Great British Menu 2015: What’s in a theme?

The  Staff Canteen

Great British Menu 2015 is marking the centenary anniversary of National Federation of Women’s Institutes.

The Staff Canteen caught up with previous winners of the show to see what they thought of this year’s theme and how they view their time on the show.

The British Women’s Institution is an organisation focusing on providing women with educational opportunities to cultivate WI programmeand enhance skills. WI also has a historical link with food, dating back to 1915. When it was launched in the early age, WI encouraged women to help the war effort by growing and preserving food during the First World War.

Therefore this year’s Great British Menu is marking the centenary celebration by asking the contestants to cook for this theme.
 After the release of the BBC documentary- Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers, outsiders are busy with the “Jam and Jerusalem” stereotype of WI, which originates from the fact that members are allocated sugar for jam making to increase the food supply in 1940.

>>> Everything you need to know about Great British Menu right here

But is the UK’s largest voluntary women’s organisation all about jam and song? Nowadays WI focus on communities and provide opportunities for women to build up their skills. Margaret Halstead, vice-president and communications committee member of Adderbury and District WI said the WI is all about: “Enhancing personal knowledge and skills. As a committee member, using the social network, reportage and confidence, making things happen and working together as a team.” GBM1

Members value it as a social platform to connect with friends as well as a bonus for their CV. Jo Hutchings, secretary of the Marmaladies WI West Wales and who has been a WI member for over 30 years, said: “It’s a learning tool, a friend finder and a confidence builder...I tell people to add it to their CVs because of the different skills you acquire.”

Another member Sue Carter said: “The WI has given me the opportunity to make lots of new friends, not just in my own WI and community but around the country from meeting people online and at national WI events. Sue and Jo both agree that it’s necessary for modern women to have cooking skills.

According to a survey from Good Food in 2011, one in six British women struggle with cooking therefore the WI is on a mission to improve cooking skills at an international level; given that 28% Americans can’t cook which is reported by Huffington Post.

Denman College, WI’s Residential and Day Adult Education College, could however be seen to as one of the ways to alleviate this problem. It is a food pilgrimage for practitioners and leaners to upgrade their cooking skills by offering various cooking courses in cookery, craft and lifestyle. In October they are to hold a special event with PDSA, meanwhile inviting Colin McGurran to talk about his success on the Great British Menu.tom aikens

So how did the professionals tackle the past tricky themes? “Cooking For the People” was one such theme back in 2011 where the task was to create food to share with friends. Tom Aikens one of the chefs taking part said: “We had to do a collection of sharing dishes, each dish had to impact and create excitement when brought to the table, but it’s also about creating tasty food which sometimes people forget.”

2012 Great British Menu gave chefs a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cook a four-course meal fit for 2012 London Olympic Games. Colin McGurran’s winning starter ‘quail in the woods’ consisted of quail liver parfait, feuille de bric log, poached quail breast, confit quail legs, quail sauces and quail egg kebab, being presented in smoke.

Colin looked at the habitat of a quail and what it eats in order to transfer that into a dish that would meet the Olympic theme. As such he used bark from the woods that the quail’s were reared in and would then add pine scented water to dry ice to give a forest floor feel when the dish was served at the table.

>>>Read our interview with Colin McGurran here

Quails in Wood Colin McGurran GBM2012During his observation, he found quails were eating blackberries at that time and so the breast had a blackberry glaze and then it was served with a “kebab” of quail egg and fillet alongside a quail liver parfait tube. Series 9 in 2014 saw a theme of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

By drawing inspiration from her grandfathers’ military experiences in WW2, Emily Watkins’ dish was grilled scallops with smoked cockle broth, seaweeds and morels in a military-style tin and flask on a wooden tray decorated with sand.

Speaking to the BBC at the time Emily said: “Of course there’s also the Normandy link from the D-Day landing itself which made me think of calvados, French rabbit (instead of the wild English) and brioche, which I used instead of ordinary bread in my lardy cake.” Tom Aikens and Colin McGurran both think the competition brief is rather informative. Based on his three experiences in Great British Menu, Colin agrees that it also leave rooms for chefs to have their own interpretation in spite of two hour cooking restriction. However, conducting individual research really matters.

Emily Watkins researched by reading cookbooks, old newspapers and Fight Them On The Beaches Emily Watkin GBM2014magazines compilations of recipes. She even spent time talking to people who looked after animals in wartime. When it comes to how to gathering inspirations for competition, Tom Aikens shares his mantra below:

  • Memorable and spectacular
  • A feast for the eyes
  • Exciting and creative, pushing gastronomic boundaries
  • Execution and technical expertise
  • Combination of ingredients

In terms of this years theme Colin thinks it’s “quintessentially British” but Tom wants to see it “more about cooking”, such as “celebrating the life of Escoffier with your own twist”. When being asked about opinions on this year’s WI theme, Colin expressed that: “The brief would be about refining comfort food that evokes the feeling of homeliness, something like a take on a traditional Shepherd’s Pie. Dickin Medal dessert Collin McGurran GBM2014

“This is going to be a really great theme to showcase the WI, they are so much more than sponge cakes and singing Jerusalem and we are sure to see some great characters coming through.”

Great British Menu starts this week with the Scottish contestants cooking first.

>>>Read our interview with judges Prue and Oliver where they discuss the show and it's past and present themes here.

>>> Read more about Great British Menu 2015 here

By Liangying Wang

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 3rd August 2015

Great British Menu 2015: What’s in a theme?