A rural idyll....
When tomorrow simply looks like a worse version of today, I find refuge in the idyllic England of peoples dreams—Yes despite my rants about "our island race" I do believe
there is one that still exists far from the madding crowd of angry
brexiteers. Its called the Great British Bake Off. National politics is
unutterably depressing. Its hard coming to terms with the problem that so many Brits still think
they live in a "GREAT " Britain and not a piddly insignificant little
island off the coast of Europe.International politics fills me with even more
foreboding. Nobody is totally sure if Trump will vacate the White house and
all I want to do is to watch British bakers earnestly attempt to steam some
17th-century puds. More of the Sussex Pond Pudding saga later.
For my peace of mind, with only two more episodes left, I have now learnt that nothing quite beats curling up with a carton of Pringles ( Yes weightwatchers and cholesterol police you may well tut!! ) a restorative glass of wine and tucking in to the Tuesday night slice of comfort food delivered by The Bake Off. This is a trick of seeking temporary refuge from the realities of a grim world by indulging in fantasies of the simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England. With all thats going on with governments at the moment, its a joy to indulge ourselves in a bit of rural English life and smutty schoolboy humour.,Watching a dozen would be bakers trooping into a cheerful,,white marquee furnished with counters, ovens, refrigerators, and all the basic paraphernalia is the perfect distraction. Devotees were ecstatic when, coronavirus notwithstanding, a new season began. However it was not without its critics. The trouble is people seem to have so much time on their hands that they raise their arms about the slightest thing.Usually these complaints concern the moments that make good television.
" Oh dear Ofcom one of the contestant´s has left one of his balls hanging out." "What do you put between your buns?" Noel asked Matt. "Its quite difficult to steam your buns properly" interjected Hollywood. Perhaps he was indicating the demise of a sauna in a pandemic.
If you want to lament the current state of The Great British Bake off, I get it. The issue is you’re way too late. I think what people are bemoaning this season is the realization that it is not a carbon copy of what it was back in 2015. People are nostalgic not only for Mary Berry, Mel and Sue, but the way the world was back then. Maybe the show’s changed since the halcyon days of Berry, et al, and a tent full of far less social media savvy bakers. But hey I´ve changed, we’ve all changed.The Bake off has had some stumbles in the last few years, but all evidence suggests the loving spirit of the show perseveres.The show has been running every summer in its native UK for the past decade, but I am new to the joys of bake off .I have never been a fan of Mary Berry and neither am I a baker by any stretch of the imagination ,but when the proceedings moved to Channel four with a new team I became more interested and started to see the nurturing cozy comfort it induced. Things have changed since last season too. The judging this season has been fairer. Noel Fielding has significantly matured as a host. The Hollywood handshake has been restrained and so too the Leith acid-tongued critiques.
Cut to 2020. The producers were faced with a Herculean task: how to film a new season of a beloved show in the middle of a pandemic. That they pulled it off at all should be commended. That it’s a huge improvement over last season is an even greater accolade.
Teething troubles over, this new season of The Bake Off is 100% better than last year’s. Paul has joked about his own Hollywood handshake, but been sparing in giving it out. That means it feels special again. Prue has been much less cruel with her retorts (though the Jewish bakeries of New York City has had a bone to pick with her about babka).
The setting of the lawn of a magnificent pastoral estate in its truly English setting is magnificent. Most of the series the sun shines, sometimes too much when the challenge is to make an ice cream cake, but when it clouds over it doesn´t matter, we know somehow that the rain is more a gentle and fructifying moisture than a miserable downpour. The hobbies and honorary doctorates of the supervisors is immaterial. Paul Hollywood is an experienced baker no question (and race-car driver) but who cares. Prue Leith, is the chancellor of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh apparently, and a restaurateur, an author, and a journalist. As replacement for Mary Berry, also a prolific author who in an earlier age got credit for moving British cuisine beyond boiled brussels sprouts, she is more than adequate.
The two sidekicks; Matt Lucas, a very funny comedian I think, and Noel Fielding, a comic who is weird but amiable if you like Goth, act as great muses.
The givens of the show remind me nostalgically of Rudyard Kipling: “Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they; But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is—Obey!” The Laws of the Tent are no less stern and unforgiving. When time is up, it’s up, and you must present your bake.
|Gorreana Green tea-ramisu (recipe)|
This would have been my show stopper had I been a contestant in the misnomer that was Japanese week
Whether the signature bake (a more or less straightforward assignment), the technical (a cruelly abbreviated recipe for some
obscure item), or the showstopper, an opportunity to build ridiculous elaborate structures on whimsical motifs, there is barely enough time to accomplish these tasks. The omissions in the technical recipes approach sadism. A decent-tasting cake is not enough: the piping must be exquisite, the design original,
the structure (who knew that bread has structure, come to think of it?)
perfect, the colour attractive, the appearance consistent, and the layout
symmetrical.This brings me to the Sussex Pond Pudding technical. “Puddings like this go back so far in British
history,” says Paul. “Steamed puddings are what we were known for.” So far back that none of the contestants knew how to make a Sussex pond pudding, presumably because of the passage
of time, and so you could argue that this particular technical challenge was
yet another gimmick, that it was too obscure, that whether a present-day
home baker knows how long to steam their suet pud tells you nothing
about how well they can or cannot bake. "Sussex pond pudding is British stodge at its very best” — I read in the Guardian!“ Does anybody even eat this in 2020?” lamented Hermine, who clearly has not been keeping up with the Guardian’s pudding coverage, like me.
Everybody failed here, but they were very British failures. Dave didn’t seal his correctly, so his was less a pond than an ocean with some pastry islands floating in it. Hermine’s pastry was almost "nice", but her undercooked lemon was “bullet hard.” Other collapsed renditions might have been delicious had they been cooked for another hour, and not understeamed. Lets applaud something from a declined empire shall we?
Prue is intimidating enough in her Professor Dolores Umbridge sort of way: “This is rather a mess, isn’t it?” and “Hmmm. Claggy. What a pity.” You feel she approaches a fallen cheesecake in the same way she would a flat tyre, with disdain. And does she take umbrage if she feels that someone has been rude or shown no respect to her.? Judging by those Dame Edna style glasses, I think she would.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge puts Hogwarts through hell by subjecting Harry to brutal penmanship-related detention, enacting myriad restrictions on the school, and attempting to eradicate Dumbledore's Army. Leith like Umbridge appears sometimes as a deluded woman."So you´ve made a lentil Dal".“Dal” has a double meaning: It is both the word for lentils and the term for a thick purée or soup made from lentils. What else could a dal be? She thinks she's doing good. it's the absolute and utter belief that her critique is actually going to help and that's, of course, so much more frightening.She is a restaurateur, she had a cookery School and most of all she is an academic, she really should know that dal is only made with lentils. But the task master and head teacher of the show is Paul Hollywood."We asked for crimping and you haven´t given us any." Hollywood, easy on the eye with his silver hair and piercing blue irises, is demanding to the point of inhumanity. In the days of the empire, he would have been a regimental sergeant major, looking an unhappy private in the eye three inches from his face, pointing at a fleck of lint on an otherwise impeccable uniform, and saying, “Your uniform is filthy, you horrible little man.” "Don´t tell him Pike" or "Don´t panic Mr Mainwaring." In Bake off there are standards. If it looks a mess, the judges will say so, and the bakers swallow hard and acknowledge their failures. If the flavours are bland, Paul and Prue will remark that the rose water simply doesn’t come through. If the flavours are too much, they will acidly observe that the rose water overwhelms everything else. If the bakers have overproofed, underbaked, kneaded too much or refrigerated too little, they will learn about it in no uncertain terms. The vaguely obscene puns—which never seem to grow tired—about flabby buns and the dreaded “soggy bottom” allow no sympathy for the vagaries of fate. When a pond pudding becomes a puddle, results, not good intentions or effort, are what matter.
And yet, the show is animated by the warmth of humanity. The bakers are (carefully curated, I don´t doubt) representatives of the British nation. There are college students and grandmothers, carpenters and lawyers; ( tinker tailor soldier sailor etc ), and personal trainers, representatives of many races from Hong Kong to Jamaica and Mumbai. They are all charming funny and remarkably nice to one another.
When one of the bakers is having a crisis—a cake separating in the middle, a collapsing gluten-enhanced edifice, cracked biscuits—the others rush to help out. Yes, there is an occasional gleam of competitive delight when one of the stars seems to stumble, and unambiguous relief when a downcast baker at the tail end of the distributional curve sees someone else receive the implacable sentence of exile from the tent, but on the whole its no more than sibling rivalry, generally they cheer each other on and sympathize with one another’s troubles. They even hold hands, some of them, in that agonizing wait as the sidekicks menacingly intone, “The bakers now await the
judgment of Prue and Paul.”
To watch The Great British Bake off is to believe that Joe or Joanna average can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. It is to believe that spectacular creativity can actually be scrumptious. In some ways, thank goodness the world of the Tent is far from
the Britain of Trollope, Dominic Cummings, or Winston Churchill.
Hollywood’s shirt tails are always hanging out, for example, which would have given my father conniptions—but it is recognizably the imaginary, comfortable Britain of another generation for which one cant but have a particular fondness. To watch it is to know that, Brexit or no Brexit, and despite royal scandals, political cock-ups, and the occasional omnishambles, there will always be an England. And that is a comforting if
possibly delusional thought.
In short, the stiff upper lipped Brit would say, The Great British Bake off is brilliant, perfectly pitched and fit for purpose. To watch it is to feel refreshed, inspired, and confident, ready to face the next day with a strong heart and a clean conscience, knowing that somewhere in rural Wiltshire or Somerset, Noel and Matt will say every week in voices of varying and unmodulated creepiness, “Bakers! On your marks, get set, bake!” With just two weeks to go...... Come on Hermine too-loo rye-aye....