The Great British Baking Show is as much a mental health routine as it is a competition show, and Bread Week is a major milestone on our journey to a better, butterier, more British lifestyle. By this week we’ve grown to know our contestants—and our new co-host Matt Lucas—well enough that the tent no longer feels like a magical, far-off place, but rather our second home. This is where we were always supposed to be, and it’s where this team of ten bakers were destined to be judged by Paul, Prue, and me. God, it really does feel so good to be back, doesn’t it?
Unlike most traditional breads, which are heavily kneaded and leavened with yeast, soda breads are chemically leavened with baking soda, which the Brits adorably call bicarb. Essentially, they’re giant scones, which Paul Hollywood adorably calls scahns. Other U.K. terminology to familiarize yourself with before we hop into things: a scone can be what Americans call biscuits; “biscuits” are cookies; and “baps” are either soft, supple bread rolls, or boobs. Now you know why Paul Hollywood is a bread guy.
Bread Week gives us another round of short baker bio videos, and this being the third of the series, the producers have either completely run out of ideas, or they figure that with this whole cockamamie COVID-bubble situation, they’ve already done more than enough for these bakers. Enjoy the riveting sight of Mark... working from home! Feast your eyes on Laura... still eating the pizza from last week’s bio! Behold the sight of young, bright-eyed Peter... standing beside his gluten-intolerant brother! This is the third straight appearance of Gluten-Intolerant Brother, because it’s extremely important for all of us to remember that Peter’s gluten-free baked goods are not just about flavor—they’re a means of preventing his brother’s GI distress.
We’ve been blessed with such an extraordinary crop of bakers this year that we’re three episodes in and I’ve barely written a word about Linda, despite the fact that she’s so damn delightful that I may or may not have several dozen photos of her fishing for mackerel and drinking in a shed taped to the ceiling above my bed. (My husband watches the show, too, so I’m assuming he’s been totally cool with this.) Her sweet soda bread is inspired by the traditional flavors of Wales, meaning it’s got lots of dried fruit but no vowels.
But the real star of this round is Hermine, the single mom from West Africa whose free time is spent knitting while sitting on the ground, knitting while sitting on a park bench, and knitting while enjoying the films of Lupita Nyong’o. As co-host Matt Lucas points out, she “invented a bread,” making a savory loaf studded with smoked salmon and umami-rich black garlic that knocks Paul Hollywood for a loop, and a sweet soda bread with ultra-potent brandy-soaked fruit that makes 80-year-old Prue visibly randy. Hermine’s soda breads are so good that they earn the season’s second Paul Hollywood Handshake (!!!), but unfortunately soda bread isn’t much to look at, so let’s enjoy her contribution to Cake Week instead.
I was born and raised in New York City, meaning I have very strong opinions on bagels. I’d never considered what the state of bagels across the pond might be, but in this age where everything you need to know about good bagel-making is on the internet, you’d figure that, at the very least, the British know what bagels are supposed to look like.
Not only does Paul Hollywood tell the bakers to rainbow-up their bagels (a shonda if ever there was one), his instructions also state that they should be boiled in water fortified with “bicarb,” which is so wrong that I practically want to vomit in disgust. There is only one acceptable thing to add to bagel-boiling water, and that’s malt syrup. The fact that this technical challenge happened at all has caused me to lose respect not only for Paul Hollywood, but the entirety of the United Kingdom. Linda’s bagels win; the rest can burn in hell where they belong.
This week I learned of the existence of the Harvest Festival, which is like British Pagan Thanksgiving. I spent a solid five minutes Googling this ancient tradition so that I could educate my fellow Yankee Doodles all about it. The Harvest (or hærfest) Festival is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest to the first full moon of fall, during which the village was visited by the “Old Sow.” Old Sow is sort of like Pumpkin Spice Santa Claus and is played by two men dressed in sacks filled with prickly cuttings from shrubbery. Then the celebration, or horkey, began: a wagon of corn would be wheeled into a village as a band played, and women were sent into the field to retrieve any crops the men missed. Then they gathered dried corn husks to make dolls that trapped the female spirit of the divine cailleach (Gaelic for “hag”), who lives inside corn and was left homeless by the harvest. Once the spirit was good and trapped she’d be burned to mark the death of summer, after which the townspeople would feast on geese (which would bring them financial health through the coming year), and cracked open their barrels full of ale. To ensure the sacred occasion would be remembered after the entire town was done getting utterly shitfaced, someone made a harvest plaque. ~fin~
The most beautiful of all the bread plaques was by our resident dandy/possible time traveler Rowan, but, alas, it tasted super lame, and since he also whiffed it with his grainy polenta soda bread and flaccid, wrinkly “bagels,” we must bid him and his sophisticated vests adieu. This week’s star baker is Marc with a C, the sculptor whose forte is bread baking. Way to go, Marc! I look forward to everything going downhill for you from this point on.