No smut, just soot

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Barnsley’s John Foster in Victorian Bakers


To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes of the BBC’s Victorian Bakers, fearing it might be rather like the Great British Bake Off, which I have hardly seen. That’s mostly because it is hosted by the truly awful woman Sue Perkins, fully of smutty innuendoes, so it is the Great British Turn Off for me.

But Victorian Bakers does not contain Sue Perkins. One of the presenters is Alex Langlands, whose TV archaeological career I have followed since the truly wonderful series, Tales From the Green Valley, and the subsequent shows.

It also has four real bakers so while this is reality TV and they all have to dress up they do know their stuff and have a real passion for the craft. And unlike most TV historical shows, there are no false dramas, no silly tasks devised to make things more interesting. The history and process of baking is interesting in its own right.

Among them is John Foster, managing director of Foster’s Bakery, Barnsley, who makes sliced white and frozen bread to sell to China but, judging from his technique, can still turn a nifty artisan loaf when he has to.

One of the notable sequences came in the second episode when he got quite emotional having to add adulterants and extenders to flour such as chalk and alum.

I watch the show because I usually bake two or three loaves a week at home: a milk bloomer, wholemeal and Portuguese cornbread are my favourites. I do it because I have the time and find the process of kneading and baking very satisfying, almost elemental.

And I do it because while I am surrounded by artisan bakeries they all seem to produce tough, heavy breads (I am no lover of sourdough) which all look the same. The biggest failing is they want to be too arty-farty and forget they should concentrate on a few staples as well. I don’t want factory breads but they can’t sell me a hand-made split tin or bloomer so I have to make them myself.

Still, they are better than they used to be. One didn’t used to open until the afternoon because, as one partner told me, “we want our sleep as well.” Then why be a baker? This was also the enterprise that didn’t bake rolls except at the weekend.

Victorian Bakers is not one of those programmes which romanticise the past. You watch in full realisation of the effort and sweat it took to fire up a wood or coal oven. It wasn’t smut but soot in this bakery show.

This is excellent television and I do wish there were more programmes like it, educating without being patronising and trying to sex up cakes and buns. Confectionery is the subject of the third programme and I shall watch it with interest. Unlike Bake Off it will come without double-entendres and Sue Perkins.

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