David Atherton is remarkably upbeat for someone who was unlucky enough to catch Covid-19 despite having had his first dose of the vaccine.
“Because I’m a Covid vaccinator, I’d had the first dose,” says healthcare professional Atherton, who is from Whitby but now lives in London with his fiancé Nik. “Then my partner and I both got Covid. He got it worse, so I obviously had some protection.”
Describing the experience as “three weeks of not-particularly-pleasantness”, the 2019 Great British Bake Off winner says the strangest thing was the way the virus dulled his sense of taste.
“At first it was kind of strangely interesting, and then it just became really frustrating. We got all the condiments out of the cupboard then my partner made me taste them all with my eyes closed. I couldn’t tell the difference between, say, vinegar and lemon juice, but I could definitely notice sour, sweet or salty.”
Illness aside, Atherton says his life has actually improved in some ways while working from home during the pandemic.
“Number one, it’s sleep. For me, the three pillars of health are good food, exercise and sleep. I’ve definitely benefited from being a little bit more relaxed with work, not having to wake up really early.”
The 38-year-old has also enjoyed “having loads more time to read and do crafts” and the arrival of a kitten called Rey, which he adopted from vet and fellow Bake Off contestant Rosie Brandreth-Poynter.
“She finished a night shift and someone had just dumped this pregnant cat on her doorstep, so she took it in. Our kitten is one of only two of [the litter] that survived. He’s a bit scrawny, but he’s a delight.”
Known for being unflappable throughout his tenure in the famous white tent, Atherton thinks being crowned Bake Off winner a few months before coronavirus cases snowballed might help explain why he’s coped so well during this tumultuous time.
“My life had already got turned upside-down since Bake Off. And then Covid hit, so I’d already felt a very big – but positive – disruption to my life, which then just continued on, so maybe that helped.”
Now, the star baker is back with his second cookbook, Good To Eat, in which he combines his health and cooking expertise with recipes that are both delicious and nutritious.
“I think it’s been brilliant how things like Bake Off have got people back into the kitchen and got people excited about baking, but it’s definitely moved more towards the mountains of butter cream and very rich things like croissants, which use 50 per cent butter,” he says, which is why in this book, you’ll find recipes for things like coffee cake enriched with grated sweet potato, and ‘Mum’s Yorkshire Parkin’ made with a portion of cooked quinoa.
“I just want to encourage people, because there are so many ingredients people always think are going to make them taste worse, like you’re having a compromise – you’re not at all.” As well as upping the fruit and veg factor, Atherton extols the virtues of feeding your microbiome (the beneficial bacteria that resides in your gut) with fibre and fermented foods like pickles, chutneys and kimchi: “I just love the health benefits of fermented foods, and particularly over the last 10 years I’ve got a bit obsessed with the microbiome.
“We’ve always thought in the past that fibre is really good for just keeping you ‘regular’. Now we know people who have a more diverse microbiome are more healthy. It’s actually really good for your mental health, it’s good for weight loss, it’s good for general health as well as, obviously, your bowel.”
People with digestive health issues sometimes find sourdough bread easier to stomach, and so he devotes a whole chapter to what, as chance would have it, became a lockdown craze, and how to make it easy for beginners to have a go.
“Don’t make your own starter,” is Atherton’s rule number one. “If you’re getting into sourdough, go to a brilliant sourdough bakery. They will give you a tiny bit of their starter. Sometimes they’ll charge you, but all the ones I’ve been to, they’ll give you some. And then you just grow that.”
With recipes for Filipino ‘tortang talong’ (a kind of aubergine omelette), Vietnamese ‘nouc mam cham’ (spicy salad dressing) and Bulgarian ‘banitsa’ pastry parcels, it’s clear Atherton was inspired by foodie adventures abroad when writing the book.
“Travel, for me, it’s always been an excuse to learn about new flavours and new ingredients, and then seeing if there’s dishes I can bring home,” he says. “The book definitely celebrates some of those things I’ve learned.”
The author decided against including some of the weird and wonderful dishes he’s sampled while working overseas, however.
“In Malawi, I ate goat’s testicles and mice. Goat’s testicles will be on the posh menus in a French restaurant. They don’t have a strong flavour but they’ve got a really nice texture. Snake is very nice as well.
“When I lived in Ivory Coast, rat was a very famous dish there and they even had a rat stock cube. I did not like that.”
With an appetite for the unusual, Atherton is ready to get back on the road. “But I also think it’s just good to look at the positives wherever you are, and at the moment I’m really enjoying being home,” he says.
“I look forward to the time I can travel – I’d be very sad if I didn’t think I could travel again for my work. But at the moment, I’m very happy just where I am.”