Three tiny lines, at the bottom of a page in the weekend supplement, triggered a flutter of fun in the synapses of my jaded Sunday brain. With a flurry of fingernails I sent them to digitally wing their way across the ether, to my husband, settled on the sofa with the serious (boring) bit of the paper. He jumped up faster than a crepe in a sauté pan and responded to the call for applicants to Masterchef 2019.
Brulée me if he wasn’t called for an audition but, brulée me a second time, if the date wasn’t in the week that we should have left for our long, hot Summer sojourn in Occitanie. So we deliberated, cogitated and digested, deciding that it was a never to be repeated opportunity. We made an excuse to friends and family about a problem with the car, which would delay our departure. We were signed up to absolute secrecy.
He was asked to bring along a pre-prepared dish and decided on his Dishwasher Beef, invented years ago on a group New Year’s holiday to a large, disheveled house in Normandy, with dubious wiring. Beef was on the NYE menu, but whenever someone turned on a hairdryer at the same time as curling tongs and a few electric shavers, the oven blew up.
This presented the potential for a raw joint on the festive table, unacceptable obvs. So Paul, who had read about a new fangled thing called sous-vide cookery, was struck by the idea that the dishwasher also got to 60 degrees. He cling- wrapped the beef and put it in the dishwasher – without the Finish All in 1 Lemon Tablets.
It came out tenderised by the pummelling of water jets (in the manner of kobi beef being massaged by maidens) and, after a bit of caramelisation on the hob, was sticky, pink and delicious. The Masterchef audition judges must have agreed, because one languid August afternoon over in France, idly swatting flies and deciding on dinner, a phone call came through from England offering Paul a place on the show.
Now this is not any show.
Ever since Lloyd Grossman, with his weird accent and huge specs, had stalked the red, green and yellow kitchens, we had both been hooked as teenagers in opposite ends of the country – the Home Counties versus the Pennines. I’d never even heard of Rochdale.
(I have married beneath me. I remind him. A lot.)
Dark Winter days, moping through work had always been brightened by the promise of sofa snuggling with Masterchef later that night. Our family watches it. Our mates watch it. We all text each other about the dishes – on the plate and off. We wager on who’ll stay for seconds and who’ll end up in the bin.
And now it appeared that our own beloved Mr Rigsby was set to don that personalised pinny. It was quite surreal.
Dates for filming and a brief were sent through from the production team and, from then on, our sole topic of conversation was food. But only a deux. To everyone else we had to appear normal. Once alone however, we were consumed with a furtive passion and breathless sessions……..thinking up recipes.
Guests who came for dinner in our little Languedoc courtyard had no idea that what was placed before them had been practiced seventeen times and, might one day appear in front of 8 million prime time viewers. The weekly village market became an even more significant hunting ground than usual. Fish, fowl, fruit and foliage all winked at us, whispering ideas for possible winning dishes.
He peeled, he poached, he puréed. Our minuscule cuisine was battered, floured and greased from top shelf to tomette tile. I have to say, it wasn’t cheap and, if I’d had one more plate of pintade with morels, I’d have start pecking for worms.
Back in the UK the first day of filming dawned, chilly and Autumnal. This involved me getting up at hideous o’clock to drive him to the station – one of my many selfless acts of sacrifice over the years. He was off radar for the whole day, but after an endless and agonising wait, he would ring me and tell me the outcome. Then we would have an assignation in a dark pub off the beaten track, and he would recount every detail.
It was a magical time – a secret shared by only us two. It was exciting and full of possibilities. It was also tortuous – and tricky – keeping it from our family and friends. But Paul loved every minute of it and met some lovely people, both amongst the contestants and the production crew. And he got a free apron so what’s not to like!
It was meany Michel Roux Jr who cruelly ended the dream, by taking exception to the fact that Paul had only plated one quail’s leg, when the little sod plainly had two.
So what next to fill the void? A pop up restaurant called “The One Legged Quail”? It’s one thing doing dinner parties for your chums, but complete strangers…. What if they complained? Or choked? Used up all the loo roll or stole the cutlery? NO.
But another idea emerged.
On one particular languorous Languedoc evening, as the sun began to gild the stone walls and one’s thoughts turned to that glorious time slot, apéro hour, we had a French fancy for a cooling, iced cucumber infused gin. But we found ourselves cucumber less.
It was at that point in the Summer when figs drooped from every hedgerow, when neighbours proffered baskets of them, chums brought chutneys and, our own magic tree had sprouted enough fruit for tarts, jams and sticky duck glazes.
“I wonder what would happen if…..”.
So the Figtini was born – an apéritif of the most delicate rose colour, martini-dry, but slightly fruity sweet and musky. It was the pink of the Occitanie sun as it dips into the vineyards.
In a cocktail glass with a dish of glistening, salty olives, it could have graced the American Bar at the Savoy. In a tiny eau de vie goblet, it also made a fragrant digestif and, was perfect with Paul’s Fig Tarte Tatin. And so it was, he served it on “Masterchef” to John, Gregg and the guest judges, ex finalists Billy and Jack and Michelin Star holder, Elizabeth Haigh. They all loved it.
Now, with the help of the distilling and mixing wizardry at the award winning Gin Kitchen, Figtini is all grown up. In collaboration with Paul, they have added orange, cardamom and vermouth, to produce a superannuated version of the original, with aromatic notes and a unique fizz on the tongue. The bottle has been designed by Paul, who is an artist, and each one is finished off with an original thumb print, in the style of each of his paintings.
Why not try it for yourselves? You never know, you might bump into a certain Masterchef one day in the market this Summer and, he’d love to know what you think of it. We think it’s FIGTASTIC!
Figtini is available on-line from the Gin Kitchen.
By Judith Stafford