Hairy Bikers: We didn't see each other for five months because of the pandemic
Si King and Dave Myers chat to Katie Wright about keeping busy during lockdown, and why they decided to write a veggie cookbook
ZOOMING across the globe on two wheels, stopping off to sample delicious delicacies along the way, best mates Si King and Dave Myers – aka the Hairy Bikers – have been a near-constant fixture on our TV screens for nearly 15 years now.
The jovial duo had big plans for 2020 – but when the first lockdown began they were forced to retire to their respective homes at opposite ends of England, and didn’t see each other again until July.
“I’ve never been away from me mate for that long – it was five months,” says King, who lives in the north east.
Myers recalls the last time the pair were together, recording a voiceover for a TV series at the end of February, shortly after King had returned from a trip to Italy.
“Si and I were sharing a voiceover booth and I remember jokingly saying to him, ‘Well, if you start coughing, I’m getting out of here’. It really was very light, nobody took it seriously then.”
The bearded BFFs may have been separated for months, but that didn’t stop them from completing one big project together, their first Hairy Bikers’ vegetarian cookbook.
“We did a book a few years ago in the dieters series [The Hairy Dieters Go Veggie], and it was at the back of our minds after that,” says Myers (63). “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do a vegetarian book which is for meat-eaters really?’”
That’s right – the carnivorous cooks aren’t giving up steak and sausages for good. The Hair Bikers’ Veggie Feasts (which also features some vegan recipes) is about “putting veggies centre stage”, King says, explaining that the pals were partly inspired by their own children.
“It’s been a conversation that’s gone on within our families for a very long time. My middle son James is vegan. He’s done it from a moral point of view, but also from an environmental point of view.”
The impact of the meat industry on climate change is also a concern for the pair, something they noticed while biking through the US.
King says: “Dave and I travelled through the Midwest in the States and – not to put too fine a point on it, and you can draw your own conclusions – on the plains and outskirts of Oklahoma, there is at any one time upwards of one million head of cattle. And that’s just in Oklahoma.”
Cutting down on animal fats was another motivating factor for creating meat-free recipes. A decade ago, the pair overhauled their eating and exercise habits, losing nearly seven stone between them, and have maintained their healthier lifestyles ever since.
“Dave and I are of a certain age. where we have to watch our weight for various health reasons,” says King (54). “Me personally, from being very young, I’ve always had a propensity to put weight on.”
As well as lowering fat consumption, eating more veg-packed recipes ups the nutrient element too – as long as you don’t replace the leafy greens with masses of things like cheese or cream, of course.
“The Japanese always say that you need five colours on the plate, to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need,” says Myers. “I like to eat more vegetables for health as well – I’m not getting any younger and my body feels better on it.”
He estimates that he eats meat around three times a week now, while King says his diet is about 85 per cent plant-based. So what kind of veggie delights did the guys cook during lockdown?
“A lot of pasta, actually,” says Myers. He was taught to make pasta from scratch by his Romanian mother-in-law, who had to stay in the UK longer than expected due to travel restrictions.
While some people might consider a four-month stint living with their mother-in-law a less than appealing prospect, Myers speaks fondly of the “special time” they shared, and describes how he set about trying to use up all the bags of flour he had lurking in the back of his kitchen cupboards.
“I went down the bread-baking route like everybody else – I started with sourdough. One thing I did learn as well – and I should know this because I cook for a living – but flour does have a shelf life. I had some flour that maybe should have been thrown away in 2017,” he says with a chuckle.
King also got in on the bread-making action (“Honestly, my sourdough was epic”) and put his cookery skills to good use in his local village: “I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, it was just I cooked for some of the most vulnerable members of the community. I did a bit of that, and grew a lot of vegetables.”
Between gardening, baking, hosting Instagram live chats and finishing the new book, the Bikers have certainly kept themselves busy this year – but they say they’re more than ready for life to go back to how it was before the pandemic.
King is set to become a grandfather for the first time soon, with his son and daughter-in-law’s baby due to arrive around Christmas. Whether or not it can happen this December, he says the thing he’s most looking forward to doing again is “seeing family and having the big get-togethers that we used to have, and cooking together and having a chat and giving each other kisses and cuddles.”
Myers says that even if he can’t have a big family gathering as usual this year, he’ll be reaching out to friends and relatives at Christmas – “at least digitally keeping in touch, a phone call or email. [I’m] aware there’s a lot of people have lost people this year. Even more so than ever, they might need a bit of comfort.”
The Hairy Bikers’ Veggie Feasts by Si King and Dave Myers, photography by Andrew Hayes-Watkins, is published by Seven Dials, priced £22 (orionbooks.co.uk). Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
WINTER VEGETABLE SOUP WITH DUMPLINGS
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
600g root vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips, swede, turnips, celeriac and potatoes, sliced or diced
150g beetroot (100g peeled and diced, 50g grated)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1tsp dried thyme or 2 sprigs of fresh
Up to 1.5L vegetable stock
2 leeks, finely sliced
100g kale, shredded
Sea salt and black pepper
To make the dumplings:
150g self-raising flour
75g butter or vegetarian suet
1tsp caraway seeds (optional)
1tsp dried thyme
Finely chopped dill or parsley
Dollops of mustard or horseradish
Heat the oil in a saucepan or a flameproof casserole dish. Add the onion and cook gently over a medium-high heat until it starts to take on some colour. Add the root vegetables, including the diced beetroot, but not the grated, and continue to cook, stirring regularly, for another 10 minutes until they start to reduce in volume.
Stir in the garlic, thyme and barley and cook for another couple of minutes. Pour in 1.2 litres of the stock and season. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a fast simmer. Stir in the Marmite (the heat will melt it off the spoon) and partially cover the pan with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the vegetables start to soften.
Add the leeks and kale. Continue to cook until the barley is swollen and slightly al dente and the vegetables are tender – this should take 15-20 minutes. Add more liquid if the soup gets too thick.
Meanwhile, make the dumplings. Put the flour into a bowl and add the butter or suet. Rub in, season well. Add the caraway seeds, if using, and the thyme and just enough water to make a slightly tacky dough. Divide into eight pieces and roll into balls.
Stir the grated beetroot into the soup. Drop the dumplings on top of the soup and either put the pan in the oven for about 15 minutes until they're puffed up and lightly browned, or cover and leave to simmer on the hob for 15–20 minutes. Garnish with dill or parsley and serve with dollops of mustard or horseradish.
(Makes one 20x20cm tin)
275ml plant-based milk, any sort
150ml groundnut or walnut oil
2tsp vanilla extract
2tbsp ground flax seeds
60ml hot water
125g plain flour
½tsp baking powder
100g light soft brown sugar
75g caster sugar
150g vegan chocolate chips
100g nut butter, any sort
Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 160C. Line a 20 x 20cm brownie tin with baking paper or brush with cake-release spray.
Whisk the milk, oil and vanilla extract together in a bowl and set aside. Mix the ground flax seeds with the hot water and leave to stand for five minutes. Whisk all the remaining ingredients, except the chocolate chips and the nut butter, together in a separate bowl.
Beat the flax seeds into the wet ingredients, then add the dry mixture and fold in as gently as you can. Add the chocolate chips.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin. Dot spoonfuls of the nut butter all over the batter, then swirl it through, using the tip of a knife. Don’t mix it up too much!
Bake for 20–25 minutes until just set. Leave to cool completely, then cut into squares. If you want them extra fudgy, put them in the fridge for several hours. Otherwise transfer to an airtight container.