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.
But there is little in the way of fictional food drama around. I liked both the short-lived sitcom Whites (BBC), which followed a past-his-prime chef at a country house hotel, and Kitchen Confidential, an American series loosely adapted from Anthony Bourdain’s memoir of the same name, which was cancelled four episodes in; no one else did. (Occasionally there are films about chefs. Usually they are highly-strung perfectionists who heart-warmingly reconnect with their families, and the food trends depicted are two years out of date.)
For the true pessimist cook, who knows things are infinitely worse than they appear, the show to watch is Hannibal, which recently landed on Netflix: an American series following Hannibal Lecter, the (fictional) serial killer and cannibal, set before the Thomas Harris books (Silence of the Lambs, etc). In this version Hannibal (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is the world’s most un-Hippocratic psychiatrist and an extremely accomplished home cook, in addition to his extracurricular activities. And the food is the best food on TV — always beautiful, ambitious, and intensely creepy. (It does of course use some non-standard ingredients.) The culinary consultant José Andrés, trained at El Bulli, and the food on screen is made by Janice Poon, a food stylist who also works as an artist.
On her blog, Feeding Hannibal, she explains how it’s done: pomegranate reduction for blood ooze, sculpted and toasted marzipan for ortolans, bologna painted with food dye for lungs. She gives the real recipes, none of which I’ve been brave enough to make: sanguinaccio dolce, an old-fashioned Italian pudding made with blood, chocolate and milk, and flavoured with orange; langue d’agneau en papillotte (lamb’s tongue cooked in parchment) with oyster mushrooms. Which means that, like The Great British Bake Off, the show turns out to have had an educational, and demystifying, effect — fans re-create the dishes at home and even post pictures to Instagram (hashtag #Hannimeals). Janice Poon gives you helpful, no-nonsense warnings you’d never get on Bake Off: “If you decide to cook up some lung, don’t try to vacuum-pack any you may have left over. It balloons up in a way that threatens to blow up the house. I know, who has leftover lungs?”
And Hannibal as a chef is unembarrassable, which is refreshing. Challenged on his use of foie gras (served with figs), he claims to use only an “ethical butcher”. “I almost feel guilty eating it!” says one of his unwitting guests. “I never feel guilty eating anything,” Hannibal replies.