I’m not crazy about cookery shows. I suspect they indicate how little we are cooking, rather than how much. We’re fascinated with celebrity chefs because we think they’ve mastered something exotic and foreign to us — no surprise their shows are often slotted next to travel programmes. Looking at Jamie Oliver potter about his kitchen, we smugly feel we’ve given some time to cooking, though in reality we’ve done no such thing. On the whole, I think you are better off making yourself some buttered toast than spending an hour watching Anthony Bourdain experiment with spring rolls in Hanoi.
The Great British Bake Off (BBC2, Tuesdays) is different. Like Masterchef, we follow the series not so much for the culinary expertise — though that is important — but for the human drama. Contestants from all walks of life pit their skills against each other and, through the assiduous whisking of egg-whites or an expert turn of the rolling pin, can change their fates for ever. In the first episode of the new, fourth season, Ruby, the youngest baker of this year’s batch of 13 hopefuls, burst into tears when her crème pâtissière curdled. In this week’s second instalment, she produced a decorative loaf in the shape of an extravagant peacock, and was garlanded Star Baker.
The programme is fragrant with nostalgia. It takes place in a large tent set in a verdant pasture, and the kitchen studio is itself like a cake, an airy confection of pale blues, greens and creams. There are vintage-looking mixers and fridges. It all evokes a vanilla-essenced past, when Mother baked and everyone had time to sit down to tea. It’s the small things in life that matter, suggests this hugely popular show — the biscuits and buns and Bakewell tarts. Trifles are anything but.
Another reason why the show has leapt ahead of other cookery programmes, of course, is that cakes are pretty. Try as it might, beef wellington will never look as beatific as angel food cake. The Showstopper round is where the contestants get to show not only their baking skills but also their powers of design. Whose heart wouldn’t lift at the sight of a rose-and-pistachio cake with lychee flavouring, strewn with scarlet petals? (That was the creation of Ali, who, in his bright jumper, exuded a sweet charm.) Who wouldn’t smile at a sandwich cake made to look like an actual sandwich encased in a paper bag (Frances), or a model chocolate bear guarding a ‘Black Forest’ (Howard)? These citadels of ice and sugar show cooking as not only taste and flavour, but also as architecture and art.
I suppose Mary Berry is supposed to be the good cop, while her co-judge Paul Hollywood is the bad cop, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Berry may look merry but she can be all steel under her signature floral blazers. She’s mastered the art of offering penetrating comments with an air of maternal concern, and looked distinctly unimpressed when contestant Lucy said she intended to use the four hours of her allocated baking time by making a relatively simple loaf. (Lucy’s effort, tomato bread in the shape of a tomato, topped with real tomatoes, did not go down well.)
Cometh the flour, cometh the man. Salt-and-pepper-haired Hollywood brings a masculine allure to baked goods. He gazes at each contestant with his piercing eyes as though they were the last two cake-makers on earth, tasked to self-raise a new world. In return the contestants quake at his presence, and almost melt with relief when he spares them any barbs. But even his most stinging of sentences often contain some crumb of comfort for the aspiring bakers.
The Great British Bake Off exudes a hearty patriotism in the least aggressive of ways. Its title indicates nationalism and competitiveness, but also wholesomeness. There are little Union flags in the form of bunting decorating the studio, and the rival bakers are often tasked with making things like muffins, puddings and tarts — all the foodstuffs that make Britain great. Yet this national pride spills over to embrace, well, the world: Ali made a yin-and-yang loaf, white chocolate on one side, chicken tikka on the other; Kimberley came up with ‘peace bread’, a tear-and-share circular creation imbued with both Jewish and Arab ingredients.
Many were surprised when such a relatively humble programme made it to the top. But perhaps it would have been more surprising if it hadn’t. We like things that make us happy and that bring people together. In these self-centred times, perhaps we also hunger for the simple pleasures that bind. Because baking is communal, isn’t it? It is the very nature of a Victoria sponge to be shared. Bacon sandwiches may come individually wrapped, while Michelin-starred dinners are for the moneyed few. Cake is for everyone.