Today has been a surreal day by anyone’s standards. It all started a few weeks ago when it was suggested that possibly I was being a little too mysterious on my blog and if someone wanted to contact me they couldn't. I pondered the wisdom of this, though having a pathological hatred of spam I did wonder if I was right to remain email-less. But I did add an email address and a day later I got a lovely missive from someone in New Zealand who'd read about a fledgling chef on my blog and wondered if I knew how they could get in touch with them and with some judicious googling I was able to assist. My second email was an invitation to take part in a new daily cooking show called Cooking the Books on Channel five. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to choose a favourite cookbook (that in itself proved a momentous task) and then take a dish reproduced from said cookbook into the studio where I could be interviewed briefly about my efforts. The crucial point was that as they were on a very tight schedule they’d be little tinkering time and definitely no way of re-heating the dish. So with that in mind I set to work choosing a cookbook and then the recipe. One of my first ideas had been Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, as it is indeed a seminal book which I’ve had from probably around the time it was published and several tried and trusted favourite recipes have emerged from these oft-turned pages. But I was also asked to pick a ‘newish’ cookbook as getting clearance from the publishers to show their book would be easier. So as Roast Chicken was published in 1999 I thought I’d better think a little more current. And only recently I’ve been raving about my new preferred bedtime companion of Simon Hopkinson’s Week in Week Out, it has the advantage of being written by one of my ultimate food heroes, has stunning Jason Lowe photography (Roast Chicken is absent in its glossy images) and I even know the publisher – result! Okay now for the recipe, after considerable cogitation and contemplation I opted for the Potato Soup with Porcini, I really wanted a seasonal dish and soup should be easy to transport and keep piping hot in a flask. If anyone wanted to try some I really didn’t want them to have to taste cold soup!
My plans were duly submitted to the production company and I headed for a week across the pond. As soon as I returned on the crest of a jetlagged wave I went on a mushroom hunt and was disappointed to find that they were just no porcinis to be found anywhere. In the end I opted for perfectly formed chestnut mushroom from Harvey Nichols, they’d been my last port of call on the Italian mushroom trail as I really didn’t want to resort to dried ones on this occasion. My jetlag meant that I was wide awake and glassy eyed at 5am so this seemed to be the perfect time to make my soup and decant into the flask for the later trip to the studios. Everything went to plan, I haven’t made this soup before but it was a great recipe. I loved the fact that the potato cooking liquor was used in place of a stock which seemed to give it all an extra creamy texture. And I was religious in following the instructions (almost unheard of for me) and even passed it all through my mouli legumes (actually purchased in Paris) which I hadn’t used for many a year. My only digression was also Bamixing the mixture just a little more to enhance the velvety quality. The chestnut mushrooms were sautéed gently (the recipe said chopped finely which I read as making a mushroom duxelle but I wanted them to retain their form as in the picture, so I sliced them finely instead). I pack the soup, a little bottle of truffle oil (Simon had suggested a few shaving from a white truffle if I had one to hand, regrettably I didn’t), a bunch of fresh parsley, a lump of Grana Padano (a slightly tangier, crumblier Parmesan-style cheese) and the mushrooms tightly wrapped in foil. I was ready for my TV début.
On being assigned a spot to ‘set up’ and a soup bowl I realised that jushing my dish would have to be swift so I borrowed some scissors for some rapid parsley strewing, dotted a little truffle oil on the surface and piled up the still warm mushrooms. So far so good!
However in my jetlagged induced mania I had agreed to film three sessions of Cooking the Books, twice as an enthusiastic clapper in the audience (though apparently I managed to pout and clap!) and then for the third show I’d be interviewed alongside the soup. I wasn’t aware in which of the three sessions I was filming and when I’d need to launch my soup on an unsuspecting public. So even though it looked rather appetizing at 10am when I’d initially poured it from the flask when the large camera mounted on a crane called a Jimmy Jib zoomed in for the ‘beauty shot’ at 4.30 pm I was most alarmed that the soup had formed a thick crust which was now rupturing in front of my eyes and exposing un-soup like cracks in the surface. Surely not how Simon wanted his dish to ever be presented.
Jeremy, the presenter, assured me that it looked better in the dish than it did in the book but I know it could have looked a lot better and in fact it certainly did earlier when I snapped it above. I haven't recorded the crusty round the edges version and I hope it won't be too apparent on the small screen.
It was truly fascinating having a little daylight fall upon the magic of television, I was surprised how compact the studio was, we weren’t suspended up in the cheap seats waving tomatoes or peppers (though I think it has all gone electronic now!) but we were there right in the thick of all the action. We could see the strange expressions from Jeremy Edwards and the various celebrity chefs on to strut their stuff and cook from their own books as the voices in their heads (one assumed the producer else they were all schizophrenic) would request a retake, ask for a certain shot or give further instructions seemingly mainly on where to stand and when. The food the chefs cooked was there in front of us in all its aromatic glory and when a filming segment had ‘wrapped’ the camera men and those who hold the camera cables out of the way of the rapidly panning cameras (is that a gaffer?) having pre-positioned strategic forks and spoons in their jeans back pockets could swoop in for a quick mouthful or two before the kitchen had to be reset for the next shot. There seemed to be so many staff behind the scenes, many with clipboards, walkie talkies, sheaves of scripts and post-it noted cookery books. There were make-up girls (also armed with forks) if anyone got a little too shiny and runners topping us up with glasses of apple or cranberry juice representing the white or red wine we’d probably rather be drinking. Though fortunate for me as my by now incredibly sleep deprived state meant that the merest whiff of a fermented grape would have probably had me dancing on one of their little round tables, and that could have well spilt the soup! The other chief purpose of all the behind-scenes staff was to supplement our meagre applause. We'd been asked by the producer if we could pretend we were in a Jerry Springer audience which I can assure you I never would be so whooping doesn't really come naturally to me. Therefore we had stunt whoopers brought in for the occasion!
Each show had a main chef who featured throughout the show, another chef in the second part for the cook-off and a mystery celebrity who we had seen attempt a recipe at home from a cookbook they’d been sent and it was strategically shot so as not to reveal the identify of the often not terribly accomplished cook. On the first show Bill Granger was the star attraction and he competed against Atul Kochhar. After a break both Jeremy and Bill had changed and the second show was filmed, this time Bill competed against Valentina Harris over a dessert where Valentina drowned hers in lashings of booze and rather astounded the taster with the potency. The final show of the day pitted Bill against Anjum Anand and some spicy treats.
As I was showcasing my endeavour in the third show, we had several discussions about what I would talk about. The initial plan was to discuss this blog and Jeremy was to ask me a searching blog related question – their first question was has anything dramatic happening at the result of blogging like "did I meet my husband through my blog?" This surprised me somewhat as I’m not married so it would have been rather a short conversation but when they realised that I was an inveterate cookbook addict they were keen to announce this proclivity to the world and changed the whole line of questioning. I had to wear a microphone for my slot and being lacking in a waistband that they could just conveniently clip the radio pack to, I had to be supplied with a dinky little pouch and strap it on under my dress (clearly in private). Unfortunately as can always be expected in these situations out of all our radio mics mine was the one that packed up so I had to attempt to wriggle discreetly out of it and then rush off again to strap on a new one, typical! The member of the ‘cookery club’ interview is shot first possibly in a belief it is the bit that’s most likely to go wrong and thus should be gotten over with as quickly as possible. I think mine went okay, though on viewing I don’t believe I either look like that or sound like that so curiously I must have unknowingly been given a stunt double! I have to admit Jeremy was rather charming and seems to possess an extensive wardrobe of stripy jumpers. My only previous encounter of him was in the pages of Heat normally walking along with his dog Molly. We’d been trying to recall where we’d seen him before; apparently he was in Hollyoaks and later Holby City and he also seems to be famous for once going out with Rachel Stevens! He says he loves cooking but admits that his “efforts turn out to be a bit more John Cleese than Jean-Christophe Novelli”, which sounds quite intriguing. We didn’t see him do much cooking though he gets to eat a little. Of most of the dishes he seems to take a delicate mouthful and proclaim it’s deliciousness but he seemed particular taken with Bill Granger’s lamb dish. I first met Bill at the inaugural cook book event at the Blueprint Café back in February 2006 just before I started blogging; he cooked a stunning lamb dish with a Romesco sauce. I am not crazy about peppers so I didn’t really eat much of the sauce but the butterflied lamb was just so succulent and it seemed Jeremy thought the same as me and we saw him tucking into it with gusto after the cameras stopped rolling. I tried some also and it was as tasty as I recalled from Jeremy Lee's interpretation way back when and very weirdly Bill remembered me from this previous meeting. I don't recall doing anything particularly bizarre though as it was their first event they had seated everyone with whom they'd booked with. As I had booked just one place, I was seated thus at a solo table. When Bill did his rounds he was amazed to see me perched there as Billy-no mates flicking through his cook book surrounding by seemingly a wild party. To be fair to Richard et al at the Blueprint have situated me much better at subsequent events. But isn't that so odd that Bill would remember!
So that's my fifteen minutes of fame, starring with a dubiously crusty soup and a dodgy radio mic. I think personally I should stick to the day job! Though saying that they did invite me back for another interview!