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Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter: A chef with many admirable qualities (©NBC)


It has always baffled me when people try to tell me that The Great British Bake Off is a calming, anxiety-easing show. Buzzfeed runs helpful listicles explaining the feelings you’re meant to have about it: “Eight Times Bake Off Restored Your Faith In Humanity”, “Nadiya From Bake Off’s 17 Best Facial Expressions”. Next year the show will move to Channel 4; when this was announced the outrage seemed half about the fear of losing this perceived cosiness. But I have always found it the most nerve-wracking of all food programmes — I have to leave the room if it’s on. I have sometimes managed to make it about halfway through an episode — just past the “technical challenge” — if only to find out what Spanische windtorte or dampfknudel actually are (respectively, a kind of meringue box filled with cream and fruit, and a white steamed dumplingish bun with a caramelised bottom).

It is highly motivational to see a baker get better and tougher and more confident each week, as Nadiya Hussain, last year’s winner, did. Some people (me) can’t put food on the table without explaining in too much detail exactly what went wrong with it; some people need to learn not to do that. But paranoid cooks fear (know) that nothing they make is ever quite right, and a show like Bake Off seems only to confirm that: whatever you make it’s overbaked, underbaked, underseasoned, wonky; it was too ambitious; it wasn’t ambitious enough.

To avoid the feeling of jeopardy which competitive shows try so hard to induce, you can turn to the how-things-are-made style of programme, such as the BBC’s Inside The Factory. This is not strictly speaking a food programme, but recent episodes have covered breakfast cereal and sweets; wonderful if you just want to look at large pieces of machinery processing thousands of tiny edible things.

My sister fondly remembers a CBBC series, Come Outside, which explains in child-friendly terms subjects such as “Bread”, “Apples”, and “A Carton Drink”. (Non-food episodes include “Boxes”, “Stones” and “Useful Holes”.) And there are travelogues, like The Chronicles of Nadiya, which is about the Bake Off heroine discovering how much Bangladesh has changed in the past ten years, as well as food, or any of those Rick Stein programmes where he travels about the world complimenting people.

Many Food Network-type shows are perfectly safe for the emotionally frazzled. Watching Ina Garten in Barefoot Contessa (not the 1950s Ava Gardner film) is about experiencing a fantasy of being very, very relaxed and getting a lot done: Ina goes to the farmer’s market, cooks steaks with her nice husband Jeffrey, makes a cake for her friends the florists to celebrate their shop’s anniversary. An archetypal Ina Garten moment, I think, is when she makes an antipasti platter and empties a jar of roasted peppers: she says something along the lines of, “You could prepare these yourself, but why bother?” Man v. Food is more like a Western: the man with no name (Adam Riches) rolls into town. He is challenged (to eat a huge amount of food). He accepts the challenge. There is a showdown (between him and a huge amount of food): he succeeds, becoming a hero to the townspeople but must ride on, in search of new frontiers (new restaurants with ridiculous eating challenges). It is deeply cathartic.

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