Cooking for anyone is always slightly scary. If, like me, you’re a massive show-off with a fragile ego, anything other than glowing praise can cause a sulk that's liable last anywhere from a few minutes to several days. It’s a pathetic, but inevitable part of the process.
However, although any criticism of your signature spaghetti bolognese might make you want to lock yourself in the bathroom with a bottle of whisky and an Adele album, there are times when the situation is too significant to shirk. If someone influential is in any way ambivalent about your cooking, hiding isn’t an option. You’ve got to sit there and take it. This was the situation when I had the great privilege of cooking for the one and only Mary Berry.
As one of the most recognisable faces in British food, Mary Berry has had to smile politely through dozens of less than desirable dishes. Her stints on The Great British Bake Off and, most recently, Britain’s Best Home Cook have not only made her a household name, but given her a tolerance for cooking that should arguably never be allowed near someone so important.
However, for one day only as part of her promotion for the second season of BBHC, Berry decided to forgo the usual array of scrupulously producer-approved dishes, and subject herself to the rudimentary chopping, boiling and burning techniques of the assembled media. To call her the consummate professional would be an understatement.
As a show-off, I like to rate my skills in the kitchen fairly highly. However, the prospect of cooking for not just Mary Berry, but her fellow BBHC judges and presenters Angela Hartnett, Chris Bavin and Claudia Winkleman, not only made me forget everything I knew about food, but filled me with the sort of existential dread you might feel if your trousers fell down in the middle of a eulogy. At one point, Claudia Winkleman had to remind me how to peel an onion. The shame.
At the centre of this unique and intensely terrifying experience was a challenge. Participating journalists were tasked with creating one of two pasta dishes, designed by legendary Italian food specialist Angela Hartnett, for the judges to taste. The options were either spinach and ricotta-stuffed tortellini, or puttanesca tagliatelle. Knowing that I fold dough about as delicately as a polar bear, I chose the latter.
Puttanesca, in its proper form, is a relatively simple dish made with tomatoes, capers, olives and chopped anchovies. It should be salty and vibrant and bursting with an unctuous, oily richness that puts Lloyd Grossman to shame. My version, however, looked like a sad puddle of baby food - not helped by the fact that it was almost garnished with an amputated finger after a nervous slip of the knife.
Things did not improve with the pasta. Even though the kitchen team had taken the time to provide each cook with a ball of fresh pasta dough, it was up to us to roll it out and feed it into a machine. In ordinary circumstances, this would be relatively simple. However, having to do so with Mary Berry and one of the country’s best pasta cooks peering over your shoulder was like trying to take a World Cup penalty blindfolded - not impossible, but definitely not ideal.
Unsurprisingly, the silky smooth pasta ball was soon chewed by the relentless electric pasta machine, to the point where my tagliatelle looked more like an old dog toy than dinner. Some strands were beautifully thin, where others looked like the sole of an army boot. Out of time, I had no choice but to scoop them all up, dunk in a pot and pray that Mary didn’t snag a particularly girthy strand.
Looking for a tasty pasta recipe? Check out our amazing Garlic Bread Pasta Pie:
After a frantic few minutes of boiling, draining and spooning into a bowl, it was time for tasting. In my presentation, I had opted for a “more is more” approach, plonking a huge peak of pasta in front of the panel. “Quite a big portion” was the general consensus. I held my breath.
Maybe it was because I was last up, maybe it’s because I’m an anxious narcissist, but I could have sworn that they were eating with a little less enthusiasm than for everyone else. What was wrong with it? Had someone stumbled across a rubbery bit? Did I actually leave a bit of my finger in the bowl and just not notice due to the stress?
Then came the crushing blow - “It’s a bit thick”. I could have died.
Obviously, being told by Mary Berry that your pasta is anything other than the best thing this side of Florence is heartbreaking. But, despite the disappointment, she had a few pearls of wisdom that helped stall the floods of tears until I was alone on the sofa at home.
When I asked what it takes to be a brilliant home cook, she replied, “versatility, fresh ingredients, and classic methods with a twist.” I might not be able to make pasta properly, but at least making the crazy concoctions that Twisted is most famous for has Mary Berry’s blessing. If this doesn’t prove we’re on the right track, nothing will.