Great British Bake Off, Episode 1, Channel 4, Tuesday 28th August, 8pm (contains spoilers!).
One of this year’s intake of GBBO hopefuls compared competing in the marquee with playing at Wembley in the FA Cup Final: it’s appropriate as the series finale now brings in more viewers than any celebrated football match. Just like the early rounds of the Cup, it’s hard to get too attached to the sides. There are always a few non league/not-much hopers struggling to make an impact and a couple of big hitters who you can mark down as favorites from the off.
The very first task was, controversially, biscuits. Now that really piqued my interest, as I survived on three packets a day from the 20p biscuit bin in the NISA shop on Northgate Street in Great Yarmouth from 1977 to 1980 when I started in my first job in a professional kitchen. Biscuit and crisps form the standard chef’s diet, so who better to pass judgment than I? Alas there were no custard creams, no Nice and no fig rolls, just a variation on the one biscuit that’s always left at the bottom of the barrel, the shortbread.
The brief was to reflect the contestant’s regionality. Thankfully we have no Norfolk contestant this year: the Norfolk Nob really doesn’t travel well (I think it gets lost in translation). Prue (Leith, judge) said she wanted biscuits of imagination and colour, much like her outfit. Put her alongside Noel’s shirt and contestant Kim-Joy’s make up and they look like a walking, talking box of broken Party Rings. (An aside - I, alone it seems, love Noel’s new look. As he said himself, he’s rocking the hybrid Elvis/Shakin Stevens look. I’d go so far as to add in a soupcon of Paul Shane from Hi De Hi and I think you’d have his measure).
We have the usual suspects competing; among the more memorable are Rahul, a nuclear physicist who’s scared of marshmallow and Karen, a lovable but slightly dotty grandmother who eats a packet of salt and vinegar crisps as she cuts her cookies. Gentle baking enthusiast Terry seemed a nailed-on certainty to be the first to pack his bag with a batch of (Paul) “rough old biscuits” covered in chocolate sheep. As per usual, they all complained that it was too hot in the famous Bake Off tent: not surprising with twelve ovens in a marquee during a heatwave, although they all acted as if it was a shock. Worst of all was the man who admitted he sweated profusely on a regular basis to Sandi (Toksvig, presenter) before wiping his forehead with the same cloth he was using to take food out of the oven.
The technical challenge threw the contestants another curve ball, with perfect Paul (Hollywood, judge) asking the baking dozen to produce a set of Wagon Wheels. Not an easy task, involving as it does, biscuit, jam, marshmallow and chocolate. Some succeeded, others looked as though they had been dipped in a mug of tea before being presented. Some looking as if they’d been run over by a wagon. Biscuits and then Wagon Wheels: it was all going so swimmingly before it descended into farce.
The finale involved making an edible biscuit ‘selfie cake’. Who knew there was such a thing? When I won pastry student of the year at Norwich City College in 1982, I had to make a bread and butter pudding, marzipan fruits and a Swiss roll amongst other pastry creations. Thank God selfies weren’t about in the late 1980s. I found myself eating humble pie, however, as most of the crazed biscuit plaques resembled not only the artist’s impression of them but also their owner, although I’m not sure I’d want to eat any of them.
The judges tried to take it seriously, telling poor Karen that she’d created a masterpiece and then whipping away the cloth when they pointed out it lacked rosewater flavour (they had, earlier, warned her not to use too much rosewater). Contestant Ruby, meanwhile, has obviously got the huff with the judges from the off. In the end, Terry saved himself after two terrible bakes with a Picasso-esque brandy snap-snap of himself and Imelda was shown the door - despite her half decent set of coconut and oat cookies – due to a lacklustre portrait of her by a grim looking stretch of beach.
Unsurprisingly, French competitor Manon won Star Baker. She’s French: of course she’s going to be the best cook. She also knows how to play the PR game in claiming she fell in love with baking after moving to the UK from France. You. Cannot. Be. Serious. Has she seen how our bakeries compare with the ones over the channel? Zut Alors! Let’s see how her newfound friendship with Briony matures as they realise they are head, shoulders and chef’s toques above the others, with Karen worth a nod on the outsider stakes.
The show has hooked me in from the off. It’s spectacular TV, there’s terrific chemistry from the hosts and visually its a veritable riot of colour; from Prue’s ‘I got dressed in the dark’ outfit to Antony’s turmeric Goosnargh cookies, the sickly psychedelic icings to the Viva Las Vegas delicious diorama rendered in biscuit.
I’ve pressed record and also fiddled with the colour contrast on the box. Here’s hoping for Hob Nobs next week.