Hot tubs selling like hot cakes. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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Flatcap handbags, folding wellies, and Derek: The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 8

The teams are let loose in Somerset to explore the "rural market".

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read the episode 7 blog here.

It’s taken eight whole smog-addled weeks for the candidates to be hoisted out of the urban sprawl and onto virgin countryside terrain, but we got there eventually. Granted, they’ve meandered to Kent and had a little canal trip through Oxford in recent weeks, but we haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing our sad suited automatons looking incongruous in the real English wilderness. A glaring oversight, considering the importance of the “rural market”, which is what this week is all about.

“You’ll be selling – products,” Lord Sugar informs the candidates, by way of explaining what exactly the “rural market” is. Weighing then heartily slaughtering pigs and selling bloated marrows sporting comedy rosettes is what comes to mind, and it turns out this isn’t actually that far from the truth, as the teams are sent to get their burnished winklepickers grubby at an agricultural show.

The Royal Bath and West Show is quite different from the eaves of steel spires the bored camera so often grazes as we are wafted over the City and Canary Wharf seven times per episode. Instead of the Shard slicing London’s charcoal skies, Somerset has a small sheep pushing its head through a gap in a clammy marquee. Rather than swarms of commuters clicking across Millennium Bridge, here we have some ruddy Morris dancers, skipping around a meaty herd of tug-of-warriors, all wiry fur and cricket-ball knees. When they arrive, the candidates look like they’ve each swallowed a gallon of Octi-Kleen.

Faces of fury. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

But before they're let loose at the fair to be watched scornfully by parading heifers, the teams have to choose the products they will sell to the people of Somerset. Felipe – reciting, “logistics, tactics, organisation” – takes Tenacity’s reins, and James – “I fancy it; I’ll put my balls on the line” – is in the saddle for Summit.

Then a few from each team go to a showroom of pointless rural accoutrements and pretend to understand the value of the products. “It’s so quirky, I absolutely love it, it’s so different,” gushes Felipe about a tweed “flatcap handbag”, which sounds like the tabloid label for some sort of class-defying tax George Osborne would accidentally introduce. Felipe and Mark buy a batch without negotiating. In the sales world, we call this “shopping”.

On the other team, Solomon and Sanjay decide upon bicycle trailer attachments for carrying children, and pet finders for, well, finding pets. Ignoring his teammates’ advice, James overrules them and goes for foldable wellies (useful when packing a suitcase for a swamp holiday) and hanging garden chairs (useful for the 1970s) instead. “To me, that’s really bad,” is Solomon’s enraged battlecry.

They also have to choose some “big ticket items” (ie. “expensive stuff”) to go with the tat from the showroom. This is one of the tensest moments of the whole series, as each team battles to win the right to sell hot tubs to those raunchy country folk who have a spare £4000 to fork out at a moment's notice for a steamy outdoor group experience.

But first, Daniel barrels through trying to convince a bemused barbeque seller that “we’re infected by it; we feel the passion” and after being warned by Katie that he was “a bit intense”, tones it down for the hot tub man. “We’ll be making sure people leave with a smile,” he grimaces.

James then has a try for the hot tubs, shaking hands with the retailer, Anthony, assuring him that he likes the product: “Derek, Derek I do”, he cries, like a doomed bride.

Needless to say, Anthony doesn’t like being called Derek, so he jilts James and goes for Team Tenacity instead.

Cross country candidates. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

There follows a scene of such abhorrent childish obstinacy from James that you almost drop your already-wavering wry disdain for the Apprentice for pure, all-out hatred of the bloody thing.

James wants to lie to the rest of his team and tell them he decided against selling hot tubs in favour of lawnmowers (I know, a mad decision at a rural fair where none of the punters star in MTV). “My advice would be to tell the truth,” says Roisin in measured, if incredulous, tones. “It’s what I want,” James sneers, mowing her down with his lawn of lies.

But if James appears a little tetchy this week, he is nothing in comparison to Daniel. Felipe innocently blinks that he and Daniel will attempt to shift the handbags. Predictably, the latter is furious – he wore his best shiny aubergine shirt for the uniquely sleazy opportunity to sell hot tubs, which would now be Katie and Mark’s responsibility. “It’s whoever got into his brain first,” he seethes, his neck pulsating with bile, when Felipe's beleagured brain makes the controversial decision.

Once the selling begins, we see Sanjay, in vain, telling kindly country biddies they look “fabulous” in foldable wellies, Roisin softly-softly selling lawnmowers while James scowls on, Solomon stroking “about 10 dogs”, and Mark’s breathtaking whoop-swallowing pokerface when a customer casually suggests he’ll buy seven hot tubs.

Customers going cold on the hot tub. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

The boardroom, or “bearpit of sexism” as I think we can safely label it this series, sees Lord Sugar mocking the men of Team Tenacity for taking instruction from Katie. “You called up mum and asked her what to do?” he taunts. “Mummy calmed you down a little bit?” Let’s hope the business plan Katie submits to Sugar is for opening a crèche, otherwise he might be really confused.

There is also yet another male genitalia innuendo, which I really can’t be bothered to report here, because it was a real flop (eh? EH BOYS?), followed by Felipe asserting “I am not going to change from being a nice man”, Nick Hewer unaccountably calling Sanjay “nameless” in chilling tones, and James still insisting, as he has done for weeks, “I’m hungry for this.” For God’s sake, someone take the man to Bridge Café and buy him a sandwich.

And of course, that is where he ends up, as Team Summit loses to Mark’s mass-trade of hot tubs. “I called the guy Derek twice instead of Anthony,” is James’ mea culpa, as the boardroom’s straight-faced artifice dissolves completely into giggles. He is, inevitably, fired. Still, at least he can get something to eat now.

James is really starving. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Candidates to watch

Sanjay

“You’ve worked in banking all your life. You only sold three pairs of foldable wellies,” may be his epitaph.

Daniel

His clenched jaw won’t survive much longer without actually locking.

Roisin

Calm, professional, and super-smoothly Irish, is she too similar to the last series’ winner Dr Leah to last the process?

 

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here to follow it. Read my blog on the previous episode here. The show will air weekly on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. Check back for the next instalments every Thursday morning.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times