The Great British Bake Off may not have the founding mission of the NHS or the longevity of the house of Windsor. However, in these uncertain times, the BBC’s televised baking contest has become an unlikely national institution – a broad tent of reassuring pavlovas and multi-tiered dramas in which everyone is welcome.
It has increased its viewing figures by around two million each year since its debut in 2010, with 15 million watching Nadiya Hussain’s cockle-warming triumph last autumn – the biggest TV audience of the year.
As the seventh season arrives, its two judges – cookbook doyenne Mary Berry and dough magnate Paul Hollywood – are secure in the knowledge that they have the best jobs in TV. “One thing that the viewer doesn’t get to do is taste,” smiles Mary. “We are the fortunate ones.”
Paul, 50, is the straight-talking Liverpudlian, the big kid, a sausage roll fiend and secret smoker. He’s game for a giggle, but nigh-on immovable in his opinions.
Mary, 81, is the air in the batter, the Home Counties matriarch, author of more than 60 cookbooks. She’s composed, queenly and brooks no nonsense.
“She’s very kind to the bakers,” says Paul. “Probably too kind – she could do with toughening up a bit.” Which rather underplays the ferocity of her moue.
They’re discussing what exactly is meant by “vintage”, Mary having been confused when her daughter referred to a 1970s dress that way. “When does vintage start?” she asks.
“When you were born, Mary?”
“I know people think I invented the Victoria sandwich, but I’m really not that old,” she counters.
Paul says that if he could return to any era, it would be the 60s: “There was the whole peace and love thing that I went through at art school, and then it went on to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. I’m an aged rocker really.”
Mary has a special fondness for the 1930s, but also cites the 60s as the era she’d most like to return to: “For me, that’s when baking was most exciting. I had my first column in a magazine and it was my job to re-create all the bakes.
“I started out with Victoria sandwich and cut-and-come-again cake and took it from there.”
However, both of them agree that, baking-wise, we’re in a golden age right now. “We have achieved our aim to get Britain baking again,” says Mary. As they explain, we are a nation of bakers. British homes tended to acquire ovens before our continental cousins, which meant we made our cakes, as opposed to buying them.
Our bread-making traditions, too, go back thousands of years. But as Paul laments, our bread lost its taste in the 1970s and 1980s when industrial processes took hold, and it’s only now we’re returning to native techniques. “Now you have higher-quality flours going into traditional recipes – like wholemeal Chelsea Buns – so you have the best of old and new.”
“Ingredients are much more varied now, too,” adds Mary. “When I started, you had cochineal food colouring that would turn things pink, but you could never make it red. Now, red is no problem – and if you look at supermarket bakery sections since Bake Off began, you can get everything.”
Neither is much swayed by the idea that we all need to cut down on sugar. Paul screws up his face. “All good things in moderation. The Mediterranean diet. Pah!”
Isn’t the Mediterranean diet the best example of a healthy, balanced diet? “I think you’ll find that people live longer in this country than they do in Greece or Cyprus [I look this up later, and he’s completely wrong]. “These scientists pick something to hang their hat on.
“One week, wine is OK to drink, the next week it isn’t. One week butter’s OK, then it’s margarine. You can’t have wholemeal, you can’t have gluten. People are educated enough to know the difference between what’s healthy and what isn’t. You can’t bludgeon them over the head with it.”
“Willpower is what it’s all about,” says Mary, taking a discreet bite of a chocolate biscuit.
For season seven, there are a few new challenges to keep things fresh – Paul seems particularly excited about “batter week” – but new innovations are kept to a minimum.
“We have an excellent format, why muck it about?” says Mary. “So many other programmes have. Nadiya was exceptional last year – but the aim is not to make it a drama. On many programmes like ours, there’s an awful lot of shouting and screaming and thrusting. Ours is not like that and everyone who watches it appreciates that.”
Paul doesn’t feel the standard has improved necessarily – “good is good” – but he does feel the bakers have become more adventurous. “We do have a lot more diversity and variety. People are taking a lot more risks with their bakes and combining much more unusual flavours.”
Both cite the Victoria sponge as their favourite bake – and a subtler anti-French/American sentiment comes out when I ask which recipes they would consign to the dustbin of history.
“The macaron has had its day,” says Mary. “I’m sick of macarons!” says Paul. “Oh, and what are those American things that we did once? Whoopee Pies… disgusting! Should never have been invented.”
“Or those cupcakes with all that icing on,” adds Paul. “Anything that has more buttercream than it does cake is going to be a no-no for me. I’d ram it into someone’s face, honestly I would.”