The Great British Bake Off is a gentle antidote to harsh TV shows and has reignited our passion for the mixing bowl, writes Lori Anderson
‘BEAT me! Whip me! Then drizzle me slowly in creme anglaise.” Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Half of the nation, and a little bit extra, have all indulged in this collective fantasy. Fifty Shades of Grey? No. Just one silver fox with searing blue lupine eyes and the welcoming body of the Pilsbury Doughboy.
Arise Mr Paul Hollywood, co-judge along with Mary Berry, of the Great British Bake Off and the year’s most surprising sex symbol. And no wonder. The man is a born sensualist, like a culinary vestal virgin, he has devoted his life to cakes. He wouldn’t complain about a little avoirdupois and might even encourage it. There would be no end to the treats he could deliver. He is to women of this generation what Charlie Dimmock, that bra-less, green fingered wonder, once was to men – a saucy comfort wrapped around an intrinsic desire for hearth and home.
I love the Great British Bake Off and the ratings show that I am not alone. Four and a half million of us are all turning on each Tuesday night for what on paper is an unlikely ratings success. Twelve men and women meet each weekend in a tent in Sussex and aspire to outdo each other in a rising world of doughy deliciousness where the zenith of the competition is Hollywood, the former head pastry chef at the Dorchester Hotel, patting their wares on the bottom and exclaiming: “Good bake!”
Yet what separates this show from the tasteless gladiatorial combat of the X Factor or Gordon Ramsay’s foul-mouthed rants during his Kitchen Nightmares is the “Famous Five” politeness, the general air of fair play and warm encouragement that perfumes the air like a sugar-sprinkled kugelhopf. It is the return to the Enid Blyton of our childhood, all that is missing is “lashings and lashings of ginger beer”.
When it comes to escapism for the middle classes, it beats Class A drugs and is best enjoyed with a glass of pinot noir.
Also surprising is the number of men who are now tied to the GBBO’s apron strings. When a recent England international clashed with a particularly challenging round on beef Wellingtons, the twitter sphere exploded with outraged baking buddies. “They’ve slipped up putting the football on during Great British Bake Off. What was ITV thinking?” complained one, while other added: “England have 20 minutes to impress me or I shall watch British Bake Off instead.”
They have clearly recognised an alpha male worth following off the pitch. Hollywood can even manage, with a straight face, to say lines such as: “You are harnessing an animal – yeast!” This could have gone down as the funniest line I have heard all year and it certainly made me want to throw on a poncho and chew a cheroot while I incubated a brioche dough for 24 hours over the weekend. Then I read what Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst and author had to say about baking: “Cake is embedded with complex ideas. Cake baking can be about power, deferred pleasure and violence – about acting out violence in order to get to a state of peace.” Blimey.
The Butch Cassidy to Mr Hollywood’s Sundance Kid is the delightful Berry, who at 77, became a style maven with her Zara floral bomber jacket a few weeks ago, not only did it sell out, it is now selling on Ebay for more than £200. What I love about her is that she is a much-older women on television at a time when the prevailing powers would have shunted her off the screen and she is celebrated for her skills and a motherly manner that always has something positive to say about even the most soggy-bottomed disaster. Both Berry and Hollywood are now set to delight their new fans in separate spin-off shows, while Auntie Beeb has even managed to flog the concept of the Great British Bake Off to the French. Talk about taking coal to Newcastle.
Not since the classical era have offerings to Hestia and Vestia been so profuse. Our own Celtic goddess, Brighid, would be delighted as there is even a mellifluously vowelled Scots hero who has battled his way to the final in the bespectacled form of James Morton, a 21-year-old medical student from Shetland, who has become a rival sex symbol on account of his Fair Isle tank tops and nerd glasses. At the start of the show he had 60 Twitter followers and now has more than 15,000 and last week cunningly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by claiming that his gingerbread barn, which had collapsed during construction, was a deliberate culinary ruin. One could see the facial muscles of Brendan, the retired Irishman, begin to twitch with suppressed fury as it looked as if the young Scot was going to steal away the thunder from his shredded wheat tiled bird house, complete with a matchy-matchy marzipan blue birds of happiness. No wonder young James was described on Tuesday night as a “wily minx”.
What I also love about the show is the way in which it has led the nation on the path back to their own hearths. According to a recent report from Debenhams, sales of cake stands have risen by 207 per cent, while baking accessories are up by 38 per cent and a new range of tea-time ware has shot up by 50 per cent. Meanwhile Marks & Spencers said sales of its cake stands shot up by 243 per cent and, on Amazon, one in ten of the 100 top-selling cookbooks is about the great art of baking. There are those who would argue that our return to the kitchen has been driven by the austerity of today’s hard times on the grounds that it is cheaper to make than to buy, but instead I see it more as a reaction against celebrity culture and the vulgar excess of the vapid Kardashians/Housewives etc and a desire for more simple, wholesome pleasures.
There is an alchemical pleasure in mixing basic ingredients together that when combined with heat produce delicious floury fancies which generate collective oohs and ahhs. It has become a cliche to say that chocolate is better than sex but I would argue that baking can be as intimate, as there is nothing better than feeding and nourishing the ones you love.