Go on, get your fingers in that dough,” says Paul Hollywood. “How does it feel?” Claggy. “Claggy! You need more flour.” I’m going head to head with the country’s greatest living baker and the challenge is simple: who can produce the better pizza?
So far, we’ve blended strong flour, yeast, water and quite a lot of salt. “In Naples,” he says, “they reckon the pizzas are good because the water’s so s**t.”
So, no need to wash our hands? “Look, mate, this is going in the oven. There’s nothing on my hands that’s going to kill you.” All that salt might. “What? A bus will kill you, not salt. You won’t be running beneath a bus, will you?” No. “Right.”
The last time I cooked in anything approaching a competitive atmosphere was in a school domestic science lesson in Scarborough. The result was a tray of blackened coconut pyramid cakes, the jeering laughter of Class 4C and, more hurtfully, the teacher as well. “Don’t worry,” says Hollywood, “this pizza is the easiest thing to make in the world and I can go slowly if you’re from Scarborough.” Thanks.
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We now add olive oil to the mix, “to make the dough soft”. The resulting pale muck sticks my fingers together, apparently permanently, and works its way up my arms and down my trousers. There is not a speck on Hollywood who, as ever, wears a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up just over the wrist. He’s remarkably trim for a man who lives on, and by, carbohydrates. “It’s exercise,” he says. “Don’t go out, drink water all day, exercise and it falls off. I promise.”
The pizza recipe is taken from Hollywood’s new book and television series, A Baker’s Life. “It cherry-picks recipes from my life,” he says. “From making ginger biscuits with my mum when I was six up to baking naked celebration cakes [it’s all about the thin icing] in the tent with Noel, Prue and Sandi.” The show also offers glimpses of a private life Hollywood is usually at pains to conceal. “I’ve let them in a little bit, but it’s deflection. I don’t want it to be about me, I’m trying to avoid me at all costs.”
Everybody else is doing the opposite, we all want a piece of Hollywood’s cake. Eleven million people watched the final of Bake Off. “It’s phenomenal,” he says, “the biggest thing on TV for 30 years.” Would it have been bigger if Prue Leith hadn’t tweeted Sophie Faldo’s victory beforehand? “I think we could have had much more.” Do you forgive her? “Yes, I do. Everyone makes a mistake. It was a shame though.” He’s more annoyed with those viewers who didn’t come over from BBC1. “There are people who can’t get past channel one, the older generation, who don’t understand how that works. They only flick a couple of buttons and it takes three clicks to watch Channel 4.”
Hollywood is also still rankled that he was accused of betraying Bake Off when it went to C4, even though it was Mary Berry, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc who left the show and not him. “I stayed with Bake Off. The girls abandoned it. But I was the one put under siege. I became the most hated man in the country! It’s not fun for someone that doesn’t like being in the limelight. I didn’t set out to be on the telly, I set out to be a good baker. And I didn’t want this. If you give me a cheque, you’ll never see me again.” How big a cheque would it take? “Not much, to be honest.”
It’s time to knead the dough, which, happily, allows for some cheering Bake Off-style entendres. “You have to grab the bottom,” he says. “With your fingers.” Once we’ve shaped our dough into discs it’s on with the topping, three kinds of salty cheese – “Stop going on about bloody salt!” – and we’re ready for the oven.
“Most people in this country heat a supermarket pizza up, but they are never authentic,” he says. “Authenticity comes from fresh dough in a hot oven.” He’s not that happy with other aspects of British baking. “When you go to a restaurant in this country you often see those anaemic white petits pains sitting on the side plate. I can judge a restaurant by its bread. If they don’t give a s**t about their bread, then why would I give a s**t about their food?”
Bread is very important to Hollywood. He has been making it ever since his father offered him £500 to join the family bakery in the 1980s. “On the Wirral back then you needed a trade if you wanted to earn.” Bread didn’t just provide beer money for a young apprentice dropping ovenhot trays on his arms (“the burns were brutal”), it entered his soul. “Bread is enjoyment. It’s sharing with everybody. There’s something very special in that. When I was growing up, in church the breaking of the bread was symbolic. Why did Christ represent himself as bread?”
He once took his nan to Jerusalem (“my favourite city”) so she could see where Jesus had walked, and he tells me what bread Christ would have shared with the apostles at the last supper: “It would be flatbread. Absolutely.” Has his Christian faith helped him when things have gone wrong? “Yes, I think it has,” he says. “Everybody needs a focal point in their life. Other people find other ways to happiness, joy, love, whatever. But everyone needs something to hang their hat on in dark times.”
There have been good times too, though: some put Hollywood’s worth at £10 million. “That’s about £9.5 million wide of the mark. People think you’re wealthy because you’re on TV but you’d be surprised by the money I earned on Bake Off in the early years.” Still, you’re buying Aston Martins now. “I buy Aston Martins on finance.” How much is that, £225 a month? “I don’t know. Not far off that. I never use my own money. Especially these days.” How many supercars have you got in all? “A couple.” What, two? “A couple.”
Hollywood really doesn’t want me to know what he is worth or what he keeps at home. “Well, why would you tell everyone?” he asks. “What you’re doing is saying, ‘Come on, rob me. I’m a complete sucker, come and get me.’” He sounds like a man under siege. “Yes,” he says. “I think, since this has all happened, I feel very much like that. I try not to, but yes.”
He is good at driving sports cars, and has raced on the fearsome Nürburgring track in Germany. “I’m passionate about it. Because when the boss says ‘Your lap times are good’, it is Paul Hollywood who did it, not the baker, me.” Does he maintain a divide, in his head, between the guy on the TV and who he really is? “I do. Fame brings its own demons with it, and you have to block yourself off; split yourself from the guy off the telly that everybody thinks they know, the Paul Hollywood who is the pantomime villain, that everyone, when he walks on, goes, ‘Boooo’. I get that, and I get why – because I’m a tough character. But I am a judge, and no one bends me into making me think that’s a good bake or that’s a bad bake.
“People compare me to Simon Cowell. I’ve seen Simon, and he said, ‘They say you’re like me.’ But I think Simon’s gone soft. I’m much stronger than him. Simon bends to the will of the people, and he’s become more about the personalities now than actual quality of the voice. Mine’s all about the quality of the baking, not the personality. I don’t care who the personality is; what I do care about is what’s on that plate. I think when you’re a judge you have to be honest with yourself, what you’re seeing.” Has he told Cowell that? “I haven’t, but he’ll know now.”
The timer pings, it’s the moment of truth – we pull out our pizzas and, if I’m honest, mine looks better than his. He considers it with the unflinching blue eyes that have found so many bakes lacking in the past. He cuts the pizza. He tastes the pizza. Still nothing, and then, is that really the hint of a smile? “This,” he says, “isn’t bad. Well done.” And he puts out his arm. I am getting my very own Paul Hollywood handshake. Take that, class 4C; who’s laughing now?
Paul Hollywood: A Baker’s Life begins on Monday at 8pm on Channel 4