Digital snowflakes fill the screen, the Saturday Kitchen theme tune fills the air and I am proudly wearing a Christmas shirt, waving at a camera on a crane with merry chefs and a festive celebrity. Almost every week, this BBC stalwart show, produced for the past 18 years by Cactus TV, is broadcast live to a UK audience on Saturday morning. With Matt Tebbutt at the helm, and me and former wine buyer Helen McGinn sharing drinks duties, it’s been a huge part of my life since 2006. While the Christmas show is sometimes a rare pre-record, without question live broadcasting is the most thrilling part of presenting wine on TV. With Matt’s skills as a chef, and the team backing us up in the gallery via earpiece, it’s not so much Dancing on Ice as Walking in the Air. But since it’s live on air, how much planning goes into it?
To answer that question, let me introduce you to Amanda Ross, co-founder and CEO of Cactus TV, who produces the show every week and has transformed the way we think about wine on TV. ‘For Saturday Kitchen, casting is key,’ says Amanda. ‘For wine, we can totally trust that Olly and Helen will find the best things in the budget range for the viewers. In rehearsal, I ask them the questions people at home want answered.’
The context of drinks on the show counts for a huge amount and the food pairing is taken very seriously. Unless the recipe involved is as straightforward as steak, I cook it at home to make sure the pairing works and also to get inside the head of the viewer to anticipate and prepare for any questions that may arise. Whenever there’s a chance to champion a lesser-known grape variety or up-and-coming region, I’ll seize it
in the name of both good value and to embolden our viewers’ exploration of wine.
As regular Decanter readers may know, I am deeply passionate about the wines of Greece and (with the exception of the pandemic years) have visited a different region every year across the mainland and islands for the past 30 years. Not long ago, when Rick Stein cooked Greek pasticcio live on Saturday Kitchen, I selected a Xinomavro by a favourite winemaker of mine, Apostolos Thymiopoulos, stocked by Majestic (Alc 13%, 2020 £15.99) – it’s a grape variety that is sublimely deft and savoury, somewhere between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir in style. The impact nationwide was huge, prompting Majestic to put out a press release with the title ‘Saturday Kitchen Mention Creates Greek Wine Surge’, explaining: ‘Thymiopoulos Xinomavro saw a rise of 1,800% in sales against previous weekends – the equivalent of over three months’ worth of sales in a single morning – and has been out of stock since. As such, some Majestic stores were forced to introduce waiting lists for the red wine ahead of Christmas.’ That impact on wine felt pretty special to be part of, and illustrates why Amanda takes the responsibility about what or who we promote on the show very seriously.
Food portions in recipes are costed on the show, and for drinks our brief is to stick to the high street and – special occasions excepted – keep to three price points: under £10, under £8 and under £6. There is a review on these prices underway as we go to print, to reflect the hike in UK duty on wines in August and challenges with inflation, so watch this space. The under £6 is increasingly challenging, but gives an opportunity to include cider, beer, non-alcoholic options and cocktails.
At Christmas, the budget rises. I seem to remember one Christmas with Nigella Lawson as our guest recommending Chateau Musar to pair with a turkey recipe. We also extend the budget if we cover a specific drinks theme, for instance as I did recently on English wine with bottles from Chapel Down, Hoffmann & Rathbone and Oastbrook all featuring around the £20 mark.
Getting to the point where the wine is actually on screen nationally, critiqued live in the studio, takes a fair bit of effort and involves retailers, PRs, couriers and the production team. Once the wine has been chosen to match each dish, a minimum of four sample bottles are called in so we have one each to pour for the rehearsal and live show, with an unopened bottle to film a bottle shot and an extra bottle in reserve in case of breakage or a wine being out of condition.
Lights, camera, action
When Amanda introduced wine experts into the Saturday Kitchen studio, it was ‘to properly join the on-screen family, because a 90-minute show like this needed to feel more inclusive – we are entering everyone’s home and at the same time welcoming people at home into our kitchen’.
The balance which I try to strike between entertainment and education is always at the forefront of my mind. I have a chance to remind the world how wine can feel transformative, thrilling and engaging alongside great food, in good company. And that reflects the mood in the studio. I’m happy to confirm the rumour that the camera crew dive in to taste every dish and that veteran crew member Phil Lofthouse always carries a fork in his back pocket, earning him the moniker ‘Phil the Fork’. Amanda is quick to remind everyone on the show that if we enjoy it, so will everybody at home and this fosters genuine camaraderie on and off screen.
I keep a very strict routine preparing for the show. On a Friday night, I’ll travel up to London on the train with an outfit packed and ready for a 5.30am start next day in time for rehearsals, which usually kick off around 6.45am at the Cactus studios in Clapham. After a quick visit to make-up we rehearse the entire show, cook every dish and pair the wine while a member of the production team stands in for our celebrity guest to suggest likely topics. And if unexpected material presents itself, Matt and I will closely liaise with the production team in the gallery.
It’s more meticulous than you might imagine and relies on a certain ruthlessness when things don’t work. If, for instance, an item over-runs, the show has to trim back elsewhere. It’s a live show and sometimes things go wrong – for instance, when chef Michel Roux was once hosting the show and the wine hadn’t been placed on set, I spontaneously improvised the world’s first invisible wine tasting live on air. These moments serve to remind the viewers we are broadcasting live, and of course on that occasion we made sure the full details of that wine were shared both on the show and via social media.
As far as wine goes, whether it’s Take That’s Gary Barlow joining us to discuss his love of wine or chefs such as Anna Haugh bringing out her own wine range, the Christmas show is a perfect opportunity to remind how spending even a couple more quid can hugely impact the quality in the bottle – a concern I’m all too aware the wine trade shares. And as for me, sharing my love of wine on national television for nearly two decades – it feels like Christmas every week.
Olly’s six festive buys for those on a Saturday Kitchen budget
Turbot and Condrieu is a Christmas treat. But try a fillet of less pricey fish such as hake with Yalumba’s Y Series Viognier (13.5%, 2021 or 2022 in supermarkets or Majestic at £9-£11). Scrumptious fun!
In my household, Sherry is taken every Wednesday in December at 4pm with mince pies beside the fire. The tradition has become known as ‘Sherry Wednesdays’ and I even have a festive jumper with the logo emblazoned on it. It’s the perfect way to ramp up the Christmas spirit. Aldi’s Specially Selected Pedro Ximénez Sherry (17%) is a rich, sweet steal for £6.29/37.5cl and tastes like liquid Christmas pudding.
Turkey with all the trimmings and a high-end Rioja Gran Reserva is a slam-dunk wine match for Christmas day. For turkey sarnies, grab a good-value red with similar savoury richness and a little less structure and buy from off the beaten track – the Co-Op’s Irresistible País 2022 (13.5%) is £8.50 and grown on vines more than 100 years old; provenance, class and deliciousness all in one, and wildly decent for the price (and look out for price reductions over the Christmas and New Year period).
Cider can be as enthralling as wine and tells a story bound deeply with a sense of place. Alongside Christmas ham, it is outrageously good. Find & Foster are an incredible, environmentally aware couple in Devon saving ancient orchards with real love. Their Mêlé cans (5.5%) are a splendid place to start your serious cider journey – it’s made with quince and perry pears as well as the Exe valley apples, is unfiltered and unfined with no added sulphites. At £4 per 25cl can, buy six and get one free.
If beef is on the menu, go as big and beautiful as you can is the usual maxim. For around £10 in Marks & Spencer or on Ocado, you’ll get both if you select its M&S Found Saperavi 2021 (13.5%), which is as dark and fragrant as a black cherry down a coal mine. Serious quality from the birthplace of wine, Georgia.
Bubbles make a party, and Cava from Spain is still underrated – but choose your stockist wisely. From the right curator, I adore its moreish magic and if you’re a member of The Wine Society and spend £9.76, The Society’s Cava Reserva Brut 2021 (12%) is thrilling – a vibrant stunner that belongs at every Christmas party.