In its wisdom the Beeb has decided to alter both the day and time of MasterChef. I miss the opening credits and momentarily think I’ve tuned into a BBC4 documentary about Renaissance art by mistake. But no, MasterChef has gone on holiday! To Italy! It’s a canny idea: food porn with a side of A Place in the Sun.
Day one: home-cooking on the Amalfi coast
Mamma Agata has been cooking since she was eight. Her chief ingredients are love and passion (possibly the Italian for “butter” and “olive oil” – also added in vast quantities). Gregg and John are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they’ve gone to the beach.
The first course is gnocchi. “It’s so nice,” says Natalie. “Amazing,” agrees Dale. “Mmmmmm,” says Larkin, too busy chomping to speak. The second course is sausage pasta. “Amazing,” says Dale. “Amazing,” agrees Natalie. “Mmmmmm,” says Larkin, too busy sucking up pappardelle to speak. The third course is stuffed squid. “MMMMMMMMMMMMMM,” says Larkin, diving face first into the dish.
John and Gregg swan back from the beach in time for dinner. Dale’s sausage pasta wins the day. He doesn’t care, he’s forgotten all about the MasterChef trophy; he just wants to marry into the Agata family. He’s not the only one: I try to open a tin of cold baked beans with passion and tuck in.
Day two: three Michelin-starred fare in Florence
Dale frets that his Italian isn’t up to scratch. What he hadn’t realised is that in Florentine restaurants it’s all about colour and aroma. And that’s just the hair dos: the owner styles hers à la raccoon; the executive chef favours the “olive oil” look. John and Gregg are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they’re ogling the classical statues.
Larkin’s dish is ravioli the size of postage stamps, smeared with sauce and speckled with thyme. Something tells me Mamma Agata wouldn’t be impressed. Natalie’s dish is posh doner kebab with a teaspoon of mash. I’ve eaten bigger freebies off the deli counter at Sainsbury’s. Dale’s dish took two years to invent: half a teaspoon of green stuff, white stuff and beige stuff with crumbs, powder and more white stuff. It’s as appetising as a tube of toothpaste.
Still no sign of John and Gregg: perhaps they’ve wisely decided to stay at Mamma Agata’s. Dale’s hands shake so much some of the powder spills and the chef has the cheek to moan his portion is too small. Frigid baked beans finished, I decide to eat a slice of toast the Florentine way: I cut it up into 16 pieces and smear on some mysterious chutney that’s been lurking in the back of the fridge for months.
Day three: the cognoscenti feast in an 11th century castello
The budget has run out. They pretend to be in a medieval castle but are clearly in a chilly castle in rainy Wales. The guests are bog-standard Brits disguised as arty Italians with beards and chic specs.
Dale breaks the golden rule of Italian cooking: he serves fish with cheese. “It is an interesting experiment,” sniffs an arty Italian, as if he’s about to be served caviar with ketchup. True to form, Larkin has never cooked suckling pig before. Or cavolo nero. “Good luck,” sniffs John, in the sort of voice one might use to address a bloke on death row. Only Natalie has been learned the Italian lesson. Each guest gets a single scoop of ice cream, three blackberries and a sprinkling of dust.
I run for the bathroom: it seems that mysterious chutney wasn’t Michelin-starred.