Interview: Great British Bake Off star James Morton on balancing full-time study with baking bread
Author and medical student on fame, time management and when to buy bread
What do you do when studying medicine isn’t difficult enough? Bake your way into the nation’s hearts on a primetime BBC Two show at the same time, of course. Charlotte Runcie talks to Glasgow Uni’s James Morton about a student life that isn’t just about pints, parties and exams
I’ve always thought baking was relaxing. After a long day of work or a library all-nighter, kneading a soft hunk of dough must be balm for the soul. ‘Are you serious?’ cries James Morton, star of BBC Two’s The Great British Bake Off, author of a new book called Brilliant Bread, and fourth year medical student at Glasgow University.
I’ve just asked him if all that baking helped him relax during his end of second year exams. The answer is a pretty resounding no. OK then, so what’s it like to pursue such an all-consuming passion alongside your studies, juggling growing TV fame with the pressures of revision and a good crumb? ‘My exams were on week nine,’ James tells me, ‘just after “gingerbread house” [a GBBO episode]. I had exams on Monday morning, so I finished baking on the Sunday and was back that same night. For those nine weeks it was 12-hour days for Saturday and Sunday so there was no revising time, and during the week we were just thinking about the Bake Off. It was very, very difficult.’
When it came to writing Brilliant Bread, the stress levels were just as high. ‘Very little of my ranting got onto the final edit … but then coming to write the book, my deadline was 1st January, and I had my exams on 1st February: I had to make myself absolutely get the book finished by 1st January so I had a month to study.’
Baking may be Morton’s passion but, having chosen to take on such a demanding degree, being a student has to come first for now. We’re in Artisan Roast in Glasgow, where he has just finished a scone (it was ‘lovely’, apparently, though he doesn’t tend to judge sweet baked goods as closely as he will critique a slice of bread). Despite a clearly genuine love of bread, and becoming known to the nation as a baker of loaves and wearer of Fair Isle jumpers on primetime TV, the last year or so of the Shetland native’s life has been structured around his university career first, and baking second.
He was making cakes and muffins long before he decided to become a doctor, having begun baking when he was ‘about three or four; my gran taught me how to bake when I was tiny wee. I went through phases of more baking and less baking. When I came to university I realised bread is very cheap, and it’s really quite cool. If you come in, and you’ve got bread, everyone’s like, “Oh my god, I wanna be friends with you”. It’s a great and very cheap alternative to bringing a bottle of wine to a party.’
So right from freshers’ week he was known as the guy who brings bread to parties, but life as a medical student has obviously informed James’ approach to baking. He talks about his favourite ‘classical texts’ from the world of bread, about doing his own research and talking to microbiology students about the theory of bacteria and yeast. It’s ‘scientific as opposed to craftsmanlike – although the craft of it does come. It’s just all about practice. But science and books are a reasonable substitute.’
The Great British Bake Off has become increasingly successful in recent years, and being famous is all well and good, but it does occasionally get in the way of normal uni life. Has he had problems with being recognised as he goes between lectures? ‘It’s a problem,’ he admits. ‘It’s still kind of a daily thing, but if I walk down the street I don’t get stopped any more, which is nice. If I go to Waitrose, then sometimes it’ll happen. It used to be every single time I went to Waitrose. But then that’s my own fault for shopping there.’
Though being a famous – and unusually busy – student hasn’t had as much impact as you’d think on the cold, hard inevitabilities of exams and course work. ‘My exam results after Bake Off improved … And I thought I was hugely busy, and I wasn’t managing, and all that. But actually, because I’d become much more focused and more able to manage my days, my studying time didn’t actually go down very much.’
Given that baking has been such a positive experience for James – aside from the odd Waitrose fan encounter – it’s not really much of a surprise to hear that he’s mostly hoping to inspire students, older teens and people in their twenties with Brilliant Bread. The book is designed for beginners and those who are more prone to eyeing the products of their dodgy shared oven with suspicion rather than satisfaction. Leafing through the pages, you get a very strong sense that there’s no real secret behind good bread, as much as master bakers would pretend otherwise.
Obviously baking is second nature to someone like Morton, who indicates that, as a career, it would be as demanding as medicine. But by the end of our interview he’s convinced me that ‘with five minutes a day, you’ll have two large, fresh loaves in the oven, every day. You don’t actually need to be in the house much, for bread baking, you just need to be back occasionally.’ Good news if you like nights out more than staying home by the oven and working on revision notes. A couple of days after we talk, I bake a successful focaccia to Morton’s recipe and feel jubilant.
Being too busy with work just isn’t an excuse. ‘My experience is that being too busy is something that doesn’t actually exist,’ insists James. ‘That’s simply an excuse for laziness. I mean … saying you’re too busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To me, it’s the case that you’re contented with your life and you don’t want to expand it. Which is great. But if you want to go on and do something, then you have the time to do it.’
What other recipes would be good for ramshackle halls and student flat kitchens? ‘Well, I always have a stash of pizza dough in the freezer,’ says James. ‘Focaccia is so ridiculously easy. Pittas are not only easy but you could make those in an hour if you really want to. Naan breads to go with curries are very good for students. Croissants? Maybe leave those for special occasions.’
But before binning all my bags of sliced white and launching myself gung-ho into a life of homemade pizza evenings, even James – who is now so in demand to bake elaborate cakes for charity that he usually turns down offers to avoid piling on too much pressure – admits to going for a basic supermarket number from time to time.
‘I’ll buy bread if I go to Tesco or something and there’s a loaf of sliced bread reduced to 6p, which happens quite often. Chuck it in the freezer and then toast it, and that’s handy. Also, hot cross buns; after Easter, loads of them are going cheap. So, whenever bread’s really cheap then I’ll get it.’ You can take the baker out of uni …
Brilliant Bread by James Morton is out now, published by Ebury Press.
Baking: A Student Routine
Extract from James Morton’s book Brilliant Bread.
I get up for uni. While the kettle is boiling I quickly weigh together the flour, water, yeast and salt, and then I mix them until they come together. I cover with a damp tea towel and leave it to rest until I’ve had a shower and a cup of tea.
I fold the dough over itself with my hands inside the bowl until I think I’ve got rid of most of the air and then try kneading it if my girlfriend’s taking her time brushing her teeth. I then cover it again and put the dough in the fridge.
I return from uni, take the proved dough out the fridge, but realise I’m not going to have time to both prove and bake in the evening as I’ve got to go out after dinner. I put the dough back in the fridge.
I return home, a few beers later. Maybe inebriated, I take the dough from the fridge and turn out onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into a couple of loaves.
Slightly worse for wear, I preheat the oven for half an hour.
I score then slide the loaves into the oven and bake until I have to leave. If I’m feeling generous then I bring a loaf into uni and my friends are very happy.