He’s the student with a penchant for knitwear who made it to the final of The Great British Bake Off. Now James Morton has published a book about bread, his real culinary passion
When I phone James Morton at his home in Hillswick in the Shetland Isles, his youthful-sounding dad and Radio Scotland broadcaster, Tom, answers. As he calls for his son – “Jaa-mes, it’s The Scotsman!” – I am reminded of the fact that, despite his middle-aged wardrobe of cosy tank-tops, sensible Clark Kent specs and love of baking, Morton junior is just 22 years old.
He was even more of a baby – only 21 – when he was a contestant on last year’s series of BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off, making it to the final round before being trumped by John Whaite (who also has a book out, John Whaite Bakes) and his spectacular Heaven and Hell Chiffon Cake.
And now, despite the fact that Morton is a busy boy who is going into the fourth year of a medical degree at Glasgow University, has appeared in his own one-off Edinburgh Fringe show – James Morton: Kneads to Raise Dough – and judges various baking competitions up and down the country, he’s managed to find time to produce a cook book.
Brilliant Bread covers the intricacies of dough-making, with recipes for sweet and savoury breads like croissants, stollen and sourdough, as well as pancakes, bagels and challah. According to the author, it’s unique.
“There’s a flaw with every bread book so far – they’ve all been written by professional bakers,” he writes in the introduction. “This might seem logical, but it doesn’t always work out. Most are a mishmash of scaled-down commercial recipes that are too convoluted to fit in with life, or are oversimplified and unexplained betrayals of the craft’s principles.” This read will be launched just after the fourth series of the nation’s favourite easy-watching cook show, GBBO, returns to our screens.
Does Morton have good memories of filming last year’s episodes?
“It was fun, but stressful, and I wasn’t putting in the practice that I should have, as my exams were happening at the time,” he explains. “It was nice how it ended up and I was happy to have got that far.”
He is unwilling to reveal which of the presenters, judges and experts – Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry – he prefers.
“Ah, that would be like choosing between children,” he says. But he does have an especially soft spot for Sue Perkins. “She’s a great, great person, and so talented. We’re still in touch.”
Naturally, the cover of Brilliant Bread features Morton in a particularly snazzy Fair Isle woolly (“It’s good to do my bit for Shetland knitwear,” he says). According to him, it’s only when wearing his signature variety of sweater that he’s recognised, so you’d imagine fans don’t ask for his autograph so much in the summertime.
“I don’t have many jumpers – those are the only ones,” says this student. “Anyway, people don’t come up to me and ask for baking tips, they just say ‘hello’ in that Glasgow way.” Morton has a long-term girlfriend, Fenella (who is acknowledged in Brilliant Bread for her “stoicism and support”), but is he still often approached by female fans? After all, there was a lot made of his sex symbol status post GBBO 2012.
“I’ve never encountered huge amounts of that, I think that’s just the Daily Mail,” he says, making reference to the paper which also recently papped him eating a Greggs yum yum in the street in Glasgow (his book, ironically, features an upmarket recipe of his take on the treat, which he describes as an “artisanal yum yum”).
Perhaps these fun recipes are part of attracting a different demographic to the book. “We’re going for a younger audience and people who haven’t tried making bread before,” he says.
“I just want to get away from the stigma that it’s difficult. For example, pittas are really easy. I’ve also got a recipe in the book called mug bread, where all the weighing is done in a mug, so you don’t need any scales.”
All very well, but why not write about cakes? After all, some of his most memorable creations on GBBO were a bicycle made from choux pastry and those political-statement-making Union Flag cakes that seemed to be his undoing.
Thankfully, the derelict gingerbread house that he made on the programme, complete with its cobwebby roof of thatched sugar, HAS sneaked into his bread book. However, don’t hold your breath for a future compilation of cake recipes, as he makes it clear in the preface of Brilliant Bread that this is not his bag.
“Since Bake Off, lots of people have been in touch for all sorts of opportunities: glossy magazine interviews and fashion shoots? Yet another generic cake book? I don’t know which is worse,” he writes, though he’s slightly less scathing about this concept, when it comes to our chat.
“Well, I just love bread more than cakes,” Morton says. “You can bake a loaf and it lasts you a while, it’s good for you and delicious. Whereas, you eat a cake all at once and feel sick. I was mainly a bread baker before GBBO, though I had delved into cakes and tarts, as my gran had taught me all that stuff.”
Morton discovered that he loved bread when, a couple of years ago, he worked part-time as a dish washer at popular Glasgow deli, Kember & Jones. There, he was mentored by professional baker David Carroll, who is name-checked in the book, and who, as Morton explains, “was my gate into this amazing, varied and subtle world of baking that I had so far just scraped the surface of.”
Still, though he’s fascinated by this subject, and thinks that the sciences of “baking and medicine overlap quite pointedly,” Morton is unlikely to ever be a full-time baker. His priority is to finish his medical degree and become a doctor.
“I’ve never seen baking as a career, it’s just a fun, though time-consuming, thing to do,” he explains. “I have other hobbies, like running, cycling and I used to do music. I’m a double bassist, but that’s fallen by the wayside with the whole baking thing.”
It seems there’s no rest for a bread maker, even when you’ve gone back to your mum and dad’s house for some respite.
“I’m just here for a wee visit, to do some bits and bobs and relax,” he says. “But I’ll also be judging some baking at a local agricultural show. Also, there’s never any good bread in the house, so I’ll have to make a few loaves just to have around.”
• Brilliant Bread by James Morton is published by Ebury Press on Thursday, £20; The Great British Bake Off is on BBC 2, Tuesdays, 8pm.