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    The weird world of Masterchef

    18 December 2020

    ‘What’s that earthy flavour in the sauce?’ ‘It’s a black Himalayan moss which monkeys find an aphrodisiac.’

    If 2020 has been the weirdest year the modern world has known, that was well and truly reflected in Masterchef, The Professionals.

    Because this year’s series, the 13th annual, dispensed with its own unwritten rules. For years the received wisdom had been just to cook some meat or fish in a modern European style with traditional pairings. If you wanted to be dangerous you might put a square of dark chocolate in the sauce for your venison but even this was usually considered de trop; if you wanted to be playful use popcorn.

    The nervous hopefuls would be herded in and set a ‘skills test’ while being asked if they had been ‘classically trained’. Most replied yes, meaning in reality that they long ago did a catering NVQ at sixth form college, learning classics like ‘trifle’ – but Marcus Wareing would take their affirmative to indicate that they were intimately familiar with the top 100 sauces of Escoffier, leading to frequent comic culinary disaster.

    But as the cast of applicants became ever more diverse, it had reached the point where they were expecting a self taught chef raised in, say, Nepal, whose back story involves working as a labourer by 12, to know how to make a Bordelaise sauce. One contestant last year had never seen an artichoke before, let alone known how they’d serve one à la Barigoule in fin de siècle Paris.

    And in moving to address this anachronism, they created a small revolution.

    The biggest dramas in previous series was whether your halibut would be ‘perfectly cooked’, your chocolate fondant have a runny centre – they rarely did – or if your panna cotta had the right wobble. Now there’s barely a fondant to be had, vanishingly few panne cotte and even pan fried posh fish is finally on the wane.

    The wildest it used to get was the obligation to say you love to forage your own ingredients, even while viewers could see the Waitrose packaging it came in behind the samphire bunch.

    Now things that were once staples – ballotines, seared scallops, herb-crusted racks of French-trimmed lamb – are gone. Once ubiquitous rabbits have returned to their warrens – we didn’t see a single pancetta-wrapped loin until a plainly despairing Wareing forced one on them this week. Of the hitherto surefire hits, only the duck breast mysteriously continues to thrive, presumably as every paid cook in every kitchen in Britain by now knows how to ‘render the fat’ while keeping the meat ‘perfectly pink’.

    But in 2020, hitherto normal things like pan fried duck were in retreat under the advance of the outré. We had entered a culinary world of weirdness where you could put mango in your gravy or fennel in your ice cream and it wasn’t a disaster but a triumph.

    Anything went – hay custard? Why not. Marzipan-filled cherries as a side with that duck, you say? Yum. What can you serve to cut through your beef fat enriched toffee sauce? Why caviare ice cream – what else?

    And as well as the weird there was, increasingly, the exotic, which was where the black Himalayan moss with its priapic simian fanclub fitted in. Just last night some of the ingredients used were water buffalo, bee pollen, stone fungus and dried porcini mushrooms – in a pudding.

    The zenith/nadir of this trend came when we had ants as a garnish – ants! – ‘for acidity’, and it felt as though they were doing a deliberate I’m A Celebrity homage. Marcus’s straight-faced reaction was: ‘I have reservations about eating ants in a dessert’, suggesting he’d be more open to them in a starter or main. Actually to be strictly accurate, in true Masterchef style, they weren’t just ants, they were wood ants. You wouldn’t, after all, want to eat any old ant.

    I am still surprised that no one in the ‘food memories of childhood’ round has yet thought to riff on the inexplicably popularity of puffed wild rice and do ‘my take on the Sugar Puffs I used to eat with milk after school’.

    They’ve opened the door to a wonderland. But the trouble is, as the show’s history has shown countless times, and the main reason I still watch it: most of the contestants had ideas which far outreached their station as it was. Once you encourage them to think this far outside the icebox the results are more likely to be dogs’ than three-starred dinners, wonderlands becoming blunderlands.

    Gregg Wallace, the unworldly straight man stooge to the expertise of Wareing and Monica Galetti, asks, as if intrigued, ‘So how long are you going to give them?’ at the end of every demo of how the skills test should be done, even though the answer is always 20 minutes.

    My question echoing this is: how long are we going to give next year’s show until something truly grotesque occurs? Because once the 2021 contestants get the message that anything goes their ‘one day I’d like to own my own Michelin-starred restaurant’ could very quickly become Timothy Spall in the film Life Is Sweet, opening the Regret Rien where signature dishes include saveloy on a bed of lychees and black pudding and Camembert soup.

    It’s going to be terrible. I can’t wait.