Friday, October 30, 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Day 236, 261009

Britain's Best Dish is now, at least for me, over. If you want to watch it, ITVPlayer will have it for the next 29 days at time of writing.


After recording and winning my last heat on the Monday, the following Thursday, I got the train down to London and stopped at the City Road Travelodge. It was bloody hot in there; I always overheat in London, and this time was no exception, but it wasn't helped by the blessed hotel having a broken heating system that was pumping hot air into the corridors, and no aircon anywhere. Well, I say no aircon, but in an attempt to prevent my death from heat exhaustion I had to keep the window open, and there were some noisy compressors just outside it. The room was clean and spartan, but really it was like trying to sleep in a server room without the nice cool airflow.

To Hackney Community College, where the gas wasn't working properly amongst other things. Every now and then, to find out why the oven in one station wasn't working, they'd reset the system, which had the added bonus of putting out all the other burners and ovens around it. Before we got to that point there was a lot of hanging around, the usual furore, much swearing as the crew had moved from Teddington that morning and didn't know where anything was. I met the opponents, who were all lovely; one bloke ran a club in Accrington and was an example of your charming Manc motormouth, and he was seriously funny. We had a glamorous granny, a Scots chap who'd shot his own pigeon the day before, a Welsh trades unionist, a mumsy type and a tiny Indian lady who was full of stories about her homeland. And me. Three of us were doing dishes that involved shrimp, two were a seafood medley, there was a risotto, a salmon tartare, pigeon breast salad, and a chicken wrap.

Prep happened and my dough was done, we had lunch, and hung around some more. And a bit more. I wasn't worried about my dough, because you can't really overrest it. When we eventually made it into the kitchen - they were nice little pods we were working in - and had started, I did everything I was supposed to before rolling out my pasta. I poked my dough, only to discover a whole chunk of it had dried out under the lights. Foolishly, I started to see if I could knead it out, and instead I got little blobs of dried pasta working their way through the dough. JBR & Ed came over to see what I was up to, and instantly told me to stop what I was doing and make my dough again. I had 44 minutes to re-make my dough that needed an hour to rest. Argh.

Well, I pulled a rabbit out of the hat. My new dough came out really quite good - far better than I could have hoped it to, if I'm being honest - and I managed to get my ravioli done and in the water on time, just. It made quite good telly, although I did get bleeped at one point. I suspect I may be told off by my parents and Grandmother for that.

This time we didn't see the judges reactions, but the food was also being eaten by proper food critics. We were told "ten minutes" and taken outside for some air. Instead of 10 minutes we ended up hanging around for over an hour and a half, waiting for the decisions. Eventually we were all gathered up and the usual trio gave the verdict, and I was out, beaten by the salmon tartare and the risotto.

We were hanging around for postmatch interviews, and one of the critics - Charles Campion - came out and said hello, so I asked whether he liked my dish. "Loved it," he said. Someone else asked what he thought of theirs; "total disaster," so at least I knew he wasn't just being nice. Ah, well.

Watching the programme was interesting; I had no idea how it was going to pan out with the critics and judges. This time I was properly nervous watching the show, because the critics could have been awful. As it was William Sitwell made a barking suggestion - keep the peas whole - which thankfully received the "whu?" it deserved, and although JBR thought it was underseasoned I am positive that it was fine. Still, not to worry; I at least produced something to go on the plates, and it could have been so much worse.

So concludes this adventure in Tellyland, where the sun always shines and the grass is an incredible shade of green.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Britain's Best Dish

Ok, I can now confirm that my next instalment of Britain's Best Dish is on Monday 26th October, 5pm, ITV1.

Woo! &c.

In other news, I'm mad busy; decorating cakes, making portfolios, writing a talk on panoramic photographs, and thinking about gingerbread recipes does take it out of a chap. I've done nothing on 101things for about a fortnight, but hopefully that'll change next week.

In the meantime, have a poster wot I made. I'm thinking there's a T-shirt in this.

Learn baking

If you're looking for something to read, ask Alex, because she's doing a 24-hr readathon over the weekend. Nutter. But she might have recommendations for you when it's all over, and if you meet up with her you could get a BookCrossed book!

Monday, 5pm.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Quick post about Britain's Best Dish.

As I've been asked by people:

Programme one is here and programme two is here. People not in the UK may be unable to watch, I'm afraid.

As far as I can tell the next bit is October 26th, but I'll confirm that when I know more.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Day 216, 061009 (telly, part 3)

Britain's Best Dish, part 2

After winning my previous heat I had a couple of days off, and then I was back down to Teddington again for the next round. My opponent this time is a very nice lady from Filey, making three different crab dishes, but all on the theme of a layered salad. The results (when we’re done) look incredible. The other players were: a corned beef pie with a roasted mashed potato cake, salt cod with black-eyed peas and rice, and an interesting matchup between a just-finished-A-levels young lady and not-started-GCSEs-yet young man (mini victoria sponges with lemon curd and tea bread ice cream, and sticky toffee pudding with cinder toffee ice cream respectively).

So we go through the same rigmarole as last time. Mark gives us a pep talk, warns us what he's going to talk about, we do walkons and intros, and I slice some radishes. We get taken off, the judges do their thing, and as we're outside we hear that the judges really weren't happy with this morning's lot; they'd tried too hard, and as a result their dishes had lost some of what made them great. We're called back on, and get rolling. I've changed the order of how I cook stuff (pasta gets rolled last) but I have acres of time.

Cooking the peas and sauteƩing the shrimp is done in a flash, and I'm laying out sheets of pasta rather than cutting discs. I spend more than two seconds on the garnish, and start assembling. Alas! The second sheet of pasta has dried out and is cracking, and they stick to the worktop; out of the five ravioli I complete, one cracks just as I'm about to drop it in the water and one has a hole in I don't notice until I fish it out and the filling is four times the volume it should be!

Instead of being taken off for the judge's comments we're left on set, and filmed as they try the food. Jilly described the pasta as "muscular" whilst Ed and JBR think it's a bit overcooked, and not the fine quality of last time (this is because of the eggs being larger than usual). Other than that, though: they love it. Big thumbs up. They do the same to Debra and her crab, then we're taken off and I go to find something to drink, then we're taken back in for the verdict.

To say that I was pleased to win is underplaying it a little. My reaction will be on telly for all to see; at the moment, though, all I can remember is Mark building up suspense and then calling my name, and getting the biggest grin I've had in weeks plastered across my face. I was asked, in post-match interviews, "what went through your mind" and in all honesty I couldn't think of anything. "Wow" doesn't come close. The winners are handed red envelopes containing slips of card to represent the small prize we get for winning this stage, which are taken off us when we get off set. "Budgets," we're told. I don't even get the card as a souvenir!

The odd thing about this show is that I was filmed doing hobbies, as a background thing for my segment. So in June I gathered up some people I knew wouldn't be at work, and persuaded them to meet me in Whitelocks one lunchtime to watch me making balloon animals and be filmed for telly. Daag, Penny and Jo all came along to support me doing daft things, and I can't thank them enough. What was really odd was that they'd never met, all three being from totally disparate groups of friends. Made me think.


It's still on ITV's catchup service at time of writing; episode 15 of this series.

Day 214, 041009

On Sunday I completed another one of my things; enter the Charlie Cake Competition. This year the theme was "Make, Bake and Grow", and I'd mentioned to one of the organisers that Tea & Cake would love to be involved somehow. By maybe having a tea stall, or something. And I could enter, too. We were given approval, and so after a swift half-hour planning meeting on Friday after work with Sam, Biscuit and J9 (at Zouk on Leeds Road, excellent masala chai) we divvied up the tasks, and met at Charlie Cake Park on Sunday.

I'd made a cake to enter into the competition; my usual chocolate and marmalade loaf cake, this time covered in chocolate and cointreau ganache - it was covered because I'd used cheap greaseproof paper and the cake had stuck to it, so I needed to hide the holes. So after we'd set up the table and got the kettle on to boil I registered, had a wander about the stalls, and went back to our shed to await the hordes.

The stalls, by the way, were very interesting. The new Leeds City WI was there, who are called "Buns & Roses". I'd join, if it weren't for the pesky Y chromosome. Average age is well below the norm for WI groups, and my mum (who runs her local WI) laughed in a very good way when I told her about it. We also had - it was obviously the day for puns - local crafty people "Fox Bunting". Made me laugh. And there was us, of course:
The T&C shed
We had a near-constant hot water crisis. We went through about 40 litres of water, 160 insulated paper cups, "some" plastic cups for squash, two cans of gas, a tonne of teabags, half a jar of coffee, ten pints of milk and some sugar. We weren't charging a set amount, just soliciting donations for the Armley Common Right Trust, Water Aid and the WWF; people were asking how much, we said "no set price, put what you think it's worth into the bucket". In the end we ran out of hot water, cups and milk at about the same time, around 2:30 and decided to pack in early. Biscuit totted up; we had only the vaguest idea how many cups of tea and coffee we'd sold - we used 160 cups, but some people recycled cups and we didn't count the orange squashes - but we made £116.65, an average of about 73p per cup. Split three ways it worked out at £39 per charity; given that we only spent half an hour on planning this, I think that's not a bad result.

Also, look at Sam's banner on the side of the shed. It rocked.
The T&C Shed
I didn't even get placed in the competition, by the way. There was some excellent entries, and mine didn't look good compared to them. Leedsgrub entered a giant Crunchie! It looked and tasted fab, although apparently it was a nightmare to cut up.

It was a bloody brilliant day, and one well worth doing. Next time we'll double up on everything and rethink the hot water a bit, but I think we can be justifiably proud of what we pulled off on the spur of the moment. Much thanks to Emma and Michelle from The Culture Vulture for talking to us about it and providing a very helpful shed (and a loo, and kettle when we were really in trouble!), and the Charming Armley Tourist Board for putting the event on. Now we know we can do it, I'm sure we'll be giving this another try soon.

So, although I didn't get placed I'm going to count task #95 as COMPLETED. Yay!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Day 212 wordle

From Screen Captures

Day 212, 021009 (telly, part 2)

I'm a bit behind due to a quick holiday in Liverpool and a mini family crisis. Sorry about that.

So, last week saw Adventures in Tellyland parts two and three (task #7). Here's the story of part two.

After I did "Taste The Nation" in January, and was knocked out in the first round, I told the producer who was looking after me to keep me in mind if anything else popped up that I might be suitable for. I wasn't really expecting to hear anything, but the day after my programme aired in April a producer from another telly show, called "Britain's Best Dish" phoned me up.

"We'd like you to come for an audition," said Maxie, a very nice chap who turned out to be quite a senior producer on the show.

"That's lovely," I said. "What shall I cook?"

"Oh, you tell us. If we like the idea, then I'll tell you where to go and when to turn up."

After a bit of thought I came up with a recipe that might work quite well; a pea puree and brown shrimp ravioli. Italian food is quite popular and making pasta from scratch always adds an element of drama to cooking, because it sometimes goes wrong. It's quite British with the filling, too, so I thought I could get away with it being "Britain's" best dish. (There was a parsley butter and pea shoots as garnish, too.) So I emailed the recipe off to Maxie, who phoned back and told me to be in York on a Sunday about a week later.

I was up very early that Sunday, making the sauce to go with the ravioli and popping it in a thermos to keep warm. A quick drive to York, I parked up at the hotel the auditions were taking place, and got to meet the people I've been talking to about this for a couple of weeks and say hello to Tallulah and Julie, a couple of people I met on Taste The Nation. I plated up, bought a ruinously expensive cup of coffee, and waited with a bunch of other people who were auditioning. And waited. And waited.

The food I saw that I was competing against was interesting; a number of people had brought pies, full roast dinners, fish, and some of the stuff was ok. Some was very poor. The thing that got me was a dessert someone had brought, which was a work of staggering joy; lemon & white chocolate mousse in a tart made from almond pastry, served with a shot of lemon liqueur. This was stunning work, and by far & away the best thing I'd seen (and this also managed to get on the show).

Eventually I did a piece to camera about how my dish was the best, then got to chat to the producers about my ravioli (the sauce, alas, didn't survive the trip) and hopefully make a good impression. The producers were very nice and liked that I'd brought a photo along with the food, and whilst they didn't eat it (by this point it was stone cold) they liked how it looked and told me they'd be drawing up a shortlist in a couple of weeks' time.

Two days later, I get called and told I'd been shortlisted.

About a month, and several phone calls about what to do, where to go, how to cook and what the recipe was all about later, I'm waiting outside a hotel at Teddington in South-West London. It was likely that this would be my only show, but I was confident that I'd do ok. Gradually everybody else arrived - the six competitors and three reserves - and we headed over in some very nice cars to the studios. We all started chatting (as you do); there were Lydia and Vicky, doing puds, Peter and Calam on mains and Angela and myself on starters. Immediately we spotted an issue; Calam was 14 so it was a bit of a foregone conclusion that he'd win his course, the only question was which round he was in - and I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered he was in mains.

Teddington studios is a large complex, but not as big as I was expecting; about the same size as a cottage hospital. We were dropped in the green room behind our studio, had a briefing from Juliet (producer), and then a run through the studio and what we were cooking happened. Karen (again, someone from TTN) and I had a quick chat, they found me a better pasta machine and a clamp, checked that my shrimp were on the way, and Juliet came over, introduced me to my wrangler (Dan) and told me what I was doing in five minute blocks, which was all fine.

Prep kitchen - a portacabin, but better equipped than my kitchen at home - was next. Making pasta from scratch is great, but you have to leave the dough to rest for at least an hour, so I made the dough (filmed whilst doing it) and left it on my station in the studio wrapped in damp muslin. I was taken off to makeup, examined by wardrobe (my shirt was deemed to be "just fine" - a somewhat flowery but lightweight thing; being told I couldn't wear black, white or red had limited my options considerably), and interviewed by the AP who recruited me, with the usual questions; because I'd done this sort of thing before Maxie said "we want soundbites" and I set to the task with aplomb. Being interviewed for this sort of thing is really odd, though, speaking in whole sentences, avoiding temporal references, and talking about inspirations, which seemed to be something they really liked.

Back to the studio to be fitted with aprons, we were told where to stand, how to walk onto set, "big smiles please, unless we don't want them", and Mark Nicholas came on set to say hello, talk about what he was going to discuss with us, and generally put us at our ease (he really is a nice chap, who normally does the cricket commentary). After being fitted with microphones we had some dramatic camera swooping shots, were put on a turntable and spun round, and we had to do "head-to-head" shots, staring our opponents down. That bit was really odd, and we couldn't stop giggling; also, I don't think I've stared into anybody's eyes for that long since Sarah and myself were getting married. The judges turned up; Ed Baines and John Burton Race, who are chefs, and Jilly Goulden, who has been doing wine tasting on telly for years and years. We did some odd bits of filming and quick interviews with Mark, then we were taken back for ten minutes whilst the judges did their "what do you think today will be like" pieces. Then, back on, and the timeline started. I had 55 minutes to make my ravioli.

I could hear the judge's comments every now and then, and they didn't like my technique (which was inefficient, I'll grant you); what I did was roll out the pasta first, then make my filling, then cut out discs of pasta and make the ravioli by dropping filling onto a disc and putting another disc on top. The comment I heard was that if someone was doing that in a restaurant they'd have to charge £75 for the dish, as it was really time-consuming, which is true. The butter sauce wasn't quite right, it was too acidic and the pasta dried out really quickly under the lights, but I was happy with how they came out and was really pleased with how it all looked on the plate.

Britain's Best Dish

I plated up, and was then escorted off the set, along with Angela (who made a gorgeous looking-and-smelling smoked haddock bread and butter pudding with horseradish creme anglaise and tomato & chili jam, which worried me because it was a very good dish), and that was that; we couldn't see the judges' comments, or any of the other competitors (who had another 20 and 40 minutes to go). Eventually everybody else came out, and we were summoned back to the studio. The judges were really taking their time to decide and may even have been having a serious argument in the back room, but eventually they came out. Cameras started rolling, Mark prolonged the suspense, and eventually told us who the winners were. And I won the starters round!

Although I did win my round I didn't know until later if I'd got through to the regional finals, as only 2 of the 4 winners go through. Thankfully, I did!

My recipe is on the Britain's Best Dish website, here, and is also published in the accompanying book of the series (on page 63, uncredited).

Next: a wordle, then part 3.