This article was originally published in Shetland Life magazine and was written upon receiving my first copy of “Brilliant Bread”
Writing a book not long after finding yourself churned from a reality television show, you come to expect a standard set of questions from tabloid journalists: “Has your life changed? How long did it take you to write your book? Did you write it all? Did you bake everything in the pictures?”
If you’re interested, the answers are: yes; two months; yes; yes. But then comes the most inevitable and quickly the most exhausting: “Why bread?” Normally I try to shyly shrug this off with a few mentions of satisfaction and science and with the frequent use of the word ‘awesome’. All of what I say is true and bread really is awesome. But the most genuine answer would take too much time and reveal far more about myself than I’d rather.
For whatever reason, now, here’s why and how I wrote about bread.
Soon after we filmed the third season of the Great British Bake-Off, a few of us were put in touch with literary agents. It was put to us: 5 of the 6 previous finalists now have book deals. It was taken as a given that we would follow in a cold new exercise to capitalise on our temporary popularity. It seemed a purely financial exercise in which the production company had a reasonable cut.
It was expressed to me in no uncertain terms that a general baking book encompassing a wide variety of culinary categories would be both easiest to sell to the publishers and to the public. This is what people would expect. But gradually, through meetings and tele-conferences with producers and agents, my own suggestions and ideas were, to my surprise, encouraged. I was tentatively told to start down the route I suggested above all else: bread. If my enthusiasm was to be ignored by those who mattered, we could always re-strategize. That was the theory.
My obsession with the idea of a bread book was that I loved it more than any other baking discipline, but that there wasn’t a single book on the subject that didn’t have irritating faults. I saw them all as both single minded and subjective; they advocated one particular set of techniques and skills and denounced all others, without any evidence to justify it.
Not one approached baking from an evidence-based perspective. But more than that, every bread book so far has been written by a professional baker. The worst contain nothing but toned down commercial recipes without much introduction or thought for what the home-baker can replicate at home. The best contain too much detail on copying professional loaves and so become too complicated and alienating for most.
I wanted to write the best bread book on the market. And the concept I devised, as far as I could tell, was mostly that. I didn’t want to churn out 100 recipes and pose with a superimposed cake on the cover of a glossy book for sale for a fiver in Tesco. I didn’t want to be another reality TV reject, even though that is what I clearly am (and I’ve come to terms with it). I wanted to do something well – nay, I wanted to do something the best; better than anyone else had done before. And that is why I picked bread; I thought I could do it justice and start to make a name for myself that didn’t involve the Bake-Off.
I’m sitting with one of the first advance copies of “Brilliant Bread” and I’m proud to say I’m happy. It’s overwhelming to hold it; it is everything I wanted it to be. And I can’t leaf through it without thinking of how it got here.
The first hurdle is the ‘proposal’. This is where you set out exactly how you see your book looking and what it will contain, in just a few pages. This is sent off, via your literary agent (many publishers will simply refuse to read manuscripts not submitted through agents) to a variety and in turn they send a response. For some, it was a blanket “we’ve got too many bread authors already” and others “we’re not interested in the bake-off”. But a few saw enough potential to get me down to London for a meeting.
All the summits were set for a single day – 5 hours down on the train, 5 hours pottering around from posh parts of London to posher, then 5 hours’ journey back up to Glasgow. A whirlwind of coffee, biscuits and enough free cookbooks in branded canvas bags to scar my shoulder.
Within a few weeks, they come back to you with whether they’d like to publish the book and their rough terms. At this point, every publisher wants to get as much out of you as they can: they don’t offer much money and the contracts are one sided. Long negotiations ensue between agents and editors and one emerges triumphant. In my case, I’ll admit Ebury won me over as soon as I walked in and they said, beaming: “We’re the biggest publisher and we don’t have a bread book.”
The problem is that at this point, a contract is concluded and everyone’s celebrating, but the book is still merely an idea. I’ve got a rough plan, jotted down quantities and three months until my exams. I gave myself a month to study, and vowed to write furiously for the first two. This desperate struggle worked out, undramatically; I submitted my manuscript on time and proceeded to pass my exams with comfortable margins.
It’s often pointed out to me that writing 60,000 words in two months on top of a medical degree is a tough ask. It was hard, but it was do-able. If I’d been writing a cake book, though? Patisserie? Nope. I wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm or drive to get it in on time. Because it was bread, I was fervent to get on to the next chapter or the next section. I saved ‘Sourdough’ to the very end as a treat; I indulged in going over and over it and cutting many a superfluous word.
I hope this boyish excitement comes across inside– and I hope I do Shetland justice. Please don’t shout at me for my (girdle) bannock recipe until you’ve tried it, because it’s actually pretty good.