Britain's big Bake Off effect

Long-time baker Zoe Tew, manager of the Mrs. King’s Pork Pies stall at the Borough Market in London, is glad that supermarkets now have bigger baking sections, thanks to the popularity of The Great British Bake Off.
Long-time baker Zoe Tew, manager of the Mrs. King’s Pork Pies stall at the Borough Market in London, is glad that supermarkets now have bigger baking sections, thanks to the popularity of The Great British Bake Off.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • In a big white tent set in the English countryside, six bakers were putting their signature spin on dinner rolls.

They fretted over rising times and knelt in front of their portable ovens in a scene familiar to fans of The Great British Bake Off. The episode was being shot at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, outside London.

The news would soon break that the popular baking competition was sold by BBC to the glitzier Channel 4. The two punning hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and the knowledgeable octogenarian judge, Mary Berry, would all quit in allegiance to the BBC, while the other judge Paul Hollywood would agree to continue with the show.

A riotous British media to-do would ensue: Would the show survive without Berry, Perkins and Giedroyc and did Channel 4 really pay £75 million (S$127.8 million) for Hollywood and a tent?

In the six years it has been on the air, the show has fundamentally changed the way the British regard baking, dessert-eating and even their own culture of sweets.

The Bake Off Effect, as it is known, has manifested in a resurgence in home baking, a noticeable increase in the quality of baked goods sold and a growing number of people pursuing careers as professional pastry chefs.

Just as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay increased the allure of British chefs, Berry and Hollywood have reinvigorated the bakers. It is a golden age for baking in Britain, both for pastries and for their sweet-toothed fans.

With its multicultural roster of contestants, Bake Off has also put forward a contemporary vision of Britishness that emphasises diversity and inclusiveness.

Although the show's premise is overtly nostalgic - all of the baking is done outside in a tent hung with cheery Union Jack bunting, alluding to the tradition of a village festival - the contestants are a cultural and ethnic mix.

Most prominently, there was Nadiya Hussain, the Season 6 winner, who was born in Luton to a family of Bangladeshi immigrants and who wears a hijab.

She triumphed with creations such as cayenne gingerbread and cream puff towers in bubble gum and peppermint flavours.

About 8,000 bakers apply for each season. "It's the opposite of the superficiality you usually see in TV casting in that we aren't necessarily choosing people with the biggest personalities," said Mr Richard McKerrow, a founder of Love Productions, which produces the show.

"The show is one of the most uncynical and enjoyable looks at people. You're looking at a bus driver, a builder, a doctor, just as long as they are great bakers."

Berry said the main reason for the show's success is that baking holds a universal, wholesome appeal.

"You have whole families from all different cultures and across the generations, the grannies, the babes in arms, everyone, who can sit down to watch it and know that there will be no swearing, that it's a family show," she said.

"The children especially love it because it's full of brandy snaps and other sweet things that they can't wait to run home after school and have a go at making themselves."

The show is one of the top-rated shows on British TV, reaching its peak of 15 million viewers with the Season 6 finale last year. As its audience grew, interest in home baking had a marked renaissance.

Supermarkets and baking supply stores responded by expanding their offerings.

After the gingerbread episode aired, Hobbycraft, a crafts, baking and arts supply store, reported a 30 per cent increase in the sale of icing piping tools. Waitrose supermarkets reported that baking tray purchases increased 881 per cent since the series began.

Hobbyists are finding help in weekend classes. Bread Ahead bakery in London offers a Great British Baking Workshop, which gives lessons in potato farl from Northern Ireland and fruit and tea loaf from Wales.

"We used to call it the Celtic baking class," said its founder Matthew Jones, "but after the success of the show, we rebranded."

In a way, rebranding is at the very soul of The Great British Bake Off, a reconsideration of everything that British baking can be.

Chetna Makan, a semi-finalist in Season 5 who moved from Mumbai to Kent in 2004, charmed the audience with her inspired use of fenugreek, cardamom and turmeric.

"Every week, I tried to bake something with flavours that maybe Mary and Paul hadn't tasted," she said. She called being on the show "the opposite of Brexit".

"It's so different from the picture Brexit painted, that the British want their nation back and that they want us out," she said.

"The Bake Off has had such a positive effect on people's lives, certainly for the people on the show, but also for the people watching."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2016, with the headline 'Britain's big Bake Off effect'. Print Edition | Subscribe