The Great British Bake Off has undoubtedly been one of the biggest and most unexpected television success stories. A newly opened cookery school based in the idyllic grounds of Catton Hall in rolling countryside on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border is offering fans the chance to learn from one of the last series’ most popular characters and finalist Brendan Lynch.
JAMES BRINDLE went along to meet him and find out more about the cookery school which has transformed the founder’s life
I came to the third series of The Great British Bake Off under duress.
I mean what could possibly be so interesting about a bunch of average Joe’s with a fondness for making cakes, breads and pastries battling to be crowned the best of British.
However many weeks later I had laughed, I had cried and I had bitten my fingernails to stubs worrying whether James had avoided his treacle tart emerging from the oven with a ‘soggy bottom’ and whether Cathryn’s dough had been kneaded sufficiently.
I was not alone – The Great British Bake Off final pulled in a whopping 7.2 million viewers for BBC Two (even if helped slightly by the Poles decision not to shut their roof before their international football match with the English).
Undoubtedly one of the show’s most popular characters to emerge was Sutton Coldfield’s Brendan Lynch who wowed judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood with some incredible ‘showstopping’ creations throughout the contest.
His victory seemed assured when the winner was announced by presenters Mel and Sue but I gasped with shock when rookie John Whaite’s name was read out.
“He’s been robbed,” I yelled at my television screen.
Brendan took the news with typical composure and grace – he had got exactly what he had wanted from the show – the opportunity to pass on his love and passion for baking.
“I had three objectives when I went into bake off,” Brendan said in that now very familiar Irish brogue of his.
“The first was to take baking into retirement and care homes. Four organisations have got in touch with me about that and I’m really excited about it as I think people there will really love it.
“The idea came from when Gareth Malone went into retirement homes six years ago for a television programme and gathered a choir together of 60 people.
“I was astounded by that and seeing them two months later going to the Albert Hall performing and having tears running down their faces. I thought I could do that with baking.
“I can help raise their skills and it would be great if a group can get up in a morning and say ‘right I’m baking the bread today, or I’m making the cakes’.
“It will give them a very satisfying purpose each day and baking is also very therapeutic – taking everyday ingredients and transforming them into something special.
“My second objective was to publish a recipe book and I have had talks about that and I have already submitted one outline for that.
“It is a long process though, as I have been finding out, but I hope that will be out in the spring or summer next year.
“My third objective was that I wanted to deliver cookery courses and who should get in touch with me after the semi-finals but Clare and Seasoned Cookery.”
Uttoxeter girl Clare Major set up Seasoned Cookery School after moving back home from London over three years ago, based out of her home, but holding the courses at various locations across Staffordshire and Derbyshire.
Now the business has a permanent home, transforming former stables in the grounds of Catton Hall into a marvellous kitchen and dining facility.
“I can’t really believe it has come this far,” Mrs Major told Staffordshire Life. “I just have to stop sometime and think ‘wow, I run a cookery school now’.
“It’s great fun. We have lovely customers and these amazing chefs which makes it all worthwhile.
“I was working down in London but my home has always been Uttoxeter. I met my now husband who is from Tutbury down in London bizarrely and we moved back to the area three and a bit years ago.
“I was always interested in food and teaching people and had a real passion for it. “Geographically I thought there was a bit of a gap in the market and we have great transport links.
“Here at Catton Hall it’s ideal as you can get people from all around because of where we are so the location is perfect.
“It is a gorgeous setting as well. The owners of the house have been really supportive of what we are doing.” Seasoned boasts some of the most talented chefs around, including Masterchef finalists, and offers a variety of courses from Italian food to Indian food, to baking and patisseries, as well as catering for hen parties and demo and dine evenings.
Mrs Major admitted the popularity of Brendan and the Bake Off has meant that demand and uptake has been high for the courses but the plan is to organise more.
However, Brendan said anyone who fancies testing their baking chops needs to be prepared for what’s to come.
He said: “Bake off has had a huge impact for me but there are a few caveats I would mention to those thinking of applying.
“There is a very tough vetting process with a lot of technical assessments and then of course there is the baking in front of the cameras.
“They make you see a psychotherapist for an hour to make sure people can cope with the pressure and obviously being publicly criticised by the judges as people can find that hard to take.
“On television Paul and Mary have sort of good cop/bad cop image but they are not really like in reality.
“Yes Paul may not be right for a career in the diplomatic service but off camera he will give a lot of really helpful advice, much more so that what comes across on television.
“Mary is wonderfully gracious and always finds something positive to say and always temper a criticism with a compliment.
“We started filming in early April and finished in late June “ One programme takes a whole weekend of two 12-14 hour days.
“By the time it got to programme eight, nine or 10 I was much more aware of how physically and emotionally draining it was as there were less people but more cameras but by then I had adjusted to it.” Walking around town or popping for a pint of milk or a bag of self-raising is no longer the same for Brendan since his appearance on the Bake Off.
“It has been extraordinary,” he said. “In the supermarket, in the street, wherever I am I have been recognised. That is the impact and influence of television.
“I was in a queue in the supermarket the other day when a woman turned around and said ‘it’s Brendan from Great British Bake Off’.
“She said to me she had lost her husband and was devastated. She had been watching bake off and her husband was about the same age as me when he died and had liked baking.
“She said after each episode she would bake and found her love for baking again and it had helped her come to terms with her husband’s death.
“She gave me a great big hug and I was almost in tears and the whole queue started applauding."