I have never been much of a baker, though not for want of trying . My scones have ranged from lead balls to doughy underbaked embarrassments. My cakes are inconsistent and dangerously representative of my indisciplined self. I can turn out some pretty good chocolate chip cookies (though on their last outing they were unremarkable, for reasons unbeknownst to me), and Nigel Slater’s chocolate brownie recipe give the impression that I have talent (when in fact its just the beautiful alchemy of fat, sugar and chocolate dumped together that overcome despite this cook’s limited ability). I am a good cook but alas only a very average baker.
This in no way dampens my enthusiasm for basking in the reflected glory of other’s baking achievements. The Great British Bake Off being the pinnacle of such baking glory. I love it, everything bit of it, and will happily defend it’s twee, garden fete, WI-ness in the face of all nay sayers to the bitter end. A bit emphatic I know? But I am an expat who has been living in France for the past seven years and any reminders of home, fringed with a bit of bunting brings a nostalgic tear to my eye, and has me humming “the village green preservation society”. Ray Davies (The Kinks) wasn’t wrong, “god bless strawberry jam and all the different varieties”.
I should probably point out that I have very rarely come in contact with the delights of pastel coloured fabric scraps as village fairs were a long way off from my north London suburb and its sounds of Asians, overground. As a a first generation British Asian, I have nibbled a bit of Batenburg, set my teeth on edge with Fondant Fancies and wondered why oh why anyone would want to adorn anything with revolting glacé cherries. Thanks to Mr Kipling I had a window into that other world. Cakes were occasionally baked and enjoyed in our house (by my dad the baker), preferably whilst still blisteringly hot and came in two very welcome varieties, plain sponge and sultana, but this was hardly the source of my dewey eyed daydreams. My village green dreams are a construct of The Archers, Darling Buds of May with a bit of River Cottage thrown in for good measure. A love child born out of these country concoction all rosey cheeked perfection with a sun dappled complexion and a perpetual soft focus glow. And so the Bake Off is my chocolate box England, where I even enjoy the sickly sweet soft centres.
But the Bake Off had now made its way to this side (the french side) of the Channel, same intro, music, marquee, bunting and a distinctly English looking setting? In fact right down to the interiors and candy coloured appliances it appears to be the same. But this alas is where all similarities end. “Le meilleur Patissier”, a title that immediately moves away from any notions of best amateur baker, and favours ‘best’ full stop, in a humourless, mastercheffy way. No history lesson about the origins and types of dunkable biscuits. No Mel and Sue to lighten up the proceedings, but a skinny “I only occassionally nibble at a sliver of cake” presenter (the most amateur of all the participants). No Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, firm, fair and frothy. Rather France’s overbaked celebrity (michelin annointed) chef Cyrille Lignac and food blogger named Mercotte (it seems some cooks opt for a mononyme in an attempt to rival rock star like Cher, Brittney, Rihanna but to no avail). Judging is a rigorous exercise in preservation of the high art of patisserie and allows little or no room for original flights of fancy. There will be no cupcakes with popping candy here, nor any flavouring that may offend French sensibilities. A nod to maccha is permitted (as all things Japanese are “de rigueur”) and a bit of cardamom or cinnamon is allowed an appearance so long as one is prudent. All offerings must resemble works of art as prescribed by the likes of Laduree and Pierre Hermé. In short there is nothing remotely home baked or half baked here. Please do not misunderstand my critique, I love french patisserie. It is almost always delicious, refined and exquisite to look at. But its not home baking, in fact France is really not a nation of home bakers. “Le meilleur Patissier” is not a warm hug but rather a frosty greeting. Maybe no one really cares, that much is lost in translation, afterall the BBC must be chuffed that they have sold the concept of to around 20 different countries. But I love the original and have no time for its Gallic cousin. Sorry, “its just not British!”