I'm a bit in love with Kate Humble. More than a bit, in fact. She's just so... lovely- seeming. And so clever. And so good at what she does. Were she at school – instead, that is, of being on television – she would be head girl. Head girl of the BBC2 Academy for Gifted Pupils. Stephen Fry would be headmaster, of course. And Paxo the swot. Jeremy Clarkson, needless to say, would never have made it in.
But she's not at school. Obviously. She's in India. Or she was, last night, for her new programme, The Spice Trail. The idea, she said, was "to find out how spices shaped our modern world", to see where they come from and why we use them the way we do. She's done this before, of course, in 2009's The Frankincense Trail. Then she travelled to Oman to retrace the route once frequented by the pre-Christian traders. Along the way she met harvesters and camel traders, policemen and housewives, charming them all the way she's charmed me.
Last night was much the same. It is virtually impossible – or so it seems – not to be in a fit of giggles within minutes of meeting Kate. She did it to the spice trader when trying – good naturedly – to haggle with him. She did it to a farming family as they prepared a pepper feast for her. She did it to the cinnamon harvester with her feeble attempts to hack down a cinnamon tree. She even did it to a chai seller manning a roadside stand. She's like Prozac, the human strain.
This could all be rather grating, I suppose, were it not so useful. One of the things that made The Spice Trail so watchable was the enthusiasm – the effusiveness – of all involved. No one looked like they'd been kowtowed into it by some executive. They all seemed to be genuinely engaged. And so it was that, not only did we meet the buyers and sellers of the spices in question, but we got to go into people's homes and hear about their families.
The point of all this was to shine the spotlight on one spice in particular: pepper. So commonplace on dinner tables across the country, its origins are far from mundane. Back in the day of the great European explorers, pepper was the most desired of dinnertime accompaniments, the exclusive preserve of the very, very rich. Believed to possess medicinal qualities, it acquired the nickname "black gold" and was even, on occasion, employed as a replacement currency. Hence the term "peppercorn rent".
The trade, subsequently, has retained a mystique. Attempting to buy some peppercorns instigates a series of rambling rituals. Deals are stuck under the protective embrace of a towel. Prices are offered, not out loud but in a series of handshakes. It's all terribly exciting.
Away from the cut-and-thrust of the marketplace things are rather less romantic. A strain of wilt is attacking India's pepper plantations, driving prices up and farmers to distraction. Or worse. Some 200 pepper farmers have killed themselves in the past five years, including the father of Suresh and Janesh Joseph. The two siblings have since left university, nursing the plantation back to health with new breeds of pepper and soil neutralisers. Last night, Kate got to enjoy a celebratory feast, complete with peppered yams, peppered beet, peppered beef, pepper soup and pepper pickle. "You try saying that at this time of day," she joked. And, naturally, everyone laughed.
A word on the new MasterChef. If, indeed, that's what it is. I spent the first five minutes pausing and rewinding my DVD copy to ascertain whether I had accidentally tuned into The X Factor (or something). Gone are any lingering traces of the programme's low-key Grossman days. In their place we've got the kind of slick showmanship more often seen on ITV. Quite why this revamp was necessary remains unexplained, though presumably it has something to do with cooking getting tougher than it used to be. In a not terribly pleasant twist, we watch the contestants audition, while their families wait, tensely, outside the studio. In they come, wheeling their little trolleys, dishes half prepared in a kitchen outside, and add the final finishing touches before the judges' eyes. There are even little interview segments, where people's mums and sons and girlfriends explain, earnestly, how important the competition is to their family. "He's been preparing for months – no – years," said one poor girl of her boyfriend. Too bad he didn't make it through.
While this goes on, the increasingly ridiculous Gregg and John have taken to having Very Serious Chats about the dearth of good contestants. You know, a bit like what Simon Cowell does after a particularly fruitless session spent listening to Mancunian warbles at Old Trafford, or whatever. In between the duds – Tana with a roast pork loin that tasted like soggy vegetables, Mark with his "vegetarian" fish and chips ("Halloumi!" I hear you cry. Alas, no. Tofu) – there was the odd gem: Jackie's Asian street food and Annie's sea bream. Guttingly, my favourite didn't get through. Dan the Multitalented Boxer. Having recently failed to make his way into the Commonwealth Games, he was hoping his wood pigeon with mushroom sauce might fare better. Come back next year, said the judges. In the meantime, he'll be taking up a research position in neuroscience. As you do. MasterChef is back, but not as we know it. And I'm not sure whether I like it just yet.
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