Great British Bake Off hero Paul Hollywood explains why there’s magic in turning basic ingredients into pillowy, oven-warm loaf. And why you should be baking
My dad was a baker and I vividly remember him rising bread rolls in front of the gas fire on a Saturday afternoon while Dickie Davies presented the wrestling. In between bouts, I’d lift up the tea-towel to watch them grow. They were ready by the time Doctor Who came on, and their flavour sticks in my mind. That’s what proper bread should taste like.
The first thing I baked was ginger biscuits with my mum. She made the cakes, biscuits and apple pies, while my dad did bread, scones and doughnuts. I clapped down the biscuit mix with my hand and drew patterns on them with a fork – the house filled with the buttery, gingery smell as they baked. They didn’t look that good, but they tasted almost cookie-like and were great dunkers – they really held their shape. In fact, I might put the recipe in my next book.
As a teenager, I worked in Dad’s chain of bakeries as a Saturday lad. I went to study sculpture, but after I did my A-level my dad said he wanted me to leave art school and become a baker. I told him I didn’t want to, and he said, “I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll give you 500 quid, but you have to get a haircut.” I had long art-school hair, but I said OK. I prostituted myself to the baking industry early.
A slow rise
I started at the bottom – literally, I had to clean the toilets – but trained with all Dad’s best lads, moving between branches up the north-east coast. I learned the mixer from 60-year-old Liam in York, then up to Roy in Sunderland to work the ovens… By 17, I had fast hands and was quicker than most on the dough table. Dad never gave me any praise, but I overheard him asking one of the head bakers how I was doing. The baker said, “He’s good you know, John.” My dad replied, “’Course he is, he’s my son.“ It gave me ambition to prove myself.
To broaden my knowledge, I moved on to be head baker at five-star hotels, first at The Chester Grovesnor, then I was the youngest ever baker at The Dorchester. I went abroad to Cyprus to learn Mediterannean-style baking, and I met my wife Alexandra there. She was a scuba-diving instructor and I wooed her with cake. I’d bring her pastries filled with champagne ganache and strawberries, hand-made pain au chocolat… she loved all that.
Turning up the heat
Six years later I came back, started my own bakery supplying shops such as Harrods and Waitrose, got involved in TV and everything took off. The Great British Bake Off became a runaway hit. Our last final got 7.5 million viewers – just for some bakers in a tent, judged by me and a septuagenarian. It’s mad. Part of its success is its broad appeal. Whole families watch it, from kids to grandparents. Because of Junior Bake Off, we have ages eight to 80 covered, and there aren’t many shows like that.
I get recognised a lot now. People are always stopping me in the street to ask me questions about baking. It’s humbling, but I still forget I’m on television sometimes. I was in a Liverpool pub with my brother recently, and our Lee goes, “That bloke over there keeps staring.” He walked over and virtually squared up to him. It turned out that he was just a big Bake Off fan.
Baking is an ancient trade, it’s in our psyche. Prehistoric man kneaded dough. The second mayor of Pompeii was a baker – Roman bakers were skilled, respected artisans. It’s a manly, manual thing too. Most of the bakers I know are big, well-built blokes. You’re lifting a 32kg bag of flour on each shoulder or 200lb of dough out of the mixer, working with hot ovens on a summer’s day… It’s not an easy job, believe me.
A growing trend
Of the people I see getting into baking, I’d say 60 per cent are male. There was an all-male final on Bake Off last year. I get tweets from international rugby players who make cupcakes. Loads of students are having their own bake-offs now, boys vs girls. Rufus Hound sends me photos of his bakes for my opinion. He’s good, he’s got the gift – I can tell by the dome and bloom on his loaves.
Baking is a nostalgic, emotive thing. Bakes remind you of childhood, loved ones, trips away. They transport you back, whether it’s to a holiday or your gran’s house. It’s magical, because you’re creating something from nothing – taking all the raw ingredients and turning them into a living organism. You see them come together and rise before your eyes. It can be very sensual too – I can massage well, which is down to manipulating dough over the years. Bread-making is more scientific than normal cooking, and men like the attention to detail and slight nerdiness involved.
When baking, don’t start with something you think will be easy to make. Instead, try something you can’t wait to eat – that will mean you enjoy the process from start to finish. If it fires your senses and gets you salivating, bake it. If it fails first time, it doesn’t matter. By the time you’ve bought all the ingredients, you’ll have enough to do it again. By the second or third time, it will become your masterpiece. That’ll be the one you make for everyone who comes round. It’ll become your signature bake. And then we’ll see you on the Bake Off next year.
Paul Hollywood’s Bread is out now (Bloomsbury, £20), accompanied by a BBC Two series in March
(Image: Rex Features)