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“Oh no, that programme’s terrible,” uttered one of the twins as we settled down in front of the fire for an evening of family telly. On screen, Rachel Allen, doyenne of Irish culinary television, was strutting her Nigela-esque stuff, showing the nation how to blind bake the quintessentially perfect pastry case.
Curious, I asked what my daughter found so bad about the programme. “Well, it makes you so hungry,” came the reply. I guess you can’t argue with that; the new series is all about baking.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and baking, it has to be said, is very close to my heart. Eating it that is, not actually doing it. I’m lucky, because I happen to be married to an excellent baker, and it’s winter. Winter means the oven on the range is always hot, and there’s usually something yummy on offer in the kitchen.
So you’d think Rachel Allen’s new series would appeal to me… and it does on one level. It’s a good, wholesome programme that we can enjoy at a decent hour with the children, and yes, some of the recipes look mouthwatering. Television that passes on practical information, and real skills that you can use is to be applauded.
But there’s another aspect to the programme that tarnishes its superficial appeal. It’s a problem that afflicts many such programmes – Nigela Lawson’s are a prime example, as was the last series of iconic celebrity cook Delia Smith, and in other genres things like “Location, location, location”. It’s the gradual erosion of content to make way for the presenters’ expanding egos.
Do we really want to see Nigela making her night-time sojourn to the fridge, learn about Delia’s extracurricular activities between recipes, or be subjected to a banal exchange of banter by property prospectors Kirsty Allsop and Phil Spencer. Does it add to the quality of the programme? No? Then why is it in there? Some shows that began life as great television have evolved to become little more than vehicles for the burgeoning celebrity of their presenters, and that’s a shame.
Rachel Allen, with her initially endearing idiosyncrasies and foodie foibles, is in real danger of falling into the same trap. Having a compelling, likeable and talented presenter is important for this type of show, but when the presenter overshadows the subject matter it quickly becomes wearying.
The show itself features some good content – the recipes are interesting and well within the scope of the average home baker, while the tips you can pick up in the section where Rachel is teaching students at the Ballymaloe Cookery School are useful, bordering on the insightful. But there’s the very real sense that it’s all becoming as much about celebrity as it is about food, and that’s worrying.
Some celebrity chefs integrate food and ego seamlessly – Gordon Ramsey, for instance, Marco Pierre White or Raymond Blanc. They are incredibly ego-centric individuals, most of the best chefs are, but their inflated egos stem from their food. The camera came later, and it’s still food that drives them. The danger comes when the camera usurps the food as the primary factor in swelling an individual’s ego… and that’s the crossroad Rachel Allen finds herself at now.
The cookery interests me, the overenthusiastic self-involved gushing I could do without. But for now, I’ll keep watching, and hopefully sampling some of the fare featured. It’s about baking after all, and as we’ve already established baking is good. Very good.