plant can kind of solo when someone’s interacting with it.”
Complex exhibits like Tutti Frutti at Kew are what Bompas & Parr do for fun. (They’ve also created a “whisky tornado” for a food and ideas festival.)
But their bread and butter, and the medium in which they made their name, is decidedly simple: Jell-O, or jelly, as it’s called in the U.K.
Parr is an architect by training, while Bompas’ diploma is in geography. Six years ago, the two friends began experimenting with architectural models made of gelatin — first as a final university project, and then as a whimsical weekend hobby. They’ve built replicas of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and other famous buildings entirely out of Jell-O.
“At the beginning, we looked at buildings in the city and wondered whether they’d make a good jelly,” says Bompas. “Buildings made of stone are triumphant jellies, buildings with steel core? Disastrous. You always need jellies to go in at the top. “
They’ve even re-created an old British naval ship in 55 tons of neon lime-green jelly.
Neither Bompas nor Parr has a professional culinary background. That’s partly why they team up with experts in other disciplines — scientists, engineers and technicians — to fuse food with music and technology to engage the senses.
They’ve managed to impress Britain’s A-list, providing jelly for one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s children’s birthdays, as well as alcoholic, glow-in-the-dark jelly for music producer Mark Ronson. And they’ve traveled to five continents to spread their Jell-O joy.
In case you’re wondering the obvious, their wobbling sculptures haven’t been free of disasters, especially when it comes to transporting them. After much experience, they now use Saran wrap and coolers to deliver their towering Jell-O.
It’s the sort of experiment that Bompas says you, too, can try at home.
But, he advises, “Always use leaf gelatin: One leaf for 3.5 ounces of Jell-O for a good set. Always use a mold — it’s far more engaging. And avoid glass molds. Plastic or copper molds work best. “