When interviewing Paul Hollywood, journalists usually bring him their freshly baked bread. Or a cake. Then they sit nervously while he examines it, tastes it and pronounces on it. I have baked some bread, but I can’t show it to him. Because it’s already been eaten. Before my family devoured it, however, I managed to take a picture, which I show him before anything else. My loaf. Two,
actually. One is golden of colour, buoyant of texture, rounded of shape. Sadly, the other reveals a not so much Squeezed, as Totally Collapsed Middle, giving its slices a sort of Batman shape, the outer crust being the ears.
Hollywood surveys the picture seriously. “Nice structure to the first. But the second… it’s the proving. Did you use a bread machine?”
I nod, shamefully.
“Not really baking, is it?”
I confess it is not.
“Do you ever clean your machine out?”
Look here, Hollywood, I’m not some cocky contestant whom you are judging on The Great British Bake Off. I am a nice journalist from Radio Times, here to tell you what a silver fox you are and how much I am looking forward to seeing your new, solo, baking show.
But the Fox is on a (bread) roll.
“Have you changed your yeast, is the water temperature different? You know, a little change can make a lot of a change. Which bread maker do you use? The Gadget Show tried out three against me, and challenged the public to taste the bread blind. Fortunately I won.”
Paul Hollywood, 47, takes baking very seriously. And because he takes it so seriously, the British viewing public has begun to as well. They’re not the only ones – Hollywood is currently taking his skill and passion to America as a judge on a new TV show, The Great American Baking Competition. And Bake Off has ramped itself up from amateur scone-fest to a ferocious cream horn-heavy contest worthy of the patisserie department at the Dorchester. Where Hollywood once was king. Indeed, it was his destiny to be so. Born and bred (sorry) into baking, almost his first memory is of rising agents.
“I remember the joy of baking with my dad [who owned a chain of instore bakeries in the north of England]. I used to make rolls with him on Saturday afternoons,” he says. “Dickie Davies was on the TV, and the bread would rise during the wrestling. I remember him putting it by the fire, with a towel over it. We would be wrestling too. Then Doctor Who was on, and the rolls would be baking. By the time it was time for The Two Ronnies, we would be eating them. I still remember the taste, vividly.”
It goes back even further; his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. Which is important. Because when Hollywood was himself a slip of a lad at 19, he was a junior baker down the road at the Chester Grosvenor. One day, the local TV news show, Granada Reports, came to call, and shot a piece with him about baking bread.
“They interviewed me for about six hours, and I remember thinking as I walked out of the hotel to go home, ‘I’ve made it.’ Then on telly that night it was about 30 seconds long.”
For television really to focus properly on Hollywood’s periwinkle eyes and supreme confidence over a lump of dough, it would take time to prove himself (sorry again) in the bakeries of the grand hotels of England (Grosvenor, Dorchester, Cliveden etc), and a five-year stint in Cyprus where he met his wife, Alexandra, did some more telly and learnt about the glories of baking with seeds, rosewater, and the “old recipes that grandma makes on a Sunday,” as he puts it.
He’s into the provenance of bread. “I love all of that. Did you know the ancient Egyptians invented sourdough in 2,500 BC? Hieroglyphs show them threshing the wheat, grinding the flour, baking the sourdough. We’ve gone back to the way they baked bread thousands of years ago.” He sighs. “Civilisation was built around wheat, around people settling down and not being nomadic. Baking is one of the oldest professions. Along with fishing, and prostitution,” he twinkles, just ever so slightly crinkling the corners of those blue… oh, you know how it goes.
Because this is what Hollywood does so well, and summarises his televisual appeal. He’s a hulking Scouser with a mastery over dough, but he is also a flirt, beloved as such by millions of viewers.
Does he acknowledge his uncontested status as baking’s sex symbol? “It’s flattering. But I always think they are taking the mickey. I don’t really believe it.” What?
“It’s quite embarrassing,” he says, seriously. “I’m quite shy, really. The figure you see on TV, that’s just a persona. I like getting home, putting my feet up, getting into my slippers and dressing gown.” Indeed, he is such a relaxed homebody that he might have to be reminded by his wife to take off the “tracky bums” when he pops down to the shops, because he is now a celebrity. Does that please him? It seems it does not.
I have met him twice now, both on set in the Bake Off marquee, and where we are speaking now, in a central London studio. On both occasions, Hollywood seems uninterested to the point of dismissive about his achievement in terms of popular recognition.
“I think I was at my peak when I was at the Dorchester. This?” he says, waving at the current scene, as the make-up artist moves around him daubing his arm with a tattoo, his publicist hovers nearby, and the RT photographer adjusts the giant lights ready for his close-up. “This is an illusion. It’s not real. It’s superficial.”
This is not to say he rejects what Bake Off has achieved. He loves the fact that he’s part of a great baking revival. He loves Mary “Bezza” Berry. He loves Mel and Sue. Effectively, he loves teaching the nation how to bake, which is what his own father did for him.
“I want to pass on my secrets to people who are going to say, ‘I have realised that I love baking, and now I’m going to make my bread and sell it at the local farmers’ market’, or who might say, ‘I am going to use the local Post Office in our village to sell my cakes.’ I want to give them that little bit of fire.”
It’s a flame that’s been burning within Hollywood for quite a while now, through good times and bad.
“I have gone through some bad times with my own business,” he says of his artisan baking company, which he still runs. “At one point I was working my socks off, driving, delivering, baking. It was hard, hard work. But I worked through it. Running your own bakery is hard. I never came close to bankruptcy but I had to cut back on staff. And when I needed equipment, I was fortunate to have family who were prepared to put their hands in their pockets. I was good at what I did and they believed in me. I stuck to it, because I didn’t want to lose what I had. And I never give up.”
Of course, his family love his transformation from “tracky bum”-wearer into TV star. “My mum is very proud of me.” As for him? “Back home I go into a pub, and people stare at you for a long period of time. Which up north is a sign of aggression!” No, Paul, it’s because you are famous. “Yes, but I forget what I do. Because I have my other job, running my baking business. And there the lads treat me like I was before Bake Off, and like I will be after Bake Off.”
For Hollywood does not see himself as a permanent fixture in the celebrity firmament. Paul Hollywood the chat show host is not going to happen. Indeed, he knows where he would go if he was forced to choose.
“That’s a tricky one, because Bake Off is expected of me. And I’ve trained the lads, they can run the business well. But the business is more important to me. Because it has more longevity. As long as you have a solid cake, the media is the icing on that cake. If you forget you have the cake, or if you turn the media into the cake, you are in trouble. But if you have a solid foundation, everything else will just drop into place. For me, the business is the cake.”
He looks at me intently, thinking. “Or I could set up baking schools. That’s what I like doing. Teaching. Now, about your bread. Have you tried taking the temperature of your water, and writing it down each time?” And I then receive a 20-minute lesson on bread, a lesson that is so engrossing that I miss my next appointment, which just so happens to be a long-haul flight to Addis Ababa. That’s the power of Paul.
Paul Hollywood’s Bread starts tonight at 8:30pm on BBC2