Paul Hollywood is happy and relaxed when he shows me round his new kitchen. Cheshire-born, he’s been in Kent for 20 years and, he says, after renovations to his 17th century farmhouse, the county is starting to feel like home.
“I have a foot up in the northwest still,” he says, “but my other foot is ﬁrmly in Kent.”
The new house has perhaps cemented his relationship with the county. It’s in a stunning setting, surrounded by green ﬁelds and set on a quiet road. Its renovation has been a labour of love as there was much that needed to be done.
“It needed a bit of love and care,” he says. “The electrics were shot, the plumbing was wrecked, the oil tank outside was broken and the boiler was broken, so it was a case of renewing everything and making sure it was safe.
“It’s taken around two months and there’s still work going on outside. It’s medieval in style and has a country feel about it as it opens out on to ﬁelds. It’s got a very chilled-out vibe. For me it’s perfect as it’s private as well.”
Privacy is all important to the star of The Great British Bake Off as he’s been the victim of many tabloid intrusions. He didn’t imagine he would become so well known when he ﬁrst auditioned for the now hugely popular show.
“I started in telly back in 2000,” he says, “when I did a series with James Martin called Use Your Loaf. Then I did two more series on my own and after that I was working in the bakery and occasionally doing This Morning with Richard and Judy.
“There were a few more things and then it went quiet and I was concentrating on my own bakery when, out of the blue, I got a call asking if I wanted to audition for a baking show and got it. This year will be our 10th anniversary. I’m about to break the 500th challenge I’ve judged,” he adds, slightly incredulous.
The Bake Off moved home from the BBC to Channel 4 and, with it came many changes. Paul says: “The dynamics have changed slightly, but it’s really great. Noel and Sandy have a different vibe. Mel and Sue were fantastic and I miss all of them. I saw Mary recently and we had a lovely lunch. I always say it’s like I have three mums – my real mum, Pru [Leith] and Mary.
“Pru is very different because she’s a Michelin- starred chef, whereas Mary came from the home cooking side. Pru is feisty. She has a different temperament to Mary. I love spending time with Noel and Sandy. We do spend time together outside work and it’s genuinely lovely.”
Home life is important to Paul and he’s worked hard getting the house just as he wants it. The garden is beautiful and there are ﬁelds at the back of the house, which add to the bucolic feel. Paul shares his home with his dog, Bear, a Rottweiler.
“Rottweilers get a bad rap, but it’s only the look of the dog and the history,” Paul says. “I’ve had Labradors in my life and Bear acts just like a Labrador. It’s deﬁnitely nurture with dogs. He won’t walk into a room until I say he can and when I put his food down he waits for me to tell him it’s time to eat.
“Bear is a brilliant guard dog, he’ll sit at my feet when I’m watching TV and if he hears any noise his ears immediately prick up.”
“I’ve had an AGA now for around 15 years. My last one was huge, but I’ve downsized to the 3-Series. When I saw the pictures I thought ‘they look nice’, and then I realised they’re different as well, a real move away from that traditional thing where the AGA is on 24/7. You can turn them on and off like a conventional oven and still have the look, style, cooking and baking ability of an AGA, so you’ve got the best of both worlds.
“The AGA will always be the core of the house. Even when it’s not on people will congregate around it. It’s a bizarre thing. It’s in the psyche. If you go into someone’s house and see an AGA, you gravitate to it. I love the AGA. I love the look. I love the tradition it has. Even though I turn mine off when I’ve ﬁnished cooking it still holds its temperature. It remains warm in the kitchen for quite some time afterwards.”
Having a cooker that is great for bread was a big pull for Paul.
“The beauty of the AGA is once you set it for roasting or baking it’s set and that’s it. It’s pretty solid and it will be stable all the way through the bake as well. They have big, heavy doors so your bake is more constant.
“I do a lot of ﬂatbreads directly on to the hotplate and it’s great. I mainly use the roasting oven for baking too, as I like to cook bread at a high temperature. So although the baking one is great for cakes, when I gravitate up to bread I’ll use the roasting function. Having said that, the big thing for me is the roasting oven because you cannot beat a Sunday roast done in an AGA.”
The author of many books, Paul is just starting to think about the next one. It wasn’t planned but he’s found himself jotting down notes about pizza.
“For me pizzas are beautiful things. I could live off pizza for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m thinking of writing a book on pizza. How to make great bases and eat healthily with pizza because you can. Traditionally, a pizza is in the oven for only a minute. You can use your AGA as a pizza oven. It does bring it up much higher than a conventional oven, so you can get a good sting on it.
“What you’ve got to try to do is kill the yeast and colour it. You can make your base, put it in the oven, take it out, put your topping on and pop it back in and that again will give you a really crispy base. It’s the cheat’s method of getting close to the original pizza.”