I have to confess that I was a little surprised to read about the massive divide between foodies over the Great British Bake-Off. I adore the show for the recipes and ideas and the sometimes hilarious contestants. I was even more surprised to read about the vitriol and name calling and gender divide that it appears to have engendered (heh, see what I did there? Didja? Didja?). But most surprising of all was the weighing in of various celebrity chefs, most notably Raymond Blanc.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Raymond. I don’t know why. Maybe because he seems so sweet. Maybe because I like his ethos of homegrown ingredients. Maybe because I’m a sucker for a French accent. Who knows? The point is, as much as I firmly believe his comments were taken out of context and blown wildly out of all proportion, it surprises me that he accused the finalists of having little skill.
Patisserie is an immensely competitive and very difficult field of cooking. There’s a reason most catering schools put patisserie as the final year – because only 40% of student chefs manage to complete the course.
It’s my experience (and I may be wrong) that chefs either love or hate patisserie. I think it’s because it’s different to so many other branches of food. There’s less room for error – it’s got too much science in it. If you screw it up, it doesn’t work. If you’re a chef that’s into precision and science, baking is your thing. If you just want to experiment and go with your gut, trusting your natural flair to make beautiful things without conforming to rules, patisserie is maybe not a field that’s recommended for you.
Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot of room for flair and flamboyancy in baking. Bakers the world over are breaking boundaries all the time with new and exciting techniques and flavours. But beneath it is a solid ground of science. Baking, to me, is a curious alchemy. It’s a blend of precision and art.
I was reading a fascinating article the other day about how patissieres in France are the new “Gods of food”. Apparently they’re all the rage in Paris right now and young chefs wanting to make a name for themselves are using baking to get there. They’re creating a new raft of fashionable, contemporary, slightly off the wall, but still recognisable as classics, cakes and pastries that are delighting patisserie lovers everywhere. (Olive oil eclair, anyone?). The reasoning behind the article was that it was to do with the recession. In these times of fiscal hardship, a cake is a small and often inexpensive delight that people can purchase as a treat. When you’ve given up wine, cigarettes, books, flowers and many other luxuries that brighten your day, the odd £2-£3 here and there on a slice of cake is an inexpensive way to cheer yourself up. The figures support it – bakeries are reporting a rise in sales of individual cakes and a reduction in family size gateaux sales.
I found this fascinating. It brings home to me what baking is really all about. Strip away the arguments, strip away the gender vitriol, strip away the glitz and glamour of celebrity patissieres and what you have is soul food. It’s a sweetness that speaks to the heart. There’s something about pastries, breads and cakes that are reminiscent of all that is good in this life – warmth, home, family and love.
So set aside your spatulas of war, people. Go forth and bake. It’s good for the soul.