Your starters for ten: Kirsty Wark was a closet foodie until she starred on Celebrity MasterChef and now she’s got her own gastro quiz show
For Kirsty Wark, roasting a politician on Newsnight is one thing, using her culinary skills at home is another: perfecting a beurre mani [or roux] and a red wine reduction is just as daunting as interrogating the Prime Minister, she says.
So you can imagine how she felt when presented with a skinned woodland squirrel in Celebrity MasterChef’s notorious invention test last October, and told she had 50 minutes to make something tasty out of it.
‘I was in danger of having a complete mental block when John Torode and Gregg Wallace gave me my challenge,’ she says. ‘I mean, there’s only so much you can do with a squirrel!’ Kirsty managed to conjure up a squirrel pie, but was pipped to the post in the final by former England rugby captain Phil Vickery.
Culinary wizard: Kirsty is hosting new TV quiz show A Question Of Taste
‘I’m 56, and I’ve cooked all my life. If I’d fallen at the first hurdle it would have been awful, so I was determined to succeed. I never thought I’d make the final, but I’d vowed to at least get to the semi-final. One of the things I learned was patience, to venture out of my culinary comfort zone.’
Now she is hosting new TV quiz show A Question Of Taste, for foodies who don’t just know their onions, but also grow and pickle them. It explores gastronomy, cooking techniques, recipes, ingredients, food history and science through a quiz designed to sort the gastro nerds from the foodie frauds.
I was invited to take part in a pilot show – but as someone who’d be hard pushed to locate the grill at home, let alone operate it, what chance did I have I decided to give it my best shot, and posed as a foodie to join one of the two teams of culinary know-alls who compete against each other on the show. Each team comprises three friends, relatives or colleagues, all united by their passion for food.
Lisa, right, with her team on the new TV quiz show A Question Of Taste
It was straight to round one, See Food, a series of 15, seemingly simple, picture-based questions: which of the nine images were vegetables Our Some Like It Hot team quickly ruled out the tomato, wavered over the cucumber but were thrown by the rhubarb. At which point we lost to rivals, Pick & Mix. Next was TV Dinners – six classic clips from the BBC archives of the nation’s favourite cooks and chefs, past and present, with crucial words bleeped out.
The teams must identify the missing words. But when asked about Keith Floyd’s combination of celery, onions and carrots from a 1988 clip, we were floored. A quick reference to Kitchen Corner – where Kirsty’s co-star and food journalist William Sitwell provides gems of gastronomic titbits – revealed the mix was called mirepoix and is an aromatic trinity which, used raw, roasted or sauted, provides the base for many soups, stews or stocks.
The Food Clues round looked easier. This involves identifying a culinary object – in this case a pair of silver tongs – relating to a particular food. The only use that came to mind was candlewick cutters. Silly us – they’re used for plucking and eating grapes, obviously. We were now six points down but, like all good quizzes, there’s a catch-up round, and the Gastroknowledge section was our chance to steam ahead.
Diehard foodies will enjoy it, but people who know nothing about food will also learn something
With a string of correct answers, including knowing that saffron comes from crocuses, we ended with dignity just one point behind Pick & Mix’s foodie nerds. Kirsty is confident the public, like me, will find the show both fun and fascinating. ‘Diehard foodies will enjoy it, but people who know nothing about food will also learn something,’ she explains.
And she understands what it’s like to feel a dunce in the kitchen. ‘I want to be in control in my work so I prepare a lot,’ she says. ‘In the same way I’d do my homework for Newsnight, I prepared for Celebrity MasterChef. But who’d have thought I’d then go and undercook chicken satay I’ve never done it before.’
Celebrity MasterChef was Kirsty’s first foray into TV cookery, but the idea of hosting a food quiz was already on the back burner. ‘I’ve always been a keen cook but have never done it on television. The irony was, I’d been putting in ideas for cookery shows and then A Question Of Taste came up. When I did MasterChef I was so grateful I didn’t get knocked out in the first round or I might have lost this job!’
Despite her hectic work schedule, Kirsty always finds time to bake at her home in Glasgow, where she lives with her husband, Alan Clements, who is head of content for the Scottish channel STV. ‘Typically, I’ll just make scones, oatcakes, banana bread or some pancakes. I find it incredibly relaxing.’
She says that 30 years ago, when Britain was in the culinary dark ages, a show like this would have garnered no interest. ‘But Britain has become a nation of foodies,’ says Kirsty. ‘The country is full of people who want to prove how well they know their Roscoff onions.’ For those of you who don’t know, that’s a special type of onion grown in Brittany and peddled all over England by the Breton farmers known as Onion Johnnies.
A Question Of Taste, BBC2, Monday, 7.30pm.