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Bread of the Dead for Masterchef

 Pan de Muerto, photo from Kitchen Parade

My brother Andy and I once made a pitch for a TV programme to some young Channel 4 producers.  We arranged a meeting with them in a buzzing pub. They were busy, and observant.

The idea was a little cruel. A member of my extended family on the Mexican side is not supposed to be a very good bullfighter, in fact once he failed to kill a bull - the worst sin a bullfighter can commit. 

The programme would be called the 'The Worst Bullfighter in Mexico' and as he is getting on a little we would follow him around for his last season, watching to see if he could rescue shreds of dignity from a life of failure. We would question the idea of failure itself.

But they looked at us and asked:

'Has he actually killed a bull?'

'Yes,' I said, 'many.'

'Well then where's the jeopardy? Where's the jeopardy?'

Evidently, this was their mantra and if you switch from channel to channel on the TV you will see that this has been the mantra when it comes to documentaries and reality TV for at least a decade now. Life in cliffhangers.

Jeopardy has become rather boring. In Hollywood a famous screen writer, Syd Field, wrote a book on how to construct a plot and it moves from small disappointments and small climaxes to huge disappointments and huge climaxes. It's a rollercoaster recipe that always thrills and grips. Where's the jeopardy? Why there's the jeopardy, folks, right where you expected it to be. An eight pound funfair ride.

I used to read the Dr Dolittle books. Dr Dolittle had the best way to travel. Hugh Lofting describes the great man's method here.

 Where shall we go?" 

There were so many places that I wanted to go that I couldn't make up my mind right away. And while I was still thinking, the Doctor sat up in his chair and said, 

"I tell you what we'll do, Stubbins: it's a game I used to play when I was young—before Sarah came to live with me. I used to call it Blind Travel. Whenever I wanted to go on a voyage, and I couldn't make up my mind where to go, I would take the atlas and open it with my eyes shut. 

Next, I'd wave a pencil, still without looking, and stick it down on whatever page had fallen open. Then I'd open my eyes and look. It's a very exciting game, is Blind Travel. Because you have to swear, before you begin, that you will go to the place the pencil touches, come what way. Shall we play it?" 

"Oh, let's!" I almost yelled. "How thrilling! I hope it's China—or Borneo—or Bagdad." 

And in a moment I had scrambled up the bookcase, dragged the big atlas from the top shelf and laid it on the table before the Doctor. 


—Well now, are we ready?

—Good! Take the pencil and stand here close to the table. When the book falls open, wave the pencil round three times and jab it down. Ready?

—All right. Shut your eyes." 

It was a tense and fearful moment—but very thrilling. 

We both had our eyes shut tight. I heard the atlas fall open with a bang. I wondered what page it was: England or Asia. If it should be the map of Asia, so much would depend on where that pencil would land. I waved three times in a circle. I began to lower my hand. The pencil-point touched the page.

 "All right," I called out, "it's done." 

(From The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle)

Several times I have made decisions about where to go using the Dr's method: using a dark room a pin and a map. Twice I went to live in these places, but they were both rather disappointing.

Once the pin fell in a place called Cheam. So I went to live in Cheam next to a large park, Nonsuch Park, where Gloriana had her palace.

On another occasion the pin stuck into a place on the map called Pinhoe, near Exeter.

Pin ho!

Despite the irony, I went there anyway.

It's 1984-5 and I decide to study Spanish in Mexico not Spain. I want the full magic of displacement and so put myself in a trance for the whole journey with the idea of coming to awareness only when I am fully immersed.

I catch one flight to Mexico City, then another to Vera Cruz, then get on a bus to Xalapa. I had a Walkman and for the whole journey listen to a compilation tape of jazz made by the NME. There are 16 songs which play over and over again until they control my movements. And when I am in my hotel near the cathedral. I walk out into the plaza and open my eyes and I am in Mexico. Like jumping into a hot bath.

The first thing to do is to eat and so I buy Chicken Adobado. The chicken looks as if it has been smeared in a paste of red earth. It is so bitter! I can't finish it.

5 years later, I am back in Mexico and I have started going out with Teresa. She swishes up in her green Renault and gives me a sandwich. It is made of soft Manchego with Chipotle chilies. I simply can't believe how unique it tastes. How different. How astonishing. They do go well together don't they, cheese and chipotle?' she remarks.

Then in the evening after we've been out we stop for 'Tacos al Pastor' near Reforma - in Sullivan, I think. We see them cut the meat off a skewer, the redness of the meat must be from achiote. We start with five little double tacos each on a plastic plate, each with meat and a little pineapple. Add lime juice, chopped onions, chopped coriander and ask for green or red chilli sauce.

They are too delicious. Five each turn into ten each, 15 each. One coke. Two cokes.

Many years later I write a letter to Masterchef and the producer replies the next day. They have almost whittled the participants down to the last 20, but they decide to ask me to come and interview.

I am very busy and I know that I will be in South Africa for the filming so I ask myself

Do I want fame and attention?  No.

Will be able to make the time to do it?  Possibly not.

Teresa tells me. 'You won't make any money out of it. It will just be for fun.'

I decide to go anyway.

' Can you make bread,' asks the woman over the phone.

'Yes.' I say?

'Can you make Hollandaise?'

'No, but I can make a good Bearnaise.'

OK. Well we'll see you on Saturday and bring us two dishes.

I think. Which two dishes will I make? And decide: 'Pan de Muerto' and vanilla flavoured Rompope.

If they want bread I will give them twice risen Pan de Muerto made with the usual ingredients and anise, butter and rosewater, and if they want a sauce then I will give them a chilled Mexican style egg nog. The kind you can buy on the way to Toluca or Zamora on the roadside, the kind that you can buy in any Mexican supermarket, the kind that Mexican housewives can make.

I remember bread of the dead from Xalapa, the university of Vera Cruz. A cold November morning  in the town. Xalapa is the centre of a coffee growing region, it has a view of two volcanos: the Pico de Orizaba, rising in the distance like Kilimanjaro, and the Cofre de Perote, a small broken little thing.

It's the day before my birthday, the Day of the Dead, and at the university in the cafeteria they are selling a simple lumpy looking cake-bun sprinkled with sugar. And they are selling cups of hot, chocolate, pineapple and vanilla flavoured atole, serving it from large aluminium pots.

My class mates laugh.

'This is Pan de Muerto.' they say and point out that it is made in the shape in the shape of a corpse.

'Is it.' I look at it. It tastes better than Panetone, buttery fragrant and yeasty. The sticky atole warms me in the autumn morning.


I make the Pan de Muerto carefully for Masterchef and it rises three times, not twice. Then I make the rompope and they both taste as I imagine they should and I am sure its good because my Mexican family eats the whole batch. and my wife tells her mother.

'Yes, he really did make bread of the dead and it tasted just right.

I make another batch. The crust a little darker this time, ready for tomorrow morning.

They have asked me to come at breakfast time and so I rationalise: my Pan de Muerto and rompope will go down well. London is almost deserted, it's early. I arrive and they take me to a room and a tall young woman with glasses films me and smiles and a more serious and older woman interviews me.

But she doesn't seem too concerned about the food or what it means. I take out the green Tequila shot glasses and pour them a taste of the cold yellow Rompope, and then I take out the Pan de Muerto and place it on its large decorated clay plate and they both try a little piece and drink the rompope and the interviewer says:

'Cake. Hmm, nice. But she doesn't take another piece.

She asks me. 'Why do you want to come onto Masterchef?'

'It would be nice.' I say. and smile, relaxed. Too relaxed.

I can hear her silent thoughts: 'Where's the jeopardy? so I search my mind for some jeopardy and can't find any.

'It would be lovely,' I say. 'and....'


'Well, I have always loved Mexican food and want to start a Mexican restaurant'

'I see.' she says.

'What would you do if you won?' she asked.

'I'd be really pleased, and...'


'Well, perhaps a restaurant.'

'You would be the cook?'

'Not really, my wife would be in charge. I would help'

'Do you cook Sunday lunch.'

'I help my wife.'

Why don't you ask her to come along'

I think back to Tere's comments.

'No, I don't think she would like that.' I said.


'Well, thank you for coming.' she said. 'I'd just like you to know that you reached the final stage of the eliminatons, very few people do that.'

Thank you, I said and left the building, walking out into a cold, bright empty street; the shutters just opening.

I walked into smart Italian restaurant and ordered Eggs Benedict

The eggs Benedict were very good, with their Hollandaise sauce, and before I left the waiter came back and I told him what had happened. He sounded interested.

'I'll take some to the cook.' he said.

It's like Panetone, I called after him as went to the back of the restaurant, 'but with rosewater, more butter and a little anise.'  

The chef tried it. He liked it. The waiter smiled at me, 'He wants to know the recipe.'

I noted it down for the chef, contented, and then left.

This post first appeared on Donkeyshott & Xuitlacoche, please read the originial post: here

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Bread of the Dead for Masterchef


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