Last week, the bakers waded through capricious crumbled and perilous puddings. This week, they try and master that most ubiquitous of bakes: bread.
Francis woke up a few days later to a crick in his neck, the sun in his eyes, and his phone buzzing away in his ear. He answered it without checking the screen. He hoped it was just another one of those fucking sales calls - he always looked forward to the rush of letting them say their little opening line and then hanging up.
He was rather surprised to hear the cheerful voice of Tom Blanky instead.
“So how’s our best baker doing this fine Thursday morning?” Blanky cackled at Francis’ mumbled “‘lo.”
Francis blinked his eyes against the daylight and grunted something incomprehensible into the phone. Blanky texted him on Monday asking how the week had gone and Francis looked at the text, intended to respond, and then wholly forgot about it until the previous evening. He wrote a short message (“It went okay. Franklin lost. I got best baker”) at one in the morning while waiting for his practice centerpiece bake to finish baking and now he was regretting even that.
“Awful,” Francis mumbled.
“Strong words from our fearless leader.”
“What fucking time is it?”
“It’s eleven, Frank,” Blanky said, with a warning in his voice that Francis knew quite well. “Late night?” The tone made it clear he was not asking if Francis had been up till all hours darning his socks.
“I was up late making bread, you bastard,” Francis grumbled. “No need to fish me out of the gutter or pour anything down the sink. I don’t even think I have cooking wine in this place.”
“Just making sure the only thing fermented in that house is your dough,” Blanky said, with an air of relief Francis could feel through the phone.
“Been thinking about my dough, you old pervert?” Blanky laughed at that, and the tense atmosphere cracked into tiny pieces and crumbled away into the ether.
“Not a chance, Frank, my wife’s dough has done me just fine these twenty years and that’s without ever even getting a fancy title from a knockoff reality show.”
“It’s for the best. Esther could crush every baker on that show in her sleep.”
“Don’t I know it,” Blanky sounded pleased as punch. “Speaking of which, you should come up to visit. Esther and the kids are tired of hearing about all this on set drama third-hand.”
“Mm, I don’t know about that,” Francis said. “Between work and practicing for the show -”
“Just think about it. I know you, and I know you’ve locked yourself in that sorry little flat for weeks. As your friend it’s my sworn duty to make sure you haven’t forgotten society.”
“Is that right?”
“Aye, you’re like a mean barn cat wanting socialization.”
“Neptune doesn’t seem to mind.” Neptune, who had been lying at the foot of the bed like he absolutely was not supposed to do, ever, perked his head up at the mention of his name.
“Neptune wouldn’t mind if someone broke into your house and stole everything in it, as long as he got a bite to eat.”
“That’s not true, is it boy?” Francis asked Neptune, who had commando crawled up the bed on the off chance that there might be imminent head scratches and was delighted to be proven correct.
“Maybe just take it easy? I don’t want you having - I don’t know, having some kind of bread breakdown.”
“I don’t think that’s likely. It’s not fucking pudding, is it?”
“You tell me, best baking boy.”
“Am I ever going to hear the end of this?”
“No.” Blanky laughed.
Francis continued their conversation as he rose and puttered about the house - feeding Neptune, cleaning up the fine sheen of flour that had gotten over everything in the kitchen the night before, checking in on the precious sourdough starter he had gotten out of the fridge and been feeding all week, feeding himself by shoving a half toasted piece of bread covered with a slab of jam into his mouth. By the time Francis learned about what every member of Blanky’s household had been up to over the past few weeks down to the very last skinned knee, the melancholy that had been haunting him the last few days seemed a distant, dull twinge rather than its usual persistent throb.
“You makin’ any friends?” Blanky asked during a lull, while Francis was trying to pull his shoes on and Neptune hovered. A smart dog, he knew that, very often, after shoes came walkies.
“Friends?” Francis asked, in a manner which implied the question was akin to asking if Francis had recently taken up underwater basket weaving.
“Isn’t that what they always say on these fuckin’ things?” Blanky went on, undeterred by Francis’ tone. “‘Oh I’m so sad to go but I’ve made lifelong friends here’ and all that crap?”
“Just people, fuck, I don’t know. Question still stands though.”
“No,” Francis replied. “Especially after last week. Getting best baker when John Franklin got booted. They liked him. I should be watching out for a knife in my back this weekend. You should have heard James -”
“Ah yes, James -”
“Nothing, go on,” Blanky replied, the very epitome of innocence. Francis eyed the phone suspiciously.
“Nevermind,” Francis said.
“Whatever you say, duck,” Blanky laughed. “You take care of yourself, yeah? Give me a call whenever.”
“Sure,” said Francis. He bid his friend goodbye, and reached for Neptune’s lead to an uproarious chorus of happy barks.
Thomas Evans lives in Ipswich with his mother Jane, father Michael, and sister Elizabeth and he’s been baking since he was old enough to hold a wooden spoon.
Saturday did not begin auspiciously.
Francis had prepared and packed all his supplies the night before, but then he slept through his first alarm, there was no hot water (again), the dogsitter arrived late, and by the time he realized he’d forgotten the garment bag with his Sunday clothes when he was already an hour’s drive out of the city it was too late to turn back. Fantastic. His two choices were now either wearing the same clothes for both days of shooting (intolerable), or running out somewhere after shooting and scrambling in a store to find something that didn’t make him look like an eighty year old pensioner (fat luck on that score). When the fucking radio gave one last deafening burst of static before fizzling out entirely and he had nothing to fill the silence except the anxieties inside his own head about the upcoming two days, he spent the rest of the drive working himself up into a furious lather, making up scenarios and winning arguments that were never going to happen. He swore to god if anyone bothered him or had something to say to him when he arrived -
"Good morning sir," Jopson greeted him when he arrived at the tent. "I hope you'll find your spot this week a bit more comfortable than last."
Maybe Jopson was alright.
"Morning," Francis said, as he found his station and sighed in relief. He was all the way in the back, behind Collins and next to Goodsir. James Fitzjames was all the way in the front, where he could toss his shiny hair and smile his ridiculous smile and tell his stories and Francis wouldn't have to be party to any of it.
He gave a sedate nod to Stanley (and received one in kind), and a half hearted smile he hoped looked encouraging to Evans, who looked as if the prospect of baking scones and whatever the proficient turned out to be was enough to terrify him into incoherence. Hickey slunk in and fussed over his recipes without looking at anyone, and the rest of them tumbled in all at once a few minutes later. Evidently there had been some issue with the trains, and loud apologies were exchanged all around.
“Bakers!” Barrow called once everything was finally ready for taping and someone had called for action. “I know last week was a bit of a struggle for some of you, but we hope this week will put you all on a more even keel!”
“It’s bread,” said Silna, with the same wry smile she had been wearing for weeks. “And I trust you all have at least some experience with that.” There was a soft roll of laughter through the room.
“Now, now, I believe we’re the ones who are supposed to be telling the jokes,” Dundy said, loftily. “Unless of course they would like us to do the judging,” Ross replied.
“Excellent!” Dundy exclaimed. “You’ll have to roll me out of this tent before the day is done.”
“Absolutely not, I took this job specifically because I was told there would be no heavy lifting.”
“Heavy lifting! Well I never!” Dundy looked appropriately aghast.
“Nothing for it, we will have to stick to jokes. Bakers! Your mettle will be tested on this, your first bread round.”
“Quickly quickly!” said Dundy, recovering from his mock outrage.
“Quickly indeed! It is quick breads, and the assignment for your trademark bake is to make a dozen perfect scones! They can be flavored however you like but there must be twelve of them and they must all look the same! You have forty five minutes! Bake!”
Francis was pouring flour into a mixing bowl before the syllable had left Ross’ lips. The time constraint on this bake had been giving Francis a bit of trouble at home, and he didn’t plan on looking like an idiot with no time management on camera. The recipe worked out simple enough, and he knew his flavors were good, but he had to get the scones into the oven in less than fifteen minutes. The ovens in the tent were often capricious, and he wanted to give himself a full ten minutes extra in case he needed it. The bakers around him were similarly afflicted - Francis and Stanley shared an aggrieved look when Collins started his strange humming a mere three minutes into the round, and there was a constant stream of whispered swearing coming from the direction of Little’s station. (Francis did not fail to notice that this ceased almost the moment Jopson wandered over to ask Little some innocuous question, and immediately tried to forget it.)
He was three minutes ahead of his carefully allocated time when the judges and hosts turned up to ask him about the bake.
"Francis!" said Ross when the four of them approached. "Congratulations again on best baker last week!"
"Indeed!" said Dundy. "What sort of whimsy have you dreamed up for your trademark bake this week?"
“I’ve - er- kept things on land, so to speak,” he mumbled. “Cheddar and chive scones.”
“Savory instead of sweet,” Silna said. “You’re in the minority there.”
“Cheddar again?” Barrow asked. “I hope you’ve improved your ratios since biscuit week.” Francis pressed the tip of his tongue into his top left canine to stop the words that wanted to follow and took a deep breath.
“I think so,” he said, as if it meant nothing at all. “These should be a bit more flavorful, I hope. Been popular at home.” (Neptune had liked them, anyway.)
“Wonderful!” Barrow grined. “I look forward to it.”
The judges made the rest of their rounds, and Francis tried his best to ignore them, although he couldn’t help but notice that, long after Ross and Dundy had gone on to make jokes with Evans (who was struggling to get his scones into the oven on time) and Barrow had removed to the front of the room, Silna remained at Goodsir’s station, chatting.
“Your father is who got you into cooking, then?” Goodsir asked, in response to something Silna said.
“Oh absolutely, my father used to make this dish with duck - I don’t honestly even know where he got half the ingredients from, food security wasn’t exactly a thing where I was growing up - but he would make up so much flavor from nothing. It was incredible.” Her expression turned thoughtful. “I find I miss his cooking more and more.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Goodsir said, “is your father -”
“Oh!” Silna chuckled. “No, no - oh wow, that sounded awful now that I think of it. No, he’s back at home - probably bitching into my voicemail about how I haven’t called him this week right now, actually.” Silna smiled fondly. “But I do miss it, his cooking.” She shook her head. “Ugh, I’m sorry, you’re supposed to be in the middle of your bake and I’ve been going on and on -”
“No, it’s quite alright!” Goodsir said, perhaps a bit too quickly. “I can understand you missing home, your family, the food. I mean I don’t want to be rude to my countrymen, but sometimes - well, not all of our food is as good as what we make here on the weekends.” Silna laughed again, and nodded her head in fervent agreement.
“Anyway, you get back to it. I’ll be watching.” Goodsir smiled at her and ducked his head, most likely to hide how red his cheeks had become.
Francis’ scones were being temperamental in the oven, but although he had to go to the last minute setting out the scones on their serving tray, he was happy with their overall appearance and tendency to crumb. From his station in the back of the room he would be one of the last to be judged, and had nothing to do in the meantime but sip his tea emphatically and listen to the rest.
James had made sweet scones with fresh blackberries and raspberries, and a lemon clotted cream to be served alongside. Silna seemed pleasantly surprised at the way the flavors came together.
“I thought it might be too tart,” she admitted. “But you’ve done a great job on the balance here.”
“Oh thank you!” James said. “Although I must say that the real accolades should go to the berries. There’s a farm near where I live and I called them up just the other day to ask which would be sweetest for what I had in mind -”
“You let the berries come through on their own, and the cream is just a little surprise at the end!” Silna interrupted kindly, before James could get any further entrenched into what was no doubt a very long, very detailed tale about the mundanity of berry picking. “Although I admit I expected something a bit less traditional from you.”
“I’m respecting the classics this week,” James said, probably beaming - Francis couldn’t quite see from so far back. “At least for this bake.” He winked at the camera for that one and it was all Francis could do not to roll his eyes.
Little, despite all his worries, also pleased the judges with his orange and ginger scones. Collins wasn’t so lucky, and Barrow tore him apart on the texture.
“More like a roll than a scone, I should think,” he said, poking a wrinkled finger into the interior of the bake. “Much too doughy. It should crumble more, be lighter.”
“And I’m not getting much lemon,” Silna said. “Lots of rosemary.” She made a face. “Like - a lot of rosemary.”
Evans also came up short on his flavorings, and his suffering was all the more acute since Stanley (who recovered quite well from his minor fumblings the week before) had somehow made almost the exact same scone, blackberry and lavender with white chocolate, but with his usual standard of perfection.
“Some improvement on your use of the cheddar here,” Barrow said, when they finally arrived at Franics. “But I still feel like it's missing something.” Francis nodded along with what he hoped was a polite, neutral expression as they went on about the texture of the bake (“Quite good, altogether!”) and tried to avoid stares from any of the other bakers.
The judging finished with Goodsir, who had done a middling job with making all his scones look the same (“I just forgot about the scale completely!” he admitted) but somehow made the flavor pairing of fennel, onion, and olive oil work.
“I have never had anything like this,” Silna said with a laugh. “At least not in the form of a scone.”
“That’s our Harry,” said Ross. “Finding flavor in the strangest places!”
With that, the set broke for lunch, and Francis headed towards the estate to pick up his portion of whatever fresh hell had been conjured up for lunch, feeling less at ease than he hoped he would after the first round.
Without Franklin dominating every interaction, he thought he might breathe a little more freely. But instead, he saw the shadow of the man everywhere, in every empty seat, under the shade of each ancient tree lining the grounds. Lunch in hand, he wondered where he should sit that would invite the least conversation. He was reminded uncomfortably of mess halls and school lunch rooms, and he should probably just go eat in the tent -
A firmer, angrier sort of emotion welled up inside him then. Who was Franklin to haunt him beyond his loss? Francis had won, he was still here, and fuck it, he could eat wherever he pleased! Determined, almost expecting to be challenged and daring anyone to do so, he sat down at the nearest empty table - just behind where Goodsir was attempting to comfort Collins over his scones. (“If he said they were more like rolls then it just means you’re better at bread! You’ll do better tomorrow, and who knows, maybe the proficient will be rolls!”)
Francis was soon joined by Evans, who tentatively asked if any of the seats near him were taken. Francis shrugged in response, indicating the void where no one was. Evans sat down and seemed inclined to do nothing but stare into the lunch they had been given and make no conversation at all. This suited Francis just fine.
Although Jopson said he would correct the catering when he spoke to the PA at lunch last week, Francis would describe the trajectory as more lateral than linear, if the chicken dish that sat in front of him was anything to go on. The chicken itself was as dry as a desert, but not to worry! It was simply slathered in a white cream sauce that drowned out every other thing on the plate. A vegetable - at least Francis believed it was a vegetable, but who knew - limply dangled from the side of the dish. He poked at it with his fork, but the odd shape had no answers for him.
“Where the fuck do they get this catering from?” said James Fitzjames, abruptly sitting down at the empty chair between him and Evans. The boy was so startled at the intrusion that he almost leapt up from his chair. Francis scowled.
“Not up to your standards, James?”
James shook his head and chuckled. “I know you have your opinions on my taste, Francis but this isn’t up to anyone’s standards, don’t be ridiculous.”
Francis paused for a moment, remembering their last conversation from the previous week. Not everything is about you.
“I suppose that’s true,” he replied, evenly.
“Excellent, now that we’ve established that, would you mind if I sit here and pick aimlessly at it until we’re called in for the proficient?”
“Seems you’ve already sat yourself down,” Francis said with a shrug, but he could feel his spine draw up.
“Indeed I have.” James occupied himself with pushing around various cream covered shapes on his plate for a few minutes, even tried to nibble at one, before making a face and shoving the whole thing away.
“Absolutely intolerable,” he proclaimed. “We should sue.”
“Should have smuggled some of those scones out of the tent,” Francis said, without thinking.
“We should have,” James agreed. “Did you get to eat any of yours? Jopson whisked mine away for those little promo shots before I could even snag a single crumb.”
“No, I didn’t even make the attempt.”
“Didn’t want to risk it?”
“I have the strangest sense that if I tried the lad would - would turn me to stone, or some nonsense like that.”
“He does have that look about him, doesn’t he?” Francis nodded and James paused, waiting for him to say something else. Evans looked between the two of them like a child waiting to see if dinner would end in one of his parents throwing the gravy tureen at the other’s head.
“Anyway, good job on bake number one,” James said, hopping subjects when it was clear Francis had nothing else to say. “Those cheddar scones sounded divine.”
“Oh - thanks.” Francis was fumbling, off balance, trying to find the light switch in a dark, unfamiliar room. “That recipe didn’t seem to be your usual.”
“Hrm? Would you believe it was John’s recipe actually - well, John’s wife’s, I think,” James said. “I was going to do this - I don’t know, probably this Mexican cuisine inspired thing - I took a trip there a few years ago, have you been? Fantastic food - but he told me to ‘carry on the classic tradition’ or something like that for him this week, and I thought it’d give it a go. With some modifications, of course.”
“Ah,” said Francis.
“Terrible centerpiece round last week, wasn’t it?” James winced. “Not for you, obviously, amazing job, but -”
“Here we go,” Francis muttered. James took a deep breath -
“I left something at the house!” Evans suddenly shouted, to no one in particular. In a blink he was gone, leaving only his sorry excuse for a lunch to say he had ever been there, and James and Francis were left alone. (Or as alone as they could be, with Collins and Goodsir having a friendly argument over how best to layer cranachan behind them.)
“Francis…” James looked away. “I’m certainly not glad about what happened to John’s bake last week, but I don’t blame you for winning. Your terrine was elegant, creative. It should have won.”
“And I apologise for my behavior. I was - it was hard to see him fail so thoroughly.” Francis waved his hand in a manner he hoped indicated he hadn’t thought about it at all over the course of the last week. (Although he had, he had.)
“What - what I suppose I truly don’t understand is the animosity between the two of you.”
“You mean he didn’t tell you the tragic tale of the man who proposed to his niece twice?” James shrugged.
“He did.” Francis could feel the defensive curl of his shoulders. Of course Franklin had told, why should he keep such an embarrassing story to himself?
“Couldn’t keep your nose out of it, could you?” Francis snapped.
“I didn’t ask!” James said “He offered.” A beat. “I suppose he shouldn’t have.”
“Well, now you know the whole sorry story.”
“I don’t know your side of it.” It was an opening, clear as day. But why should he tell James about any of it? So he could have a good laugh about it with the rest of them over dinner? Fuck that.
“It’s even more pathetic than Franklin made it out to be, rest assured.” He stood up. “I’ll see you in the tent.” He watched James bite the inside of his cheek before he nodded slowly, his face unreadable.
“See you then.”
Francis couldn’t quite help the vague feeling of shame that slid up his spine and lodged in the back of his brain as he walked away. Like a tick, it refused to be shaken off, even when the bakers were called into the tent to begin the proficient round and Ross and Dundy hopped up front to do their bit.
“We hope you had an excellent lunch -” There was a sparkle in Dundy’s eye as he said this which suggested he did not believe any of them did, at all, “and have safely arrived back at the tent for our proficient round!”
“Do our illustrious judges have any words of wisdom for you?” Ross asked.
“It’s not as easy as you think,” Silna said, stepping forward and eyeing all of them in turn. “Take your time and pay attention.”
“Bakers, you have two hours.” Dundy announced, once the judges had departed. “You may begin!”
Francis whipped the covering off his ingredients and almost smiled when he began to scan the recipe. The title read “Kulich - Russian Easter Bread” and it was just that - bread. No fancy steamed nonsense that took four hours on the boil and barely held together. No complicated, strange layering or weaving patterns. A bread he understood. A bread he could work with.
A bread that gained exactly no volume during its first rise.
“Alright there?” Ned Little asked from two stations up. Damn, had he said that out loud?
“Fine.” Francis said, harder than he meant to. Fantastic. Now the camera was on its way over to watch him sputter and fumble over this stupid Russian bread he apparently didn’t get at all.
“I’m not sure,” he said tightly when one of the operators asked him what was wrong. It had to be something - something about sugar ratios and the hotness of the water in which he bloomed the yeast, maybe. There wasn’t time to repair it without having any idea of what the actual problem was, anything he did might make it worse, might make it so that the loaf was hard as a rock before it was even done baking- The cameras showed no signs of leaving, so he dumped the whole dough into the baking dish and stuffed it into the proofing drawer to get them off his back. “I’ll just - hope for the best.”
Like so many times in the life of Francis Crozier, the best he hoped for didn’t come. The cake came out of the proofing drawer with practically no noticeable difference and Francis shoved it into the oven without even looking at it. He spent the bake making his icing three times because the first was runny and the second was too thick and it had to be perfect to make up for whatever was going to come out of that oven
He could scarcely mask his frustration when the timer went off and the damn thing hadn’t even crept up the sides of the baking tray like it was supposed to. Turned out on the board it was small and sad and pathetic and Francis iced it with the same flourish with which one might crush a crush a beetle underfoot.
When time was called and he brought the thing up to the front to be judged, he took little solace in the three other unproofed cakes, belonging to Evans, Hickey, and Little. The remainder looked ideal, and while Barrow and Silna would no doubt find issues with their flavor and texture, they were leagues ahead of Francis’ sorry showing.
“Oh dear -” said Barrow when he attempted to cut through Francis’ bread, exaggerating his difficulty for the camera. Francis knew his face had gone a blotchy, mortified red. “I believe something has gone a bit wrong here.”
“I think the dough hasn’t been worked enough,” Silna mused. “The gluten didn’t develop, and then it was baked too long, maybe to try and make up for the bad rise.”
“It’s a sh - it's unfortunate,” Barrow said, shaking his head and narrowly avoiding another Bake Off rip off. “Because the icing is absolutely perfect.”
“This one, however,” he indicated the next bread in the line, the one behind James’ picture, “this one looks just ideal, doesn't it?” James preened under the camera lights and Francis stared at a spot on the tent above the judges heads until the miserable moment had passed.
Cornelius Hickey: Wish someone had told me it was alright to get cosy with the judges, is all.
Stephen Stanley: No, I’m not very happy at all. I think that was a rather unacceptable showing from everyone.
Edward Little: F*********k me.
Thomas Evans: Awful. Just an awful awful day.
Francis escaped the estate without too much fuss and found a shop in town where he managed to find a set of clothes that wouldn't make him look like a confused old man who mistakenly wandered onto the set. Unfortunately, he took so long that by the time he got back the rest of the bakers staying at the hotel had already arrived and were standing around the lobby. He had no hope of removing to his room without having to -
“I’m not imagining things!” someone declared.
Ah, they were arguing around the lobby. Even better.
“There he is,” said Hickey, jabbing a finger in Francis’ direction as he walked towards them. “He saw the whole thing, same as I did.” Francis had no fucking clue what all the shouting was about, but he sure as shit knew he didn’t want to be on Hickey’s side of it.
“Did he now?” Francis asked with an arched brow. “What is it I’m supposed to have seen?”
“Harry trying to get in good with the female judge during the trademark round, of course,” Hickey replied. Francis felt his skin crawl at the particular way Hickey said female. “He has quite a way with the ladies, wouldn’t you say?”
“I didn’t see anything,” Francis said, at the exact same moment Collins asked just what the fuck Hickey thought he was talking about.
“Nothing, nothing at all, just wondering if we’re all allowed to make an attempt or do we have to go through Harry here if we want someone to put it in a good word -”
“Is that what you think is going on here, Mr. Hickey?” Goodsir asked.
“I mean I don’t want to be the one to say it but -”
“Oh, speak the words, Mr. Hickey,” said James, with a smile that promised no friendliness. Hickey was undaunted in the face of what should have been insurmountable opposition.
“It’s just - Well, it’s just a little obvious to everyone what it is you’re doing,” he said to Goodsir.
“And what is it that he’s doing?” asked Little.
“If we could all calm down a bit I’m sure -” Irving began, but was interrupted by a smirking Hickey.
“You saw the two of them, same as I did. If I knew you could get better marks just by flirting-”
“They were having a conversation, Mr. Hickey,” Francis snapped, louder than the general outrage around him. “Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept.”
“If it’s not appropriate -” Goodsir tried to cut in, but he was swiftly interrupted.
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” Francis said. “I heard the whole thing. There was nothing improper between the two of you.”
“I think you have enough going on in your own life, Mr. Hickey,” James drawled, “to be worrying about anyone else and their romantic entanglements.”
“I am looking out for everyone -”
“No, you’re looking out for one,” Francis said. “Yourself. And don’t you dare try and drag me into anything like this again.”
“Alright, alright,” Hickey held up his hands in surrender. He was a fighter, but he wasn’t stupid. “Just don’t come crying to me when he makes best baker tomorrow.”
“If he gets best baker tomorrow it’ll be because of his bakes,” said James. “Perhaps you should concentrate a bit more on yours.” With nothing but an insincere smirk and a narrowed gaze, Hickey made his way to the bank of lifts and the five of them watched him go in complete silence.
“He won’t let this go,” Francis said after the sliding doors barred Hickey from view.
“No,” agreed James.
“I - I’m sorry to be the cause of all this trouble,” Goodsir said.
“Stop that,” James chided. “No one here thinks you did anything wrong.”
“Someone ought to talk to her,” Collins said. “Must be a little lonely, yeah?” Goodsir shrugged, uncertain.
Francis felt the pricking of anxiety creeping up his spine. The quarrel was at an end, the danger passed, and now he should excuse himself, go back to his room -
“Francis, come have dinner with us,” James offered. “We were just deciding -”
“No,” Francis said, before the man could continue. “Thanks all the same, but I have - there are some calls I have to make.”
“Some calls?” James asked, with a dubious look that saw right through him, the bastard. “It’s Saturday evening, surely they can wait until tomorrow?” Franics waited a moment, certain that his brain would conjure a snappy comeback or better excuse. However, his store of witty retorts had all used up by lunch, and he was forced to say -
After all, how terrible could it be?
An hour later, Francis thought it was pretty fucking terrible, actually.
The curry place Collins chose was alright enough, and the conversation was pleasant, even if it referenced comments and questions posed in weeks prior that Francis couldn’t follow at all, evidence of a loosely woven camaraderie that had been established in just a few short weeks.
Well, it was too late for Francis to go back change things now.
He could - perhaps he could accept the invitation next time without a fuss, that is, provided he was invited next time.
But all thoughts of that nature went right out the window when they entered the James Fitzjames hour. The moment dinner arrived and everyone else’s mouths were too busy trying to consume the only decent food they’d been allowed to eat all day, James took it upon himself to launch into an exhaustive story about his experiences in India - the food, the people, the train ride he took from Mumbai to Chennai (“Was supposed to be only a day but between the delays and the breakdowns I was certain I was going to have to walk! Would have done me good, too - like the time the rental broke down outside of Istanbul and I had to walk twenty miles in the midday heat and -”) He hardly paused but for effect, and everyone else was somehow content to simply sit there and provide gasps or laughter at the precise moment they were supposed to.
Worst of all was how James’ hands never stopped moving. When they weren’t making sweeping gestures to articulate the man’s wildly hyperbolic stories, they were fiddling with a wine glass, or toying with a piece of silverware. Francis was so distracted that it took him longer than it should to realize when the table fell quiet, and Francis was struck by the sinking sensation that someone had posed a question to him.
“Sorry, what was that?” he asked, hoping no one had noticed where his attention had been directed.
“I asked who you were bringing to the finale,” James said (presumably again). His face showed nothing but curiosity, and Francis supposed he was safe in that regard.
“Oh right.The finale.” Fuck.
The finale, the tenth and final episode of the season. All the bakers who had left the show and their families and friends (up to ten, the email Jopson sent a few days ago said) were supposed to come back and have a lovely little picnic where they feasted on whatever the finalists had created for their last centerpiece round. Francis read that particular email, immediately grew very cross over it, went on to answer some follow up queries for work, and hadn’t thought about it since.
“I - er -” Francis blinked a few times. “My best mate - he lives up north, and his family. Wife and kids. I haven’t asked them yet but -”
“Lovely!” said James, with far more enthusiasm than Francis believed his answer merited. “What about you, Harry?”
“My brother and his family - same as you,” Goodsir replied. The conversation moved on from the finale to their nieces and nephews. Though Francis knew he had more than his fair share of the same, he hadn’t seen any of them in years, and felt a small stab of guilt as Harry and James lauded the virtues of their nieces and nephews and the endless quest to find the most interesting gifts for birthdays and holidays.
Later, with the bill paid and coffees empty, the six of them made their way back to the hotel. Plans were made among the younger set to continue the night in the hotel bar, and Francis was finally able to beg off on the excuse of needing sleep. They all bade each other a good evening in the lobby, and though James held back, he continued on into the bar a moment later without saying another word.
It had been alright, Francis admitted to himself later, grudgingly and halfway through some batshit episode of Midsommar Murders he wasn’t following in the least. Besides the agony of having to sit through an evening of James’ stories, all things considered, it had been alright.
Henry Goodsir - called Harry by his friends - lives in Glasgow, where he’s about to start his medical residency. His baked goods are in high demand among his colleagues, and Harry prefers to spend his limited spare time perfecting and sharing his recipes with his nieces and nephew.
Sunday began a far sight better than Saturday, evidenced by the fact that Francis was able to rise, eat breakfast, and drive to the estate with very little incident. However, when he finished getting ready at the house and stepped out of the door, he was promptly hailed by a vaguely familiar man jogging up the drive.
“Hello!” the man called, and Francis raised a hand in confused greeting. “You’re one of the bakers, right?” He indicated the apron Francis had thrown over his shoulder. “Have you seen my husband anywhere?”
“Yes - oh! Terribly sorry, I’ve been awfully rude.” He stopped in front of Francis and stuck out his hand. “Alexander MacDonald.”
“Francis Crozier,” said Francis, grasping the offered hand and giving it the required two shakes.
“Oh! Francis Crozier, I should have known. Stephen says you’re one of the ones to watch out for.” MacDonald winked, and Francis wondered just what the fuck that was supposed to mean before his brain caught up to his bitterness and he realized what the man had just said.
“Stephen? Stephen Stanley is your husband?” That’s where he knew the face from! This was the smiling man that picked Stanley up each Sunday and Saturday evening, who always greeted him with a smile and a “How did it go, love?” and didn’t seem daunted by Stanley’s dour responses in the least.
“Yes!” Christ, MacDonald’s face broke into a smile at the very mention of his name. “Have you seen him around?” So stunned was Francis by the stark differences between the two of them that it was a moment before he could respond.
“I didn’t see him in the house, he should be just down there -” Francis pointed in the direction of the tent.
“Perfect, thank you! He ran out of the house this morning - worried he’d be late, but of course he wasn’t, and he forgot one of his ingredients. Called me frantic on the drive over.”
“Stanley forgot something?” Stanley had the capacity to be frantic?
“Can you believe it? I think he’s getting a bit flustered with all this baking, but of course he says there’s nothing wrong.”
The idea of Stanley being flustered about anything was unbelievable, but so was everything else about the whole conversation, so he wrapped up this comment in some suspension of disbelief paper and placed it beside the others to be considered at a later time.
“It’s - er - It is a bit stressful,” Francis offered instead.
“Isn’t it just? I tell you I’ll be happy when the whole thing is over and done with, no matter how it shakes out. Thank you again!” MacDonald hurried off towards the tent and Francis followed at a more sedate pace, sparing them both the mortification of bidding someone goodbye and then having to head in the same direction.
The centerpiece bake was an intricately woven loaf that needed to feature at least five strands and a minimum of three different flavors. Beyond that, the bakers were free to exercise their creative freedom.
In direct opposition to the care he had taken the week prior, Francis came up with his bake, a round, six strand loaf in rosemary, garlic, and onion flavors, early Monday morning and practiced it only once. The result was satisfactory enough.
Francis could have done more, would have done more, only he already got best baker in the previous week. They wouldn’t give it to him twice in a row, so there was no real need to shoot for the moon a second time, was there? His middling effort was alright enough. At least that’s what he believed until that disastrous proficient.
But he had his sourdough starter to rely on for this bake. No strange sugary yeasted Russian cake breads to steer him astray. With a sharper focus than had been with him the day before, he methodically mixed each dough, prepared the onions on the stove, drained them of moisture in the oven before adding them to the batter. When the judges and hosts came over he provided answers he supposed were alright, and away they went again.
The braiding went alright, with a few imperfections here and there that would be covered up by the proof and the final bake. It was simple - nothing like what Harry Goodsir was constructing beside him - some intricate round weave with lengths of dough trailing off the sides. Like a spider, Francis thought, before turning back to his own work.
Three hours into the bake, while Francis’ loaf was proofing and he was going over the timing he laid out in a tired hand on Wednesday evening, he heard a small, unhappy squawk coming from Evans’ station. There was a mess of bread on his table, and a pair of shaking hands fluttering over it. An incoming disaster, then.
He looked around - Goodsir was hurrying along, a bit behind on his time and frantically weaving his doughs together in that bizarre pattern, Little was sitting in front of his oven staring at the blob of dough inside, James was talking with the hosts, Collins humming, Irving staring off into space in some sort of dissociative daydream - in short, everyone who could be relied upon to help the boy was occupied.
So Francis took a deep breath and then a few tentative steps over and asked if everything was alright.
“I don’t - I don’t really know -” Evans began, barely containing the sob in his voice. “I made it the way I did at home, I think?”
“Let’s see then.”
Evans stepped aside and with one look, Francis could tell where the lad had gone wrong. The boy’s overly ambitious nine strand braided loaf had all bulged together, and now resembled a thin bit of wrinkled fabric hastily and embarrassingly thrown over a pile of laundry in a corner. His caramelized onion dough, similar to the one Francis had made, contained far too much moisture - so much so that wet onion goo was leaking out around the base - and was never going to cook at the same rate as the others.
In short, the prognosis was not good.
“Listen, I’m going to put my bread in the oven, then why don’t we sop up some of this and see what we have to work with afterwards?” An almost tearful Evans nodded.
They got the dough cleaned up, and though it was far too late to do any of the usual fixes, Francis suggested that he get it in the oven as soon as possible and cover it with foil to prevent the top from browning while the rest of the loaf tried to cook. It was the best he could do, for so mangled a situation.
“Alright,” Francis said when it was done. “Call me over when the timer goes off and we can see if it’s ready to come out yet.”
“Okay,” Evans replied, in a dull voice that suggested he knew where he was heading at the end of this, regardless of what happened next. “Thank you.” Francis knew he should say something else, something witty or encouraging, but he wasn’t one of the other bakers - he wasn’t Goodsir or Fitzjames - and he could think of nothing that didn’t sound foolish and trite.
As quickly as he could, Francis moved from Evans’ station to his own, checked the bread in the oven and allowed himself a moment to be pleased that the top hadn’t split and all the layers seemed to have baked together shockingly well for the amount of effort he had put into practicing the bake. He kept one eye on Evans for the next hour while his own bread finished baking and had a pleasingly hollow tone when he knocked on the bottom of it.
“Oh no -” Evans groaned, staring into his oven with the scrap of foil in his hand. Francis felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as he headed back over and peered in to see what had distressed him so.
One of the doughs in the bake had collapsed - overproofed, maybe - and was thinned and browning despite the foil. The onion dough still hadn’t finished cooking, and the whole thing look wrong, twisted, like two entirely different bakes that had been shoved together by someone who didn’t know any better.
In short? An unsalvageable mess.
“Can we - is there a way to fix it?” Evans asked, sounding so much younger than he was, and Francis wanted to tell him of course, it could be fixed, there was time, but he didn’t even know what was wrong and it was too late. Should have never even helped in the first place - he should have waited for Goodsir or Little or even fucking Fitzjames to notice and see if they could lend a hand. They would at least know what to say in this moment, when Francis had nothing.
“Just put it back in the oven with the foil on it,” he said, too harshly by the way the boy’s face caved in. “The middle might still cook.” Gentler, but Francis knew it was too late.
The bread Evans turned out on its serving board showed no improvements.
Francis’ own bread, while cooked properly, apparently contained little to none of the flavors he had intended it too.
“Rosemary should be used with a light touch,” Silna said, “but you’ve gone far too light on this.”
“And this one is supposed to be garlic, yes?” Barrow asked. “I’m sorry but I’m not really getting anything, and garlic is a very powerful flavor.”
“Ah,” said Francis. “Thanks.”
It wasn’t the worst to be judged. That particular merit belonged chiefly to poor Evans, who presented his loaf to the judges with tears already brimming in his eyes.
“You know what went wrong with this,” Silna said, poking at the twisted mess before her. “Too much moisture, and too many braids.”
“The onion is coming through,” Barrow said, sampling part of the underdone dough. “But you can see where it didn’t finish cooking here -” he pointed to a raw bit in the middle.
“Thank you Thomas,” Silna said, and Evans returned to his station with his shoulders shaking.
In stark contrast to both of them, Goodsir delighted the judges, especially Barrow, with his unusually shaped braid, which wasn’t a spider at all, but a -
“A CRAB!” Barrow practically shouted. “This is remarkably clever, Harry, how did you even think of it?”
“It was very spur of the moment when I was practicing for this round at home,” Goodsir began, enthusiasm causing his words to trip over each other. “I was working on just a regular rounded braid and I absolutely mucked it up, It was too stretched out and it had all these strands of dough everywhere and I thought - that looks exactly like a sort of crab and - well, here it is.”
“The tomato flavoring is excellent,” Silna said around a mouthful of bread. “And I like how you've complimented it with the squid ink bread. Very earthy, very much a match for what it looks like.” She pulled a piece of the crab’s back leg off. “What was this dough, again?”
“It was a sweet potato dough.”
“It doesn’t quite go with the other flavors,” Barrow remarked. “It’s very good, but perhaps something not as sweet would have been a better choice.”
“Thank you Harry.”
Goodsir returned to his bench, beaming.
The rest fell somewhere on a scale between Evans and Goodsir, with even Stanley coming in at a clear second. When the judges vanished from the tent to make their final deliberations there was an air of certainty about them, the rapidity with which they returned ensured that no one had even a spare second for a good breakdown.
“Everyone, it was a wonderful weekend filled with fantastic bread,” Ross began.
“I gained ten pounds,” Dundy confessed. “And I couldn’t be happier!”
“You better slow down or next week the judges will have nothing left to judge!” Ross laughed.
“A man can only dream,” Dundy replied. “Bakers! I have the absolute honor today of announcing who had claimed the title of best baker. Our best baker is someone who always puts his best effort forward in baking and in the tent, and his crab braid - a pair of words I thought I would never say - was absolutely out of this world. Congratulations, Harry!” Goodsir first looked shocked, then blushed a deep red and tried to hide his delighted smile behind his hand.
“Of course, that means I’m the one who has the awful job of telling you all who is going home,” Ross said, sadly. “And I’m afraid that this time, that person is Thomas. I’m so sorry.”
Francis didn’t expect to feel the boy’s loss as sharply as he did. He felt - he felt like he had been the one who failed, failed to help him as much as he ought to have. It wasn’t like his own bake was some prize, anyway. He was never going to be the one to get best baker two weeks in a row. It would be a miracle if he even made it past the sixth week of the taping! Francis waited until the circle of sympathizers around Evans had cleared away to go congratulate Goodsir before he put a comforting hand on Evans’ shoulder and said how sorry he was.
“Oh, it’s alright,” said Evans, shrugging. “It was getting a bit too difficult for me, I think. Thank you for trying to help.” Francis didn’t know what else to say, so he nodded and moved on to Goodsir, who was receiving handshakes from the rest of the contestants, except Hickey, who crossed his arms and raised a brow, looking around in vain for someone to nod at, no doubt certain that today’s results confirmed his suspicions of yesterday. Francis would not be that person.
James Fitzjames: Hrm? Oh - er - yes it went very well.
John Irving: Went right to the wire, didn’t I? Sometimes I think those ovens might be cursed.
Harry Goodsir: Yes, yes I’m so pleased! I was a bit worried there for a moment - shaping the dough was taking much longer than it had in practice.
Thomas Evans: You know I expected this week to be hard, and I knew it might - It was a fantastic experience though, wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Francis went to the estate, gathered up his things. A warm breeze blew through him on his walk to the carpark. Hickey’s ride this time was a younger, curly haired man in a blinding yellow mini cooper. The little car shot out of the parking lot in a cloud of dust and spray of pebbles like the devil was at its heels. Francis waited for the dust to clear, wondering how on Earth Hickey found the time.
“Francis!” someone called from behind him.
He turned to see James Fitzjames walking towards him on those long, long legs of his and was very displeased with his stupid heart for the way it jumped into his throat at the sight.
“Yes?” The misplaced anger in his voice was not lost on James, who took a step back.
“I -” James ran a hand through his hair. “I just wanted to say that it was good of you to try and help. With Tom Evans, I mean.”
“It would have been better if my help had actually helped him,” Francis replied.
“It was good of you all the same.” They stood there together in the dusty carpark and Francis again felt that sensation that he should be doing something other than what he was doing, that he was putting a foot wrong somewhere, only he didn’t even know what the steps were.
“Well, I’m heading home.” Best to just quit the floor completely.
“Back to London?” James asked.
“Oh, me too.”
An absurd idea came to him then - but no, the dinner had been bad enough! Imagine the interminable drive if he offered to take James back to London, two hours of nonstop stories and flying hands! If Francis wasn’t slapped in the face by James’ wild gesticulations he might expire from the oxygen loss. James wouldn’t accept anyway.
The whole idea was stupid.
“Until next week then,” Francis said.
“Until next week,” James repeated.
It was only when he got to the end of the drive that Francis remembered the radio was out, and he was facing a long drive in abject silence.
“Better than two hours of non-stop swanning,” he said to the steering column, and he almost believed it.
While the competition is heating up, so is the tent! Watch the bakers take on the heat as they try to temper chocolate, on our hottest episode yet, next week, Chocolate Week!