Updated: 05/01/2012 15:42 | By Neil Davey

A Question of Taste

Neil Davey gets behind the buzzer to see what's in store for the contestants on new BBC food quiz show, A Question of Taste.

Kirsty Wark and William Sitwell on A Question of Taste (© A Question of Taste)

With the number of food shows on TV, it was probably only a matter of time before we got a quiz. New BBC show A Question of Taste pitches teams of food lovers against each other in a programme billed - somewhat inevitably - as MasterChef meets Mastermind.

"It's easier when you're not on it." If you've never understood the familiar refrain of struggling quiz contestants, you should spend a while in a TV studio with Kirsty Wark firing questions at you about obscure Italian breads while a timer - a remarkably quick timer - ticks down. Nerves get shredded, panic sets in - and we weren't even doing it for real.

A question of fear

When the BBC announced new food-themed quiz show A Question of Taste earlier this year, I had a few messages from fellow food writers asking if I would join their team. As an occasional food-themed quizmaster myself (The Coach & Horses, Clerkenwell, every couple of months, lots of prizes, do come down...) they thought I'd be a good teammate. Being a bloke, yes, of course I remember all sorts of silly, obscure food-based facts but there's a reason why I help run a quiz rather than participate: it's called "fear of looking like an idiot".

Even worse, you'd be looking like an idiot in front of Kirsty Wark. At first glance, Newsnight terror Kirsty isn't the most obvious choice of quizmaster (quizmistress?) but then she does classify herself as a foodie. "I am a very keen cook and an even keener recipe cutter," she tells MSN, as she proved last year when she finished runner-up in Celebrity MasterChef.

"Politics and cooking are not such strange bedfellows," she adds. "I have always loved both and it is wonderful to get an opportunity to test the panel, the audience and my own culinary knowledge."

Kirsty Wark stars in the BBC's A Question of Taste (© A Question of Taste)

And test them she certainly will. Having been dispatched to BBC TV Centre to participate in a test version of the show, I can report that A Question of Taste is not what you'd call dumbed down. As the morning progresses and head-scratching question follows head-scratching question, there's a sense of relief that the test version isn't being broadcast to millions of homes.

Boxing clever

With six journalists present, we're split into two teams of three. On Kirsty's left, the print journalists under the banner Three Like To Eat. To Kirsty's right, yours truly and two fellow online writers. We're known, with alarming accuracy, as May Contain Nuts.

The good natured banter and excitement rapidly gives way to, bizarrely, a desperate will to win. Even with nothing at stake, it's remarkable how tense things become.

We start with a round of TV clips, where key words have been deleted from classic moments of culinary television. A regular diet of food programmes won't help you here. The most recent clip (and a question on Thai ingredients) comes from Rick Stein's 1999 Seafood Odyssey, while the oldest features Gilbert Harding (for a question about Agas). While it's great to see Zena Skinner, the Two Fat Ladies and Lesley Walters again, the joy is short-lived as you scrabble around for the answers. However, somehow, we finish the round slightly ahead and, thanks to the show's resident expert William Sitwell, slightly better informed.

We're not alone in that. The proper contestants have impressed Kirsty with their expertise. "I enjoyed making the show enormously because I met all the team members who are as passionate about food as I am, but a lot more knowledgeable," she tells us. Kirsty too has learned some interesting facts, her favourite being how it's illegal to take French cheese Époisses de Bourgogne on public transport because the smell is so strong.

Moments of tactical genius

The next round in this abridged quiz is called Smorgasbord. Ten items appear on the screen. Five of them are the answer to the forthcoming question, five are red herrings. We need to identify as many correct answers as possible as a single error means the opposition can steam in and steal your points. We're feeling good as photos of assorted spices- ginger, star anise, fennel, pepper, cloves etc - appear on screen. And then it all falls apart when we go collectively blank over which five make up Chinese stalwart ingredient Five Spice.

Team May Contain Nuts on A Question of Taste (© A Question of Taste)

Team May Contain Nuts on A Question of Taste

As it happens, our early disaster almost proves a moment of tactical genius: Three Like To Eat trump us but we only sacrifice a point. When they stutter later - over which five items on screen are classified as vegetables - we stand a chance to steal four points. And, er, we don't; instead we finish the round in second place. Which is a nicer way of saying last.

Fingers on buzzers

Both teams are presented with cloches for the next round. Food, we think, hurrah. Wrong. It's a pair of elegant but blunt scissors and the first item in the round known as Food Clues. It's a prop that might lead us to the answer. It doesn't, so Kirsty gives us more clues. There are 7.5m hectares of this item grown worldwide... still nothing. The next clue is about verjus and we buzz. Grapes, we declare and the point comes to us. We also get the next set of clues right and, happily, the points take us back in the lead.

If it felt like "game on" before, as we head into the final rapid-fire, general knowledge round, the pressure is almost palpable; you can virtually feel your vocabulary shrinking. The questions come in a blur, buzzers are buzzed, and answers are fired out - "consommé!" "Peach Melba!" - and two minutes disappears in what feels like three seconds.
The points are tallied and, remarkably, Kirsty declares May Contain Nuts the victors. Our prize is A Question of Taste tea towel which, charmingly, is exactly what the real contestants will receive. There's no trophy. There's no overall competition. Just the joy of participation, something to dry up with and, very likely, a slightly more impressive knowledge of food at the end of it.

A Question of Taste starts on Monday 2 January at 7.30pm on BBC2


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