The Hairy Bikers chat ahead of the Good Food Show Summer in Birmingham
He’s covered in muck. But rather than that being a source of inconvenience or embarrassment it is, in fact, a badge of honour. Hairy Biker Dave Myers has been digging his potatoes into the ground at his second home in France, and is elbow-deep in mud. Truth be told, he couldn’t be happier. He’s planning ahead to make sure his land delivers a good crop, making the most of the seasonal sunshine as spring comes into bloom.
“I’m covered in it,” he says, smiling.
Though he was born in Barrow-in-Furness, Dave has led a peripatetic life where work and a sense of wanderlust have taken him around the globe. It’s a life he’s thoroughly enjoyed and his work on The Hairy Bikers has brought considerable joy. He didn’t plan to become a best-selling, household name, of course. Prior to meeting Si King and forming their culinary double act – which helped them become the natural successors to the Two Fat Ladies – he’d worked as a make-up artist. Specialising in prosthetics, hair and make-up, he worked with King on the set of a TV drama, The Gambling Man, which had been based on a Catherine Cookson novel.
That was back in the early-to-mid-1990s. And suddenly life changed.
They wrote a book, The Hairy Bikers’ Cookbook, scored a TV series and never looked back. Riding motorbikes around the world, including their BMW R1200GS, F650GS and Triumph Rocket III, the winning combination of gentle banter and unusual cooking locations made them national treasures.
It wasn’t just their ability to connect with viewers on screen that endeared them to the nation. Off-screen, they’re just as personable. At Birmingham’s Good Food Show, Shrewsbury’s Flower Show and Ludlow’s Food Festival, they’ve been frequently pleasant and charming, engaging with the audience and sparing time for fans. Dave is particularly pleasant; an intelligent and articulate man with a common touch who’s comfortable among a crowd and ever-kind.
He says: “We love it. We go wherever it takes us. At the moment, I live out in France where I’ve had a house for a few years. When I’m in the UK, I live in Kent so it’s easy to just get over the Channel and be in France. The other day, I was working in London then I drove home to France. It’s ideal.
“We’re busy this summer doing a lot of festivals so I just drive over from France and we have a good time.
“Si spends a lot of time in Italy. He drives down from England and so he calls in to my place and uses it as a stop-over. The madness never ends. We don’t do anything different to what we’ve done for 25 years. When people come round for dinner and Si’s here, it’s a mind warp for them to see us both doing the same sort of stuff that we do on the TV.
“But it’s good. I love France. You get a lot more value for your money in terms of property. I’m in the Loire Valley and I go to the markets when I can. What we haven’t got here – and what you have in abundance in Birmingham – is multi-cultural food. I can buy the most amazing fish and charcuterie and the dairy is amazing in France. But beyond that it’s a limited palate. The fine French cuisine is great but we have much more variety at home. I bring a spice box over the Channel whenever I come out here so that if I want a curry, I can have it here.”
Sounds good? It is. But The Hairy Bikers will be back soon for one of their most pressing engagements of 2018. It comes when they return to Birmingham’s NEC from June 14-17 for the BBC Good Food Show Summer. Packed with seasonal produce, ideas for al-fresco entertaining, they’ll line-up with the UK’s top chefs to cook up fresh recipes live on the numerous stages across the show.
The event will also feature Pimms and picnics galore, while fans will have free entry to BBC Gardeners’ World Live, providing a variety of seed-to-plate inspiration.
The idea is simple: people can rock up, be entertained while also being inspired to grow their own ingredients and get plenty of ideas to get their garden entertaining-ready.
Dave is a huge fan of the Second City, a dining destination that was once considered a culinary desert but which is now second only to London among discerning foodies. The city boasts four Michelin-starred restaurants, a brilliant street food scene that’s centred around Digbeth, exceptional and authentic restaurants offering food from around the globe and much more besides. There are brilliant artisan producers, a range of independent stores and more farmer’s markets than you can shake a stick at.
“The Midlands and Birmingham has a great food scene. To be honest, on the food front, things are stunning. You can spend a week in Birmingham and literally eat your way around the world. Birmingham has been very good to us both. When the BBC had a base there, we’d go there and do the voice-overs to the Hairy Bikers shows. When we’re in town, we eat at Purnell’s if we’re feeling flush or we get a curry at Shimlas. Digbeth is unbelievably good and hundreds of people go there for a night out. You eat and drink your way around the world.”
His enthusiasm is abundantly clear. There’s nothing forced or contrived about it. Dave wears his heart on his sleeve and articulates coherently as he outlines his passion. Though he worked in TV, making people look pretty, ugly or all points in between, his passion was for food and drink. That love of gastronomy was one of the subjects that helped him and Si get along so well; whether it was dinner at a fancy restaurant, decent conversation over a cool and refreshing pint or a fun night with a late-night curry.
“I still get excited about food. Si and I both do. We get so excited about it that we had to do the dieting series to keep ourselves in check because we’d indulged so much.
“But there’s great food all around and that’s one of the exciting things about the Birmingham show. If you take Digbeth, for instance, there are stands there selling poutine, which is a dish that comes out of Canada. It’s basically chips with curd cheese and gravy. I’d been out in Toronto last year and it was the most guilty pleasure with a nice cold beer. There were places doing it with bits of bacon and ham in it. So we found this stall in Birmingham with poutine and went for it. It’s exciting to think that people earn a living by making food that good.”
We talk a little about their work on TV; the boys have starred on Saturday Kitchen and numerous series of their own, including the brilliant 30-part daytime series The Hairy Bikers’ Food Tour of Britain, which brought them to the West Midlands. But conversation inevitably turns back to the Second City. And unlike most interviewees, who habitually say: ‘Yes, I can’t wait to come to Birmingham/Liverpool/Manchester/Glasgow/Any Town, we’re really looking forward to it,’ Dave is utterly genuine. There’s no PR-spin, no playing the game. He just tells it like it is.
“The NEC Good Food show is the best one in the country. We’ve been doing them for years and we really enjoy them. Normally, we do the winter one because we’re frequently filming in summer. But this year we’re not filming so we’re coming to the June one. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s always sunny and it puts you in the right mood for summer. Birmingham is a proper multi-cultural city. It’s lovely. Si and I went round the Bull Ring on one of the recent visits. I think we were short of clothes so we nipped out to do a bit of shopping and get ourselves some new jeans.
“It’s a brilliantly multi-cultural city and we went to a dhosa restaurant then on the way back up there were Caribbean ladies who gave us a big slap on the neck and a kiss. Just opposite them were Muslim ladies with the hijabs on who wanted to say hello as well. Everybody was so pleasant and it’s times like that that you realise Birmingham is getting it right. There is so much grief and trouble in the world but whenever we go to Brum the food is great, the people are friendly and there are cultures from around the world who are living together perfectly happily. It’s an example to everywhere.”
Food has moved on considerably since The Hairy Bikers first took to the TV screens. And these days, Dave looks back with some surprise at their first recipes.
“Food has changed. Now, I look back at the recipes we wrote in the first few series, which would have been 2004/5, and the recipes seem naïve. In some ways it’s fortunate we don’t have a restaurant because that allows us to explore the things we’re interested in. Over the past 10 years, the cook books have changed and we’ve learned so much.
“The importance of linking food with gardening is a big thing – and that’s what we do at the summer show at the NEC. But you can’t underestimate how much people enjoy those shows.
“The winter show, for instance, has a performance theatre that holds 3,000 people and there are four turns a day. There’s 100,000 people coming to the Good Food Show and they’re just ordinary people, it’s not elitest. Things have changed over the years and these days people are interested in healthy food as well as good provenance. That’s changed the way we cook. In the beginning, we’d use big knobs of butter but these days we don’t, we take a Mediterranean approach instead.”
The Good Food Show isn’t just about star chefs – though this year features a stellar line-up with Mary Berry, Tom Kerridge, Michel Roux Jr, James Martin, The Hairy Bikers, Raymond Blanc, Glynn Purnell and Dan Doherty. It’s also about brilliant producers, about making smart choices at supper time and about celebrating Britain’s contribution to the culinary world.
“It’s been great to see the standards rising. The food producers have raised their game because people demand better quality food than they used to. The processed food that I grew up with in the 70s turns youngsters into fat kids – I’m speaking about myself and not being offensive – and that’s why things need to change. I personally think we need better education rather than prohibition, we don’t want to turn into a nanny state. But we are learning all the time.
“If you look at what happens in France, it’s very different. People eat a lot of dairy with cheese and bread, but they’re not overweight because they’re not eating processed junk.”
We move on from Birmingham and talk a little about Shropshire. For Dave, mere mention of the beautiful, verdant county is like flitching a switch.
“By God, I love it. We’ve done the festivals there in Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Shrewsbury Flower Show is bloomin’ amazing, it’s not far off Chelsea in terms of standards. We’re doing about half a dozen festivals this year and we’d like to do more because we have such a good time.
“Ludlow is a particularly favourite for us. As a foodie destination, it’s quite remarkable. When we went there we were asked to judge the sausage competition – an event that was close to my heart.
“But one of the things we’ve learned by making all of the TV shows is just how good British food is. We go around the world and then when we did our Food Tour of Britain in 2007, we realised that our own country is so damn good.
“We feel very lucky. Si and I are good mates. We’ve been poor together, we’ve had hard times together and lost people through cancer and illness and we’ve relied on each other apart from work. It’s great. We have a laugh and I hope that comes over. At the festivals people come and talk to us. What you see is what you get.”
- The BBC Good Food Show runs at the Birmingham NEC from June 14-17. Tickets from www.bbcgoodfoodshow.co.uk