Despite whipping up an admirable array of cakes, cookies and pastries on last year’s series of The Great British Bake Off – impressing the judges so much he was crowned the winner – Giuseppe Dell’Anno doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth.
“I don’t usually get cravings for sweet bakes,” the 46-year-old admits. Instead, he’s all about the savoury treats. “Very few things give me as much pleasure as the smell of baked savoury goods, like a warm loaf of bread, or some warm focaccia. Baked focaccia, that to me is heaven on a plate.”
The Italian baker – who is now based in Bristol – has written his first cookbook, dedicating it to the bakes of his homeland. He might not have a sweet tooth, but he still says: “I enjoy the process of baking – and most crucially, the joy of sharing the baked goods with others, more than stuffing my face. I don’t dislike a nice lump of cake – in the process of writing that book, I put on 13 kilos in less than a year… I’ve literally ‘proved’!”
Many of the recipes in the book are ones Dell’Anno ate growing up, made for him by his father. “My dad was a professional chef and baker by passion. He’s always done it with a passion – for him, it’s never been work – and he didn’t stop at work.
“Before leaving the house in the morning, he would prepare lunch for everybody, then he would go to work, cook and bake the whole day, then come back and do the same for family and friends. It’s been his life effectively, since he started working in his early teens.
“I was born into that environment – I remember vividly Sunday mornings, waking up relatively late and my dad was already folding tortellini for lunch, and putting together the cake for after lunch – because in Italy back in the day, Sunday cake or pastries were a thing after lunch.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Dell’Anno was helping his dad in the kitchen from a young age. “Funnily enough, having all of that readily served to me, I never needed to learn how to bake – because I was surrounded by all that stuff every single day,” he confesses. “It’s only when I left home at 18 and I realised it was not the same for everybody, that I’d been very lucky to have all of that – then I started to learn things myself.”
While Dell’Anno’s father didn’t teach him, he says: “Observing him doing things over and over again had given me that sixth sense that you need to work out how things are done. So when I actually started actively learning things, for me it was an easy journey – because I’d seen it all before.”
His heritage wasn’t the only thing that made baking come easily. Before winning Bake Off, Dell’Anno worked as an engineer. “Baking is all about being accurate and precise, weighing your ingredients, following baking temperatures and recipes. Accuracy is a big part of baking, and engineers are by trade accurate people. In my case even more so, because I’m a materials engineer – so I bake materials.”
Dell’Anno adds: “I used to deal with very large ovens to bake aeroplane wings – now I’m just making cakes or biscuits.”
Despite already being an excellent home baker, Dell’Anno is quick to stress just how much he learned from the show.
“Going on Bake Off – this applies for every baker on the show – you’ve got to learn things you’ve never done before. Regardless of how good a home baker you are, home bakers usually have their own skills, they’re good at a few things, but they’re not good at everything.
“Whereas on the show, you’ve got to do pretty much everything – from ice cream to fried goods to yeasted baked cakes to mousses, and many elaborate things.”
Dell’Anno adds with a laugh: “Undeniably, a lot of those things I had never seen before. It’s almost a trite thing to say, but you get a boost in confidence because effectively you’re forced to do things you wouldn’t even touch with a stick otherwise. And at the end of the day, you realise they are not as difficult as they might look or they might seem.”
Exceptional baking skills and a mastery of the mirror glaze wasn’t the only gift the show gave him. Dell’Anno won legions of fans for his gentle and friendly demeanor, but he was nervous about how the public would react to him.
“I’m a very insecure man, very insecure,” he says. “I was terrified at the idea that I was going to be putting myself on the TV screen, because acceptance for insecure people is always a big thing. I literally lost sleep over the idea that I might not get accepted – I might get trolled on Twitter, like has happened to other bakers in the past – that my features would be picked on and my accent – all these things start to grow in your head.
“And none of that happened. Nothing of what I was fearing most happened – quite the opposite actually. It has changed me, in the way that having gone through that validation process on an epic scale, on such a big, high-profile show. It took me 46 years and a national TV show to realise that it’s just in our head – all of these problems, all of these issues that we create for ourselves, in terms of how others perceive us.
“It doesn’t matter how quirky you may come across or may look, or how unusual the things you do might be, there is always going to be somebody out there who appreciates you for who you are.”
Dell’Anno accepts he was extremely “privileged” to have this experience, saying: “I wish there was a way for all insecure people to have this sort of therapy – for me, it’s been a massive form of therapy, going on Bake Off.”
‘Giuseppe’s Italian Bakes’ by Giuseppe Dell’Anno (published by Quadrille, £20; photography by Matt Russell), available now.