Archives for April 2011

MasterChef 2011: My thank you note

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Tim Anderson Tim Anderson | 13:06 UK time, Thursday, 28 April 2011


Tim Anderson wins MasterChef 2011

Tim Anderson wins MasterChef 2011

Speak to just about any of the 20 extremely talented MasterChef contestants, and regardless of how far they got, I think most would say that it was one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences of their life. The thrill of receiving the white apron kept me buzzing for weeks – and that feeling of pure joy grew exponentially throughout the competition. Much of that was down to simply progressing, getting closer and closer to grasping that trophy. But even more so it was down to the incredible education we received from our mentors who lent their time and talents to the competition.

For me, the highlights of the competition (and there were many) all involve the lessons learned from some amazing professional chefs. Early on there was Alexis Gauthier, who taught us the importance of instinct and trusting your senses in cooking – because after all, eating is nothing if not sensory! In fact it is the only art form that engages all our senses. Yotam Ottolenghi was brilliant in conveying his respect for vegetables, and how to capture their diverse flavours and textures and translate them into beautiful dishes.

Then there was Michel Roux, Jr, who even as a guest judge managed to give some excellent constructive criticism that helped us all become more professional. It was also an honour and a privilege to have a masterclass in pastry from the senior Michel Roux, who taught us many complicated techniques with wisdom and passion. His excitement and love for pastry was tangible - you could almost taste it. Though separated by the Atlantic Ocean, Paco Roncero in Spain and Wylie Dufresne in New York occupied the same mental space; they were both so passionate about ingredient-led cooking, smart fusion and culinary deconstruction. They taught me some amazing techniques as well as the importance of scientific understanding in the kitchen.

At Coworth Park, John Campbell represented a sort of culmination of all that I’d learned and then some. His influences, ingredients, and methods are very diverse, and he uses techniques old and new to produce stunning food, the likes of which I hardly thought I could produce. But with his guidance, his emphasis on efficiency, multitasking, and organisation, he helped me create a gorgeous and very complicated course that wowed a table full of Michelin-starred chefs.

Finally, there was the omnipresent John Torode, who over the course of the competition evolved from an intimidating overseer to a benevolent father figure. It didn’t quite dawn on me how much I’d learned from him until the competition had ended, because his advice often came as little titbits. But those titbits added up to a very comprehensive guide to professional cooking and service, and we all benefited hugely from his honest criticism and enthusiastic encouragement.

So it is with great sincerity and gratitude that I thank these chefs for mentoring me and the other contestants throughout the competition. “Whoever wins, it’ll change their life,” as Mr. Torode always says. But with teachers like these, it’s not just the winner whose life has changed. I hope the other 19 contestants don’t mind me speaking on their behalf when I say thank you very, very much.

Tim Anderson won the the 2011 series of MasterChef.

The Prison Restaurant: More than just bread, water and porridge

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Al Crisci Al Crisci | 10:03 UK time, Monday, 25 April 2011

In 2009 I opened a new gourmet restaurant called The Clink, serving food of the highest quality. Big deal you might say. After all, I am a chef. However the location might surprise some people. It is slap-bang in the middle of a Category B prison and all the chefs and waiters are serving prisoners. Tune into BBC One tomorrow night to see the documentary The Prison Restaurant, and see for yourself what we do.

A table in The Clink restaurant set with plastic cutlery


Some might say it is a gimmick. But I say we rehabilitate prisoners by teaching them to cook, to wait tables and behave in the correct way. Hopefully we are saving the taxpayer money and helping to build a better society for all of us. At my prison, HMP High Down in Surrey, prison food is wholesome, low in salt, fat and preservatives, fits within the five-a-day fruit and vegetable guidelines, and only costs £2.10 per prisoner, per day.

It’s been proven that a healthy diet improves behaviour. Just ask Oxford professor Bernard Gesch – and check out The Institute for Food, Brain and Behaviour. It makes sense. Why serve rubbish for £2.10 when you can, with a little more effort, and within the same budget, cook food which helps improve behaviour?

Let me explain how I see it. There’s no point in locking up prisoners without providing work and training, so that when they are released they have no job, house or qualifications. They may well just commit another crime and come back to prison. It’s a vicious circle. Most prisons provide education and work to help reintegrate those they release back into society.

But we provide something different to a lot of jails. We train prisoners to a high level by signing them up to cooking and food service diplomas. We also engage with employers who are willing to offer them a job when they are released. If they need accommodation, then we have contacts who can help. All this in a restaurant paid for by private donations and run by a charity - at no cost to the taxpayer.

The Clink also employs two ex-offenders full-time, as well as the numerous prisoners we have working in the kitchen and front-of-house. Simon, Ray, Winston, Trevor, Thomas, Patrick, Kane, Dean and Francis are the names of some of the men that we helped rehabilitate and that are still behaving.
I just wish that the many people who criticise prisoners who are trying to improve their lives would imagine a member of their own family being in the same situation. Many have screwed up, ended up in prison and don’t want to keep coming back, but have no qualifications or job prospects.

The most fulfilling part of my career as a chef has not been the West End restaurants and hotels I worked in, but passing on the things I learned in the prison kitchens. Every day I am lucky enough to share my skill and experience with people who want to improve their lives, who want to support their families and who want to feel proud of themselves for once, instead of ashamed of their actions.

Chef Al Crisci from The Clink


I hope that The Prison Restaurant has shown the positive side of rehabilitation through The Clink, as well as capture the monotony of life in prison. It’s much tougher than the tabloids make it sound.

Is it better to spend £40,000 a year on keeping a prisoner behind bars or to rehabilitate them and help them get a job at the end of their sentence, so that they can start repaying their debt to society? What do you think?

Al Crisci appears in BBC One documentary The Prison Restaurant.

Why I'm making cupcakes for Easter

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 12:15 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Every Easter weekend my baking plans seem to get left to the last minute, even when I know in advance what we’re supposed to be doing. So it gets to Saturday morning and I’m prowling the supermarket aisles looking for inspiration, and those Easter eggs that are more cardboard and plastic than chocolate just seem too depressing to give to anyone vaguely adult. It’s early springtime, and food needs a little joy and freshness to reflect the season, so cupcakes are the answer this year.

Dan Lepard's selection of Easter cupcakes


For last-minute baking that looks impressive in a flash, cupcakes have the advantage as they’re quick to make, bake and cool down for decorating. With larger cakes there’s hidden time that doesn’t get mentioned in recipes - whether it’s lining the cake tin or waiting for the cake to cool - all extra stress you don’t need when you’re busy. Cupcakes also suffer less from the physical dynamics of baking, as the small size and crust-to-crumb ratio means they’re much less likely to sink if the ingredient measurements are slightly out.

Decorating can be very easy and has the added bonus of helping to balance the flavour. Before icing a cupcake I like to taste it first and see if it needs something. If the spice hasn’t come through, or if the flavour is a little too plain, I’ll make the icing richer or flavour it strongly. You can use up small amounts of sprinkles or chocolate left in the cupboard so long as they're not stale or discoloured, as variations look good on a plate of cupcakes.

One challenge to watch for is dryness, as cupcakes can over-bake easily and suffer more from staling because of their size. Grated carrot and other root vegetables, apples and unripe pears help, as does dried fruit as the fructose it contains helps to attract moisture into the crumb. Another trick is to replace some of the butter in a recipe with full-fat cream cheese as this helps the crumb taste moist when you bite into it.

Any cake recipe you’re happy with can be used to make cupcakes by just reducing the baking time. I find that for muffin-sized cupcakes about 25 minutes at 180°C/160°C fan/350°F/gas 4 is a reliable starting point for the first tray, perhaps peeking in a few minutes before the timer finishes to check. Small fairy cake-sized cupcakes need much less time.

I've come up with some special cupcakes for Easter this year: a spelt carrot cupcake with cream cheese frosting, a mini-simnel cupcake and a spiced Easter “bun” cupcake made in a fraction of the time it takes to whip up a batch of the traditional yeast ones. So what are you baking this Easter?

Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert. 

What do British food markets say about us?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 13:14 UK time, Monday, 18 April 2011

It’s easy to dismiss Borough market as a fancy market in the capital for foodies and tourists that has no bearing on anyone’s life anywhere else. But there is so much more to it than that, which is why we chose to look at the rise of Borough in this week’s Food Programme. With its masses of visitors passing through each weekend, often just to gape at artfully presented ingredients rather than to spend any money, it could be said that Borough is on the way to being another Covent Garden - a food Disneyland.   

Furness Fish trading at Borough market

Furness Fish trading at Borough market

Borough was Britain’s attempt to create a market that would stand with the best of Europe - places like the Bocqueria in Barcelona or the Marche Bastille in Paris that seem to sum up the difference between continental and British food. In Britain we do supermarkets - the most powerful and profitable in the world.  Across the continent (as we’re always telling ourselves), they do it better: taking pleasure in their shopping as well as in their food, understanding that to have great food producers you need markets.

Not that Britain didn’t once have great markets: Leeds, Bradford, Bury, Bolton and Leicester (among others) still stand as grand examples of what was and what still might be if consumers could get away from the idea that markets need to be the place for the cheapest food.

In the late 90s, when Borough began its modern transformation into a food retailing phenomenon, traditional markets were has-beens and of no consequence to local or central government. Farmers’ markets were just coming to life - the first one in Bath was held in 1997, but to policy makers they were just niche add-ons for the middle classes. Town planners looked at the country’s old central market places and just saw lucrative development opportunities for supermarkets, offices, upmarket flats and chain shops. 

The rise of Borough Market changed all that. Though it all started by happenstance, modern Borough turned out to be the key to reviving Southwark, one of the poorest boroughs in the country. It did it by visibly linking together the fortunes of the hard-pressed rural economy and the rich capital.

In 1996 Randolph Hodgson, arguably the saviour of English farmhouse cheeses, moved his cheese maturing and storage business to a warehouse on the edge of the old market because it was damp, cold and cheap. The market was still functioning during the night for fruit and veg wholesalers, but during the day it was a litter-strewn car park. Few people could see its charm, but Randolph did and in 1998 he asked Henrietta Green if she’d be interested in holding one of her Food Lovers‘ Fairs there. She thought he was mad, but eventually agreed. Her Christmas market packed with producers from all over Britain attracted thousands of enthusiastic shoppers. Many producers had to drive back to their farms and dairies overnight to restock for the second day. 

And so it began....slowly. Dogged producers such as Peter Gott, a boar and rare breed pig farmer from Cumbria came regularly, each time bringing with him a different producer from the North West. Suddenly the lives of Cumbria’s hill farmers were transformed - they had a market. At first just once a month, then twice, but within three years it was three days a week, every week.

Jamie Oliver in Naked Chef

Jamie Oliver in his Naked Chef days: a fan of Borough market

As the market thrived, so did the area around it.  Local authorities all over the country sent teams to Borough to meet stallholders and management trying to understand how a food market could spur regeneration. Supermarket scouts were a common sight with their pads and pencils.  It was the Borough effect that resulted in so many big retailers now selling local food from named farmers. Glamorous chefs made Borough part of their routine. Jamie Oliver in his early guise as The Naked Chef was always buzzing off there for a load of this and that - and to this day still buys his meat (as carcasses) from Borough traders. It was sexy, of the moment, the new rock and roll. 

But success on that scale has brought problems. Borough is now one of London’s main tourist attractions and that’s driven out many of the shoppers who made the market a success. And because most of the excited hordes are now not carrying shopping bags, hot food to go is a much bigger part of the market than it used to be. Rents for the shops and the big permanent stalls have risen in recent years and all but one of the wholesale traders have moved out. Some of the original traders say their relationship with the market’s management has broken down and they no longer feel like Borough’s most important asset.

So, does the market still matter?  I believe that Borough could have a meaningful future if management really engages again with its farmer/producer traders, the people who are the soul of the market. If that happens - and management and trustees say that’s their goal - then we’ll still have a capital market to compete with what the French, Spanish and Italians take for granted: a market that sets standards and provides a vital link between town and country. 

So what do our markets tell us about food culture in the UK? Do we really prefer taking pictures of beautiful arrangements of food in the market, rather than cooking with these same raw ingredients? And do you think other markets in the UK are following the same pattern as Borough? Tell us about your local market.

Shelia Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.

What odd reactions do you get from food?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 11:52 UK time, Friday, 15 April 2011

We all know that food provides core metabolic functions such as providing nutrients to power and constantly rebuild your body, but that’s all way too complex and involved for a 300-word blog piece. So let’s stick to low-hanging fruit: the weird and wonderful effects of various ingredients. I’ve been asking people about their weird food reactions for years, and here are a few to get you to open up and share yours.

‘Apples make my legs itch.’

Sounds weird, but apples can, indeed cause allergic reactions, although it’s usually OAS – Oral Allergy Syndrome, rather than anything leggy. 

Fir potatoes

‘I get nightmares after eating potatoes’
Dreams – or at least the ability to remember your dreams - are often associated with disrupted sleep. There may be many causes, but one amino acid protein known to stimulate the brain and so potentially cause that disrupted sleep is tyrosine, created in the body from tyramine in foods. It’s in alcohol, chocolate, cheese, and according to this unverified source, potatoes. 

‘Asparagus makes my wee smell awful’

The asparagus effect is pretty widespread – around half of the 500 or so people I’ve asked have experienced the same. There’s been a bit of disagreement on what causes the smell, but it’s likely to be mercaptan, a sulphur-containing compound. Interestingly, it seems that asparagus affects everyone’s urine, but not everyone can smell its effects. Oh, and while many people think the smell is grim, Proust claimed that it “…transforms my chamber-pot into a flask of perfume.” I think I agree.



Assorted others:
‘Cashews make me sneeze’
‘Golden syrup makes me cough’
‘Curry gives me smelly sweat’

Personally, cheese seems to make me dream, chillies give me hiccups, asparagus makes my wee smell, Jerusalem artichokes make me pump like that cheeky Icelandic volcano, and butter substitutes make me sad. What about you?

Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.

How to eat for a marathon

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Michael Kibblewhite Michael Kibblewhite | 08:45 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011


A runner stops to take a breath

Eating well is crucial for going the distance in a marathon

“My fuel gauge had gone to zero 100 metres before the finish line. I was on the floor.” Experienced marathon runner Karen Hazlitt was second in the 2008 Edinburgh marathon when her body called time on the day’s endurance. All those painstaking months of long runs, sweat and sacrifice seemed in vain, until she managed to pick herself up on the railing to complete the race with an “inelegant wobble”. So why did she fall short? Put simply, her body needed more calories because of poor racing conditions, even though she'd eaten well beforehand. But what foods should you be eating and how can you keep topped up for the 26-mile adventure?

Karen’s three children are long distance runners and share in the healthy lifestyle. Potatoes, pasta and rice appear on the daily menu.

Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson

Although copious amounts of carbohydrates stoke the Hazlitt’s quick-firing metabolisms, food is not simply fuel here – it should be enjoyed. “I try to source foods locally and have a farm shop nearby, which is where I buy all my meat”, says Karen. “We have chickens in the garden, so we have our own eggs and grow our own vegetables. I like to know where the food comes from, but it’s not all perfect!”

Keith Anderson works alongside Karen, training marathon runners. Once a smoker and always eager for a late night at the pub, he only took up running in his late twenties, but by the age of 41 he was representing England at the Commonwealth Games.

For Keith “eating correctly is a cornerstone to success. The training is important, the resting is important and the nutrition is the final piece.” Here are his eating tips for running like an athlete:

  • Plan meals meticulously. Your nutrition is going to fail if you settle for convenience foods. Eat a range of slow-released carbohydrates across the day, such as oats, brown rice and beans. Avoid potential pitfalls during the week, such as skipping breakfast and drinking giant cups of coffee.
  • Set aside time for food shopping, even though work-life and training is very busy. Buy fresh foods and cook simply. A Japanese-style diet is ideal for running, particularly steamed fish. Get inspired with BBC Food’s marathon recipes.
  • Pack a snack. Hunger can be a convincing reason not to train, so avoid this by keeping rice cakes or a banana in your bag.
  • Avoid comfort eating. You burn many more calories if you are training for a marathon, but wind down (taper) in those final pre-race days. It’s very easy to unnecessarily put on weight in those final days before the race.
  • Keep meals simple. It can be a good idea to avoid solid proteins such as meat and fish in the final 36 hours to give the digestive system a rest before the endurance.
  • Eat out healthily. If you’re eating a meal out the night before make sure you know what’s on the menu. Restaurants are usually very busy for big marathon events, so you could end up eating unnecessarily fatty food if you don't book ahead.
  • Eat breakfast, even if you are nervous, and porridge is a good slow-releasing carbohydrate.
  • Hydrate before the race, but beware of drinking excessive amounts as this can lead to hyponatremia.
  • Keep fuelling during the race. Sports scientist Gareth Nicholas recommends 30-60g carbohydrates are required each hour during the marathon, which can be consumed through isotonic drinks or gels. He describes how to eat during a race in a recent podcast.

So, on a personal note and taking Keith's advice, barbecue ribs are probably off the menu until I tackle this year’s Stockholm marathon.

Are you running a marathon this year? If so, what have you been eating? And what are you looking forward to eating after the race?

Michael Kibblewhite works for the BBC Food website.


How to organise a royal wedding street party

What better reason could there be to share some grub and have a good old fashioned knees up with your neighbours but for the royal wedding? Whether you’re into the royals or not, the point is that we’ve got an extra bank holiday to fill, so let’s take to the streets… as residents in Wales are keenly doing, though others less so.

Selection of street party food


Not only do street parties give us the chance to sample our neighbours' cooking, they strengthen community spirit and promote neighbourly ties. There are some useful resources out there if you’ve never done anything like this before – from this general guide to tips to ensure your party is as eco-friendly as it can be.

Once you’ve got clearance from the council and rounded up the trestle tables, it’s time to turn your attention to the food. If the weather’s OK you could plump for a barbecue – always good for feeding a crowd. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, what about a hog roast?

Chef Merrillees Parker who runs the catering company Pink has the lowdown on how to scale up your favourite recipes for this kind of event. "For anything long and slow – say curries or stews  – simply multiply up your recipe. Or with something like a Caesar salad, the amount of chicken and dressing per person stays the same.

"Catering is all about organisation and space. You’ll need a big cool box to extend your fridge. If you need lots of cool boxes for your party, get everyone to chip in to buy a few. Use a plastic bin with a bin liner and bags of ice to keep drinks cool, saving the fridge for the food. I think every family should have a large pot or stockpot to serve about 20 people. Beg, steel or borrow the neighbours' pots."

Union Jack fondant fancies

Union Jack fondant fancies

Merrillees suggests a classic British afternoon tea theme for your parties – with easily portable things like cupcakes, Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, flapjakes, tray bakes and fridge cakes. “Bake your cakes beforehand and ice them on the day. Remember meringues keep for three days and keep in mind that fruit cakes or dense carrot cakes will last nearly a week in air-tight containers. Everything you do takes more time for say 50 people rather than five. If there's a job you can do beforehand, don’t do it on the day. You just want to be tweaking - chopping herbs, icing, sprinkling, decorating, not the bulk of the work. It's possible to do it all on the day, but you'll enjoy yourself more if you're organised.”

Lots of desserts freeze brilliantly, so you can get ahead of yourself that way – make lemon posset or chocolate mousse beforehand. A good rule of thumb is to avoid freezing anything with chunks of fruit, which will have high water content. Simple sponge cakes freeze well – just ice them them beforehand.

Sandwiches and fairy cakes for a street party


Also sandwiches are not as easy as you'd think. Merrillees says, “They can dry out so easily. When cutting don't stack them more than two sandwiches high and, once filled, place them on separate plastic trays covered with a clean tea towel/unused jay cloth. Keep them covered until serving. Use moist fillings such as smoked salmon and cream cheese or egg mayo (not slices of cheddar or ham), if you're making them in advance. Cut them into strips at the last minute."

Coronation prawn vol au vents

Coronation prawn vol-au-vents

Francis O'Hagan from catering company Jackson Gilmour says, "Menu choice is paramount. You need to cover a broad range of tastes so keep it simple. Chicken is a cheaper meat, is easy to cook and is versatile for flavouring. Indeed that's why coronation chicken was invented.” Merrillees adds, “Communication is so important. If you're hosting, speak to everyone and check what they want to make. Go back if more than one person wants to make the same thing. I'm far too much of a control freak for pot-luck suppers".

The safest option is to go for something that you’ve made before, but if, like me, you like to give something new a go when you’re cooking for friends, Francis says, “Cold salads are a good way to go - it gives you licence to experiment but without destroying the overall effect if things don't go to plan”.

Get more inspiration with our special street party recipe collections. Are you planning on gathering your neighbours together for the royal wedding or another event this summer? Tell us what you’re doing and share any tips for making it go as smoothly as possible.

Ramona Andrews is the host of the BBC Food Q&A blog and messageboard.

Judging the Great British Menu

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Matthew Fort Matthew Fort | 12:55 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

We’ve eaten suckling pig, beef Wellington and guinea fowl. We’ve had a whole turbot and half a lobster (dainty, but delicious) and cockles and mussels, not alive, alive-o, thank heaven, but properly cooked. Some dishes have been piled high and some dishes have been artfully strewn along slate or boards or long glass plates like stained glass windows. We have opened miniature picnic baskets and tiffin boxes. We have torn food to bits with our fingers as well as resorted to the more conventional knife and fork. We have sniffed, and chewed and savoured, all in the search for the perfect dishes for the latest Great British Menu.

Oliver Peyton, Prue Leith and Matthew Fort tasting food for Great British Menu.


This year’s theme is food that brings communities together. The competition will culminate in a feast billed as The People’s Banquet, a great street party, knees up and get-together to celebrate the unsung heroes who work so tirelessly in communities all over the country. After all, eating together is the best, most accessible, most pleasurable form of communication and community action there is.

I think it’s fair to say that the chefs have found GBM particularly challenging this year. It’s taken them away from the familiar, from the tried and tested. They’ve had to go out and meet people in their communities, and then they’ve had to go back and create dishes matched to the idea of The People’s Banquet - dishes that break down barriers and create bonds, dishes to share, dishes that encourage people to get stuck in, that they might have to stretch for, or ask their neighbours to pass a helping.

The recipes have got to get people talking as well as smacking their lips.  It wasn’t just a matter of scaling up the recipes that the chefs cook in their own kitchens. They’ve had to think differently. They’ve had to think big, generously and theatrically, as well as gastronomically. Their dishes have got to look fabulous as well hit the taste buds at full revs.

It isn’t that easy for Prue, Oliver and myself as judges. We have to sit in judgement on eight courses a day, cooked by some of the country’s finest chefs. That’s a lot of grub, no matter how you look at it, and we don’t get many really duff dishes. So the differences between individual dishes may be very subtle. Of course, taste is subjective. There are no absolutes when it comes to food. That’s why we have such ding-dong discussions. And why I am right and Oliver is wrong, usually. And Prue is wrong unless she agrees with me. (They say exactly the same, by the way.)

And now, I’m heading for the running machine if you don’t mind. I’ve got to do something about the 25,000 calories so far. No, no, no. I’m not looking for sympathy, really I’m not. Just a little understanding...

Matthew Fort is a judge on BBC Two’s Great British Menu.

What are your kitchen hints and tips?

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Ainsley Harriott Ainsley Harriott | 13:40 UK time, Friday, 1 April 2011

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Do you like to soak shallots in a bowl of water to make peeling easier? Do you use a wine bottle instead of a rolling pin or fashion tuna tins into crumpet rings? If, like Ainsley, you have some top tips in the kitchen that you'd like to share, tell us them here. Check out our messageboard for more ideas.

Ainsley Harriot is a presenter of Great British Food Revival. Get recipes from tonight's show on honey and cheese.

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