Mid-afternoon slump. The book was cast aside, the writing abandoned. Low blood sugar or some less tangible malaise? There was only one thing to do. I had to get baking.
Mary Berry At Home had the answer: Anzac crunch biscuits, which would use up the oats and the mysterious half-full bag of desiccated coconut lurking at the back of the cupboard. Some adjustments needed to be made; I didn’t have plain flour so used self-raising and accordingly reduced the bicarb; I was down to my last scrapings of golden syrup, so supplemented with maple syrup. Perhaps these tweaks are the reason why the biscuits didn’t rise and spread as much as Mary said they would. But oh my, they were good! Mug of tea, couple of warm biscuits, depression lifted.
It’s a principle John Whaite understands. The Great British Bake Off winner is frank in his sumptuous new cookbook, John Whaite Bakes (Headline): ‘I am unashamed to admit that I am a moody person,’ he confesses. ‘I have done, and do, battle depression.’ Since the trauma of his parents’ divorce, baking, he relates, ‘has been an inherently comforting process for me, and I turn to it whenever I am feeling particularly blue or when I’m worried about something.’
I was recently asked by Waterstone’s to interview John at the Piccadilly branch. Gigs with cooks aren’t normally my thing – I’m more used to grilling literary novelists or non-fiction writers – but meeting him for a glass of wine in the 5th floor bar beforehand, I was reassured by his easy manner. ‘Ask me anything. I love talking,’ he chirped.
The event was an exhilarating hour, as we talked about food memories and associations, healthy eating and the place of such indulgent fare in the British diet. His book features quite complicated delights like Salted Caramel Rum Babas, a variety of fabulous breads and cakes, some savouries and of course biscuits (must make his caramel shard cookies and cranberry, chocolate and pecan biscotti some time). John is now studying to be a patissier – ‘My marzipan roses are rubbish.’
Cooking is his art form and he’s always on the lookout for new flavour combinations (what I called ‘eating a marmite sandwich in a rose garden’). We solved some mysteries, too – why does Nigella never weigh anything? ‘I think that whole counter of hers is a giant weighing scale,’ said John sagely. And we discovered a shared obsession the programme Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, in which Ina ‘How easy is that!’ Garten, the happiest woman in the world, wafts around her enormous house and garden in The Hamptons, wondering what to cook husband Jeffrey for his Friday night supper.
A few days later I ran into John again at the Headline sales conference at BAFTA. (His marzipan roses were improving, he related.) Earlier I’d sat through a presentation of autumn books, and when Mary Berry herself came on to the screen the backing track was Elvis Costello, smoochily singing ‘She’, which made me giggle. Mary joined our table, looking astonishingly slender (John himself is a mere slip of a boy). Alas, she was too far away to talk to, but at the end of the dinner, my chance came. In the lobby, she heard me burbling about my Aga cookbook, then took both my hands in hers, fixed me with those extraordinary eyes and cooed, ‘Oh, DO promise me you’ll keep enjoying your Aga!’ And she floated away.
A few days later I went off to Kaspars, the newly opened fish restaurant at the Savoy, for a charity lunch with children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who was the writer in residence before the hotel’s closure for its grand Art Deco refurbishment.
While staying there (for three months!), he became fascinated with the story behind the hotel’s famous cat sculpture. Kaspar is always brought to sit at any table of 13 diners to avert bad luck. In gratitude for his three-month stay, Morpurgo wrote Kaspar Prince of Cats (HarperCollins), about an aristocratic cat who forms a bond with a Savoy bellboy. In between courses, there were cat-themed readings, from Carol Hughes, who read the late Poet Laureate’s work ‘Esther’s Tom Cat’ and other poems, a lovely Christmas story, ‘Cat in the Manger’ by Morpurgo’s illustrator Michael Foreman, and Virginia McKenna doing a spellbinding recitation of Blake’s peerless ‘Tyger’. And, of course, a reading from Kaspar Prince of Cats. There was no mid-afternoon slump that day.