Nancy Birtwhistle

Nancy Birtwhistle is breaking the Great British Bake Off mould. Crowned winner of the hit show in 2014 Nancy is the only winner to have not yet released a book. Ex-bat owner herself, here she tells us why she’s doing things her own way.

  1. Firstly, let’s step back in time to when you won GBBO in 2014 – can you still remember the feeling?

I just wasn’t expecting it. I was lucky in the final that everything went well. What I learnt about myself was I didn’t get overly nervous. I thought I’m here to have fun. It is a fantastic opportunity so I am going to embrace it and enjoy it. The biggest challenge is with yourself, not the other bakers. I knew I couldn’t prepare for the technical but with the other two challenges I knew, if I did it as I had at home, then I could achieve good things.

That weekend nothing went wrong. I was totally focused. Especially in the final there was a camera on you the whole time and the crew are talking to you constantly. If anybody had a crisis the film crew were like bees round a honey pot because that was interesting!

When the three of us were standing there I remember focusing on a tree on the horizon. I was not thinking about anything. When they read my name out I can’t remember much about it. There had been 10 weekends of living, breathing, sleeping Bake Off. The whole thing was an emotional rollercoaster. It was by far the hardest thing I have ever done, but by far the best too.

  1. How did life change for you immediately after you won – were you recognised on the streets?

We started filming at the end of April and finished the last weekend in June. Filming ended and I knew I had won, but I came home and couldn’t say anything. July went by and everything went flat. From applying in October right through until June I had been totally occupied with Bake Off and overnight it suddenly stopped. I remember going on holiday thinking what to do next?

Then it started on TV in August and that was when media began to take an interest. This was the first series on BBC One. There was an announcement about the line-up and the local press were round here wanting to know how I did!

The year before there had been a contestant from Grimsby. One journalist interviewing me asked if I did as well as her and I replied ‘you’ll have to wait and see’ so she went back to the office and said ‘I don’t think Nancy did very well’!

As the weeks went by and we got halfway people started to recognise me. I was in a supermarket in France and someone recognised me, and I went to Italy and someone had seen me on the show.

  1. Can we expect your encyclopaedia of baking to be out on the shelves any time soon?

From the 2014 contestants Louis, Richard, Martha and Chetna all had books published. I had a publisher contact me but hesitated simply because there were so many books out there already. I thought if I write a book I want it to be a book I would want to read. I flick through books am never sure if what I make will look like the photo.

I have written 500 recipes and was told I would need 100 for a book, but wrote a recipe for each day of a year so I could pick out the best ones. I am enjoying the process whether or not a book will come out of it.

  1. We were surprised and delighted to learn that you keep ex-bats and used their eggs whilst taking part in GBBO – tell us a bit about your girls.

I didn’t actually take eggs from my own hens to the Bake Off tent because all that is provided for you, but all my practising was done with my hens’ eggs.

I re-homed five in May and already had three, but they don’t have names.  They get to be so tame. In the winter when I haven’t got anything precious growing they have the full run of the garden. When it’s bed time I call them and they come running like any other pet, no matter where they are!

  1. Tell us more about your popular 365 day challenge, tell us more about it.

There is nothing which puts people off baking more than something going wrong. I’m keen to be known for successful bakes with specific recipe instructions, but I also want the flexibility to say here is a recipe you can add chocolate to or lemon or coffee.

I would want my book to be a book where you gain confidence, and that is why I launched my 365 day challenge.  I am gifting each day for a whole year everything I know. Recipes, tips, hints, ‘how to’ videos and lifehacks which will all improve your knowledge and skill.

  1. We’ve seen a revival of baking in Britain in recent years – do you think GBBO is entirely responsible for this or are there other factors?

I think Bake Off is the catalyst. It’s about cooking things from scratch. We are frequently told how much sugar and salt has to go into cakes in the commercial world to make them last longer, so baking yourself means you can keep an eye on the ingredients.

  1. Tell us, what inspired you to give some lucky hens a free range retirement?

I heard about the charity and although I used to buy rare breeds paying £10 per chicken they were a bit temperamental and not great layers. Then I went online and found that Sand Hutton was my local re-homing point and I have kept coming back ever since. I really feel as though I am doing something worthwhile.

  1. Let’s talk eggs – we’re biased in thinking a truly free range eggs tastes better than anything else, but what difference does a really fresh egg make when it comes to your baking success?

It makes a difference in that I feel happy about my ingredients. I have had to buy eggs and I do notice a difference, particularly in the whites. When you crack open the shop bought ones the whites are often watery.

  1. Back to basics: coop cleaning duties. Is it down to yours truly or do you gravitate to the kitchen and leave the girls to other family members?

I do it every day. Every morning I collect the eggs and when the weather is nice I leave all the doors open and take the perches out which is my best way of keeping red mite at bay.

  1. What’s your favourite aspect of hen keeping, would you recommend it to others, and why?

My favourite is to see them doing things they should be doing. I brought my ex-bat girls home and we let them out in the run. The sun was shining and they enjoyed a dust bath and then laid on their backs with their legs up in the air in the sunshine. That to me was just fabulous.

  1. What’s the best cake you have ever made and why?

My best on Bake Off was my jaffa orange cakes for which I was awarded star baker in the first week. That gave me confidence about my place in the tent. I don’t know where the idea came from, but they are super cakes.

I also spent a long time perfecting my best chocolate cake. Chocolate cakes are often nice and dark but can be dry or not very chocolatey. So I perfected a cake that is dark and moist and tastes of chocolate. A little bit of coffee, star anise and vanilla makes all the difference and really enhances the chocolate.

  1. Finally, what’s your favourite eggy based dish?

I love eggs. If I am home on my own and I will opt for a herby omelette in a small frying pan just with some fresh chopped herbs from my garden and eggs from my chickens.

  1. Baker’s dozen! We have to ask the obvious question – what do you think of the new GBBO programme moving to CH4?

I am not going to knock it until I have tried it. The production company hasn’t changed, it has just moved channels. It is going to be 75 minutes long which is encouraging and protects that 60 minutes’ worth of baking. We have got to look forward rather than looking back. The tent will be the same and it is a well-established brand so I think it will be fine.

You can read more about Nancy’s #365 challenge at:

Twitter @nancybbakes

Instagram @nancy.birtwhistle

Facebook nancybirtwhistle

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