Masterchef Rules the Waves Part 2

We are in the eye of the storm. Masterchef Australia Season 2 finished over the weekend, Masterchef USA starts tonight. Time for the world to take a little breather.

Masterchef Australia Season 1 was the first of the new breed of Masterchef International. The UK version was popular enough to move from BBC2 to BBC1. The finale in Oz last Sunday evening? attracted anywhere from 20 to 25% of the population. The biggest non-sporting event in Australian TV history, it even forced the main election debate to be re-scheduled. Time to look at why it’s so successful, and wonder why we don’t have it here (yet).

The format

The show runs over a 3-month period, roughly. 84 episodes, 6 nights a week. After initial application (8000 for this season), there are auditions. The first season opened with a few programmes dedicated to these, X-Factor style. Entrants get a portable cook-station, time and space to prep some “food from the heart”, then a couple of minutes to wheel in and present to the judges. You can put up a totally prepared meal, or finish in front of them if you want. If it looks edible they’ll taste it and chat to you. Winners get the first Masterchef Apron and advance to the next stage in the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney. Just like X-Factor, you get to see losers as well as winners. The guy who travelled for days out of the bush to audition and said his favourite meat was roadkill. The suburban mums with the Sunday roast.

The Apron-Holders  move to the Masterchef Kitchens in Sydney for the real competition. And I do mean move. Not content with having stolen the X-Factor format, we now add some Big Brother. They’ve tried a couple of different ways of whittling them down, but from the first few programmes we end up with the Top 24. These get the second Masterchef Apron, the one with your name on. And you give up your life for 3 months. Moving into the Masterchef House, a massive modern building overlooking the water, with a huge kitchen and dining area. Limited internet, phone and mail, little or no contact with family and friends. They never seem to go out. They cook together, eat together, read cookery books, swap recipes and techniques. The criteria for applying for Season 3 says that you must commit to being available:  excluding auditions,  between approximately November 2010 & July 2011 for approximately 28 weeks with a couple of productions breaks including Christmas & New Year.

6 days out of 7, black cars come and whisk them off to cook, taste, watch, learn and occasionally shop. If you believe that it all happens in RealTime (TM), the schedule is as follows:

Sunday night is the Mystery Box challenge. Limited ingredients, here, make something, chop chop. The winner gets an advantage, picking the main ingredient everyone has to use for the themed Invention Test which follows on immediately. (For example, an Indian themed dish, and the choice is goat, chicken, or pulses.)

Monday, and the worst three performers from yesterday face an elimination challenge. Black aprons are worn today, and someone goes home. It could be a taste test (identify the x-number of ingredients in this stew), a cooking challenge (follow this recipe as exactly as possible, taste and recreate this dish without a recipe), a skills test (put together a plateau de fruits de mer). They get more imaginative as the competition goes on.

Tuesday, the best performer gets to abandon the Apron and don full chef’s whites. They go head to head with a top restaurant chef, to recreate their signature dish, or something difficult from their menu. If the competitor wins a blind judging, they get an immunity pin which saves them from one elimination.

Wednesday, and the remaining competitors are divided into Blue and Red teams, with yet another Apron to wear. Off they toddle to do battle. The challenges are similar to the UK ones – bake a tea for the WI-equivalent, cater a child’s birthday party, cook in the field for the army. The winning team gets a spiffy lunch and a private workshop in a fab restaurant. The losing team put on the Black Aprons of Doom and go forward to Thursday.

Thursday is another elimination challenge, made all the more vicious as some of the best competitors could have been pushed into it by one bad performer. Someone goes home.

Friday is the relaxation at the end of the week. Two of the three judges are professional chefs, and they put on a Masterclass in the kitchen. What would we have done with the Mystery Box? How would we have tackled that challenge? One of you tried to make this, here’s the classic way to do it. Sometimes a couple of competitors go off for a private masterclass with another chef, based on interests or weaknesses identified during the week.

Saturday is Day Off, and get ready to start again.

There is one programme down the line where they allow eliminated competitors to come back and fight each other – the top three get to re-enter the competition and try for a place in the Top 10.

The final week aims to get down to 2 competitors for a Grand Finale Head-to-Head.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Season 1 is currently being shown on the Good Food cable channel in the UK. Season 2 episodes can be viewed online through Channel 10, but only if you’re in Australia or can convince them that your computer is. Otherwise your options are limited to being illicit.

The people

The advantage to this format over the traditional UK one is that you see all the competitors, almost every day. There are little voice-overs by them, mini-interviews. During elimination challenges, they wait eagerly in the house to see who comes back and who has gone. They build relationships with each other (and Twitter followers create a few fantasy / slash ones as well). Viewers develop favourites, and ones they wish would crash and burn. It’s much more emotional.

The official website promotes this, with a Big Brother style banner of competitor portraits. They each have their own page, with a Q&A section and a fan forum. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next season – in this one some creative editing made two of the competitors look more than somewhat evil. One of them attracted a Hate Page on Facebook, with death threats. It was all very unpleasant, and the official PR commenters tried to back-pedal on it.

It makes the competition itself more engrossing. Oh no, a dessert challenge, my favourite doesn’t do desserts! Oooh look, canapes, my favourite is a brilliant presentation artist! What’s the betting that Jimmy makes a curry, Adam does something Japanese, Callum screws up the timing, Fiona makes a little cake? Claire will cry, Aaron will prance about making bizarre finger gestures, and Alvin will giggle like an insane chipmunk and say something witty.

It extends to the judges, too. In the first season, there were three judges and an MC / Hostess / GlamourPuss / Voiceover person. The two professional chef  judges were George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan. Added to the mix was Melbourne-based food critic, Matt Preston. In the second season, we lost the GlamourPuss as the judges became more comfortable in their roles, and really started to let loose with their own personalities. George is small and bouncy, a sort of Greek Tigger. He looks like he belongs in the Guns of Navarone, and eats like a starving wolf. Chilli brings him out in a sweat, but he doesn’t mind if the dish tastes good. Gary is a bit more laid-back, and takes the lead role as the Host. He’s from the UK, and proud of it, bringing his Mum to one of the Masterclasses to demo a Yorkshire Pudding. If he likes your food, his whole face beams in satisfaction and his eyes twinkle. Matt? what can you say about Matt? he’s a big lad, and flamboyant with it. Crocodile high-heeled boots, always wears a silk cravat, horrific taste in pastel trousers. Knows his stuff. Again, an ex-Brit, he started off in Oz writing about Australian soaps for British trashy TV magazines. Masterchef has really kicked him into the public eye, and he’s become quite the TV personality.

They build relationships with all the contestants, have their obvious favourites and protegees, but don’t let that get in the way. They are supportive during the challenges, especially during emo crises. There is so much joy in what they do, and when someone succeeds they are the first with the hugs and the high-fives. But if you screw up they’ll make sure you know.

They are as much mentor as judge.

Then there are the Guests. The show attracts an incredibly high calibre of guest chefs and food writers, and for some bizarre reason a food stylist. Names that UK readers should recognise include Rick Stein, Jamie Oliver, Michel Roux Senior, Heston Blumenthal, and Martin Blunos. Some of these come as judges, some to teach, some to challenge. The most feared is Adriano Zumbo, whose patisserie creations are fiendishly difficult. The hot sugar in the croquembouche challenge in Season 1 destroyed several fingertips, and in Season 2 he gave them not just a tower of marons, but also the V8 – 8 layers of vanilla textures. Some of these are semi-official Friends of the Masterchef Kitchen. They turned up in a gang for the winner announcement in the Grand Finale, cherry-pick promising competitors as interns / apprentices, chipped in regular judgely appearances when Gary fell over in the car park and ripped his leg. Most of them have had some sort of pro relationship with at least one of the judges, but they’re also in it for themselves.

Because of the Money

There’s one good reason why we’re unlikely to get this format of Masterchef in the UK. The dosh. Masterchef Australia is on commercial TV – Channel 10, produced for them by Fremantle Media who specialise in reality TV. Masterchef USA will be on Fox, enough said.

The cost of staging it must be phenomenal. 3 professional judges, plus the guests, 2 of the judges pretty much full time for 3 months. The kitchen set, which is a permanent huge barn with a restaurant dining room, mobile kitchen workstations, coffee lounge, library, viewing balcony. Blast chillers, freezers, ovens, enough small appliances for 24 people to use whatever they want. A pantry full of food, and cash to spend on ingredients where the challenge involves shopping. The house, the cars, feeding them outside competition time and providing the ingredients for them to cook and experiment in the house. Away matches – Season 2 featured some time in Melbourne, and a trip to London and Paris. Suites at top hotels, air travel, taxis. For the London / Paris adventure, each competitor got an Amex card, which came in handy for buying truffles with.

The prize is no cheapie, either. $100,000 to start your foodie career, a guaranteed cookbook deal, and a massive PR machine. The winner from last year came back as a guest judge this year, and has popped up on TV all over the place. Even coming second – if you really deserved to get that far, you’re rewarded. Last year’s second got their own TV show almost instantly, this year’s has a paid placement in one of George’s restaurants, and received similar offers from many of the guest chefs in the show.

But if you can deliver a regular viewing figure of 10% of the population, 6 nights a week, you’re going to get sponsors coming out of your ears. And it’s not just advertising during the breaks. Coles, the supermarket chain, is a major partner. (Other partners are available, and are listed on the programme’s website.)

Imagine if Masterchef UK teamed up with Waitrose, or M&S, or Sainsburys. Supermarket provides all the ingredients, laid out in the “pantry” which looks more like a mini-store. All labelled brands – any tin that’s opened, packaging that’s ripped apart – yours. Any time the contestants shop in a supermarket, it is clearly you. You get to produce regular recipe cards, with the latest from competitors and guest chefs, tailored for your ingredients. You create a Masterchef area in the store, which features the ingredients for the recipes from the Masterclass, and anything else you can think of. You get advance warning on specialist ingredients so you don’t run out (remember Delia and the Cranberry Shortage?). As well as being plastered all over the show credits, ads, promotions, website, magazine, whatever, you also have the right to use the show logo on your own promotional material. So you can have a Masterchef area on your website, cross-referencing recipes and ingredients. Your tame chef, in this case Curtis Stone, appears regularly on the programme (admittedly in a fairly minor role).

This is SO not going to happen if Masterchef remains on the BBC. And that’s not even looking at the Telstra hubs they have to use as phones and recipe readers, the Langham hotels they stay in, the Campbells Real Stock that they all use.

And you can’t do it on the cheap, either.

When It Goes Horribly Wrong

That would be the New Zealand version. Oh dearie dearie me. Completely Made of Fail. And they’re planning a second series, which is just embarrassing. There was a Top 12, with one evicted per week – although a couple of them came back in later. The show was limited to eviction challenges and masterclasses, so it became all about the evictions and not about learning or developing. The masterclasses were basically beginner cookery shows by judge Ross Burden. (UK viewers may remember him – he was a model who entered the UK Masterchef in the early 90s, got as far as the final, and then went on to be a regular on Ready Steady Cook for several years.)

The judges were vile. With the focus on evictions rather than winners, they were keen to find fault rather than praise. Ross Burden took the Gary role, bonhomie, host, full of hail fellow well met. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk in a relaxed manner, and it sounded as if he were reading from an autocue, badly. The other pro chef was Simon Gault, who seems to be more of an Executive Chef Consultant than a hands-on foodie. According to his website, he’s “busy developing an amazing range of food products and will be kicking off with chicken, beef and vegetable stock, as well as several flavours of meat seasonings.” Yuck. Like George, he is short, plump and energetic – unfortunately he is also rude, snobbish, elitist and not at all sexy.

The food critic role went to Ray McVinnie, who is a food writer, editor and, yet again that dreaded word, stylist. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, let alone his own website, but you can get an idea at Cuisine magazine, where he is the food editor. Again, nasty nasty nasty. Whiny, face all screwed up like a bad smell, aggressively picky.

They were all about smarming over the pro guests, frightening the contestants with how important the pros were, and how tough this challenge was going to be. Twinkles of glee only really surfaced when they got rid of somebody else.

The prizes were a bit stupid too – including a car, a load of household kitchen appliances, glassware, a cuddly toy. All aimed at someone who was going to go on being a domestic cook, not launch into a foodie career.

I appreciate that NZ is not as food-centric as Oz has become, but this was awful.

Where Now?

Tonight we get Gordon Ramsay as the central host for the US version. It’ll premiere after his Hell’s Kitchen, which is fairly popular. Like the NZ one, it’s only going out one night a week. I haven’t seen the Norwegian version, which was on TV3 this spring, but if your Norwegian is up to it, it is available online. Promos for the French version are around, and their Twitter PR has been having weekly competitions. Rumours abound for other national versions, with claims of over 100 in the pipeline.

The Australian one is clearly the paradigm, and I’d like to see it take the plunge and develop even further. Why not a Big Brother Little Brother add-on? Not live webcams in the house or anything tacky like that, but filming them cooking, teaching each other, experimenting. Working on recipes together. Take them out on escorted restaurant trips to learn the art of criticism.Teach them how to actually write a recipe that others can follow.

My main bugbear? You have to be an Ozzie citizen or resident to apply for Season 3. Boo.

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Australian foodie planning

My list of things to eat in Australia – so far:
Bugs, coral trout, barramundi, southern rock lobster, kingfish, various crabs, freshwater crayfish and any other local varieties of fish/shellfish/seafood
Chiko Roll / Dimmies
Tim Tams
Violet Crumble
Melbourne Flat White from the laneways
Vegemite on Toast (although I can get that here, I think that’s more of a Vegemite on Toast for Breakfast Looking Out to the Great Barrier Reef Experience)
A Curtis Stone recipe with ingredients from Coles
Lamingtons
Pavlova
Zumba patisserie (but not being in Sydney won’t help)
“The Works” burger – beetroot and pineapple, what’s not to love?

What else?

Masterchef Rules The Waves Part One

I’ve been putting off this post, and now Celebrity Masterchef starts tonight. So not late, but timely …

It also got very long – Part One will look at the UK, and Part Two will explore Masterchef International – a whole different beast.

Twenty-odd years ago, when I first started watching Masterchef, it was nice. In every sense of the word.  Middle-class people cooked middle-class three-course dinner-party meals, which were tasted and discussed in a judgely huddle by permanent host Loyd Grossman (TM), along with a showbiz celebrity and a guest chef or food writer. Winners went through to the next round, which was exactly the same. Except the chefs got more famous as time went on. It was broadcast weekly in a comfy Sunday tea-time slot on BBC1, and at the end there was a cookbook of the best recipes. People were fans of this competitor or that, and there were a few scandals along the way. You could cook whatever you wanted – there was a vague nominal budget – within a time limit, bringing a few pre-prepared ingredients and/or pieces of kit. There were jams, herbs from the garden, and marinaded meats, and, oh, the horror, one contestant brought her trusty microwave. Eventually it spawned a Junior version, and a career for Mr Grossman (TM) in cook-in sauces. And died a nice discreet middle-class death around the turn of the century.

I suspect it introduced a lot of viewers to new foods and techniques. It was fun to watch a competition that featured skills I knew about, and also to hear a professional chef critique dishes. That was new. But ultimately it was by and for people who shopped at Waitrose, and all too twee for words.

Boom, and 5 years later we get Masterchef GOES LARGE, which is pretty much the format we know now in the UK. It’s dropped the GOES LARGE bit, as people have started to realised Mr Grossman (TM) isn’t hosting a nice little studio show anymore. The judges are John Torode (transplanted Ozzie mid-level restaurant owner / TV chef) and Gregg Wallace (former greengrocer and restaurant supplier). Torode wears casual clothes and often neglects to shave – he promotes classic knowledge and technique. Wallace, despite running a multi-£million business and owning a new restaurant for his cronies to party in, is presented as the down-to-earth East End Barrow Boy who knows his veg and loves his puddings. He’ll forgive a lot in technique if you’ve put enough chocolate in it. He’s also perceived a lot as the Nice Cop to Torode’s Nasty, and he does tend to act as a bit of a Yes Man. India Fisher provides a voice-over narration – a lot of which seems to be pre-recorded and comes out at every episode. “The contestants have spent hours on their feet in the professional kitchen …”

Although the show doesn’t have the class limitations of the original, it can be stunningly and mindlessly racist and sexist. Torode in particular assumes that anyone with an “ethnic” background will be expert in a related branch of cookery, will be tempted to put “too many spices” in their food, and won’t be able to compete in more classical European challenges. If people DO put in “too many spices”, he’s amazed at how lovely and subtle it tastes. They’re obviously trying not to stir offense (to the extent of referring to a pediatrician throughout as a “child doctor” just in case some idiot got it wrong), but they still refer to women as Mother-of-(number), as if identity rested in fertility.

On the positive side, there is now an element of development and mentoring for the competitors. Many are aiming at taking up a foodie career, as chefs, suppliers, writers. Some are already dipping their toes in the water – vide Alex Rushmer, whose blog Just Cook It already had a good reputation. As you progress in the show, you spend more time in a variety of professional situations, and are expected to learn from all of them.

How it Works

Go Large started as an early evening show on BBC2. One competition a day Monday to Thursday, with the daily winners battling it out on Friday. After 6 weeks, the weekly winners go on to the semi-finals and then the finals, usually over 2 more weeks.

With the change from the dinner party format, contestants get more of an opportunity to showcase their knowledge of ingredients and techniques. Although there is a chance for them to produce their own menus, they have to win that chance. First is the ingredients challenge (or the Mystery Box), where they have a bench full of food and just under an hour to turn it into a plate of food. Starter, main, dessert – whatever. There will usually be some meat, fish, herbs, fresh fruit and veg, dairy, tinned things like coconut milk. Often there are two or even three clear recognised matches – mackerel and gooseberries, arborio rice and parmesan, oranges and plain chocolate – which should give even a panicking chef a good nudge towards a staple dish. It’s a tougher round than you might think, and three of the original six competitors are knocked out at this stage.

The remaining three go on to the pressure test. This is usually a lunchtime service stint at a reasonably well-known real restaurant, with each competitor being given a regular menu dish to prepare to order. Some cope, some don’t, and for many it’s their first taste of life in a pro kitchen. There’s a chance here to learn an amazing amount – not just about the logistics of restaurant ordering and service, but about mise en place and preparation, pro equipment, presentation, timing.

Returning from that, they get to cook their own food for the judges, two courses in one hour. The judges may take the performance in the pro kitchen into account, but in reality the winner is decided on this meal.

For the further stages, different challenges are introduced. We’ve had Ingredients Knowledge – name these beans / nuts / spices / herbs / vegetables etc.,  varied Pressure Tests – cater lunch from a location van for a film crew, cook a field kitchen lunch for half the army and regimental dinner for the officers in the evening, prepare a gourmet dinner for a VIP group and serve it on site at a medieval castle or similar. One particularly nasty one emerged this year, the Choice Test. You get to cook one of two dishes in a very short timeframe (usually about 15 minutes).  Ingredients and kit provided, but no recipe. Really simple things, but incredibly easy to get wrong. There was a huge row on Twitter one night – one of the choices was mussels in white wine sauce, which Torode later insisted had been Moules Mariniere. There was cream out on the bench for the other dish, and several contestants used it. Not in Moules Mariniere, officially, at least according to Torode, but no harm in putting it in mussels in white wine sauce. He got quite snitty.

As they go through the stages, contestants are given more opportunities for working one on one with pro chefs, as they are sent to restaurants chosen with them in mind. Technical discipline, presentation, ingredient knowledge. If you use too many ingredients, you’ll be sent to a chef who only uses three or four but chooses and combines them with skill and expertise. If you clomp stuff on a plate, you’ll go somewhere elegant, or Japanese, where you’ll have to place each tiny flower with tweezers. You’ll be expected to bring techniques and knowledge back to the Masterchef kitchen, and incorporate them in your next cook-off.  Judges will expect to see you progress and improve.

Where’s it Going?

The new format was very popular, which resulted in a typical fwit decision by the BBC – to move it from 6:30 on BBC2 to evening prime-time on BBC1. This immediately put it into competition with strong commercial programming, in danger of being moved around for special events and sport, and subject to stronger marketing. Instead of a pleasant after-work half-hour, it became a whole evening commitment.

It’s also spawned more versions. Now we’ve got Masterchef: The Professionals and Celebrity Masterchef. Professional is wonderful. Torode’s place is taken by Michel Roux Jr, with the initial tests being handled by his amazing dominatrix sous-chef. Competitors are already working in the industry, and Roux expects a certain standard from them which SO OFTEN isn’t there. He also insists on a classical French approach as the basis for everything in the known universe, and heaven help you if you think differently. It has a much greater car-crash TV quotient than the regular show.

Celebrity is a bit of fun, with mostly G-list celebrities. Rumour has it that the new Celebrity season, which starts tonight, is incorporating elements from the International version, including The Pantry store of ingredients.

Some of the competitors in Celebrity end up taking it quite seriously. Nadia Sawalha, who won a few years ago, has since written cookery books, presented foodie TV shows, and is a co-presenter with John Torode on the new Junior Masterchef.

That, I was very impressed with. It went out on CBeebies as a kids’ show. Torode shows them how to prepare a dish which they then do themselves – summer pudding, for example. Then they get to show off their own menu. The finalists were stunning – confident, enthusiastic, excellent palates and skills. Contestants were in general articulate about why this was important to them. Family traditions, good health, relaxation. One was quite clear that with her dyslexia she wasn’t good at reading and writing, but she knew damn well that she could do this. All very empowering. Although the presenters could be a tad patronising in spots, and seemed quite shocked when a child proved itself perfectly capable of filleting a fish.

Relationship Management

With the move to a higher profile came a more sophisticated marketing approach. The programme has its own BBC website. During the last series run, there was a magazine, but that doesn’t seem to have lasted. The whole concept is promoted heavily by the BBC Good Food brand. The finalists from the last series, along with the Junior finalists, take part in Masterchef Live at the BBC Good Food Shows, appear on daytime cooking shows, feature in magazines.

The format doesn’t lend itself easily to developing a fan base for each individual contestant. Once they’ve got through their initial week, you might not see them again for up to a month. The website doesn’t give details on each of them a la Big Brother. They do try to get viewers interested – one of the rounds is a Passion Test which is an interview format around What Food Means To You. And there are the obligatory at home / work introductory film segments. Some contestant personalities stand out right from the start. This year there were several, including Stacie Stewart, with her wonderful beehive hair and scooter – helped by her passionate down-to-earth approach to good old British food.

Some you just want to smack – if this is your dream and passion, and always has been, why didn’t you go to catering college? Why aren’t you working nights in a pro kitchen, even if that means washing up or delivering takeaways? Why haven’t you heard of this chef, or that technique? Don’t you watch foodie telly, or read magazines, or blogs?

It really all kicks in for the final few weeks. The same contestants over and over in different situations, revealing hidden talents and stress points. Making them work as teams and showing more of their characters. Local radio and TV stations pick up on regional heroes, interview and promote them.

This year several of the contestants, including the three finalists, made an appearance on Twitter. Information on the contest itself is embargoed, of course, but they were out there building networks, starting businesses, having fun.

The Twitter bit

This is where the most recent series really started to get interesting. Torode isn’t on Twitter, but Gregg Wallace (puddingface) is. There is an official masterchef tweet, which was very proactive. Each programme got some advance tweeting, there were Mystery Box challenges for readers (what would you do with x, y, and z?), and prompts to discuss the results after the show.  Not that tweeting viewers needed it. The #masterchef hashtag got a real pounding, with people arguing about ingredients, techniques, contestants, the presenters, the guest chefs, restaurants – everything, in fact.

Twitter represents the kind of promotion that the BBC can’t control. There is a spoof Gregg. And then there’s the Masterchef Reject, from Janie Spanner who hosts her own version of Masterchef, complete with pressure tests and celebrity guests. The trendy dish this year, that everyone seemed to want to cook, was scallops with black pudding. Cries of derision greeted its third or fourth appearance, mounting rapidly to screams of anguish as it came out over and over again. Traditionally on Masterchef Chocolate Fondants Do Not Work, so attempts at that were also shouted down. Towards the end of the competition, tweeters were playing Masterchef Bingo, spotting repeating ingredients (sea bass, rack of lamb, chorizo), host phrases (it doesn’t get any tougher than this, plate of food, earthy) with a cry of  SCALLOPS announcing a winning line. There was constant discussion of competitor favourites – some of which degenerated into personal abuse. Not as bad as the Australian one, which featured Facebook Hate Pages and death threats.

I’ll talk about the Australian version later, which has become the template for a spreading international trend. If you watch tonight’s Celebrity programme and tweet using the #masterchef hashtag, you may well find yourself caught up in some of it, as it is Finals Week down under. It’s so popular, that they have rescheduled the live main national election debate so that it doesn’t clash with the Masterchef Final. Loyd Grossman (TM) could never have made it up.

I’m using brandy and crushed green peppercorns, but we’ve also had pernod and dried tarragon, prunes and calvados, or any plumped-up dried fruit left over after making flavoured vodkas

Chutney Weather

This week is damp and chill, especially after the last month of sun. Time to huddle in the kitchen with some overblown opera and make chutneys.

Peach Chutney

I made a lovely one earlier in the year and lost the notes, boo. Peach chutney for me should be like the Sharwoods one used to be, thick and dark and ultra-sweet. But with a bit of a kick. Which means a standard chutney, made with dark sugar and a heavier vinegar, and cooked that little bit longer. So in today’s pot there are:

  • 8 medium size peaches, slightly past their eating best, cut in half and stones removed
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 huge teaspoons garlic puree
  • 2 huge teaspoons ginger puree
  • 1 fresh red chilli, sliced
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 oz dark muscovado sugar
  • 200 mls cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt

Cooked down to a thick consistency, peaches cut up a bit with a spoon, with a few spoonfuls of liquid left to stop it drying out in the pot. Yeech, that’s hot. Put up in a sealed jar and leave for a few weeks to really settle in. Chutneys like this are good in cheddar cheese sandwiches, with cold ham salad, or as part of an Indian pickle tray.

Rhubarb / Apple Chutney

I have 2 sticks of rhubarb left to play with, and a couple of baking apples left over from a dinner last week. I’m aiming for a light wet chutney, where the bulk of the fruit has turned to a puree with some tiny onion pieces for texture.

  • 2 sticks rhubarb, cut in half lengthways then into 1″ pieces
  • 2 Bramley cooking apples, cored and cut into pieces a similar size to the rhubarb, not peeled
  • 1 small white onion, very finely chopped
  • 1 tsp each pureed garlic / ginger
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 oz white sugar
  • 200 mls white wine vinegar, split into 150/50 ml portions

Put the bigger amount of vinegar in the pot, add rhubarb, sugar, onion, garlic, ginger, salt. Stir about a bit. and bring to simmer. Add apple pieces, sprinkle with the remaining vinegar (so raw apple doesn’t brown). Put the lid on the pot and leave it for about half an hour. Stir it up briskly, raise the heat, and cook it until it is a thick sauce, and all the big pieces of fruit have turned to mush. It’s like a super-tart apple sauce with threads of greeny-pink rhubarb running through it.

Again, I’m going to pot up in a sealed jar, but I’m tempted to keep it in the fridge in case it doesn’t have enough preservative in it. It’ll be brill cold with roast pork, blue cheese, even a good old fried breakfast with black pudding and thick bacon.