Tuesday, 11 December 2012
In which I watch the Great Frenchish Bake Off
I was gleeful to learn that France was doing a version of the Great British Bake Off, because it combines many things I love: stupid French television, the Great British Bake Off, cake, and the tenuous possibility of calling sitting in front of the television watching someone's choux pastry go wrong "research".
But oh dear lord. I have tried to love Le Meilleur Pâtissier, for that is its terrible, terrible name (French TV and film naming first principle is: 'describe the programme in the flattest, most prosaic and descriptive way you are able'). I was disposed to love Le Meilleur Pâtissier. But sadly it is impossible. Even its mother could not love it. You know I am not opposed to French cooking programmes. I live for French Masterchef with all its big emotions and angry chefs and blood and sweat and tears and the oft repeated phrase "c'est GROSSIER" spat in the faces of people whose blanquette de veau is poorly presented. This? This is just a sad, stale cupcake of a programme, iced by someone doing occupational therapy during a catastrophic breakdown.
"Patisserie" says the programme description with bland lunacy "is a discipline known for its rigour, but also for its creativity and conviviality". Which makes it sound like we are going to have a heap of fun and thus it transpires.
Of course, as with all these bought-in formats, it looks spookily like GBBO. They are in a big white tent in the grounds of a château, everything is pastel and pastoral, the incidental music is identical, the title sequence is stolen wholesale from GBBO to the point where there is even a SCONE visible at one point, as if a French cookery programme would ever sully itself with anything so, comment dire, stodgy. But it has lost its soul. There is no heart, no humour, the magic has evaporated: it's just some awkward people in a tent making cakes, suddenly.
Visually, if GBBO is Cath Kidston, Le Meilleur Pâtissier is some kind of nasty British Home Stores Kidston knock off. Everything has just a bit too much frou frou, too many curlicues, too much brain bleeding chintz. It is France doing le style "so British!" and doing it all wrong. Knock it off, France. Put the doily down. Step away from the bubblegum pink Smeg and the twirly-wirly white wire cakestand. I will however give them this: their château is vastly superior to the GBBO stately. It has turrets and ancient sun-warmed limestone. One point to France. The absence of large testicled squirrels lets them down slightly, but I will let it pass.
And oh, the presenters. The role of Mary Berry is played by her French stunt double, "Mercotte". Mercotte is famous (I use the word in the loosest sense) for her internet tutorials on macaron making. She is approximately the right age and shape. She seems perfectly nice. I bet she makes a lovely macaron. But dear lord, she has all the televisual presence of a pot plant. Last night the technical bake was rum babas. Mercotte must have said the sentence "Ce n'est pas assez imbibé" (it hasn't been soaked for long enough) approximately 8 million times, varying her intonation about as much as my younger son does when he tries to demonstrate the difference between Chinese tones, ie. not at all, in any discernible way to the human ear.
She is paired with Cyril Lignac. Lignac is a sort of French Jamie Oliver figure: matey, hearty, salt of the earth, hail fellow well met, and OHGODEVERYBLOODYWHERE. There is not a format in European cookery programming that has not been turned over by the blind, dumb, gods of French television programming to Lignac. Perhaps that is why he seems so drained of any shred of life or enthusiasm here? He is probably rehearsing for Cyril et Son Club de Bataille de Nourriture, Cyril's Cuisine Cauchemars and Cyril Derrière les Barreaux on his break: the man is plainly exhausted. Occasionally someone will give him a kick behind the scenes or a vitamin B12 injection and he will come out and taste something and wave his right hand up and down sideways as if scalded in that special French emphatic way as a sort of limp proxy for animation and say "oh la vache, c'est bon" whilst laughing hollowly like a man who hasn't been home for 5 years. As the two of them made their way along the line of rum babas last night, it was like absurdist theatre, but even more boring.
"Ce n'est pas assez imbibé"
"Ce n'est pas assez imbibé non plus".
"Ce n'est pas assez imbibé".
"I think you are getting more demanding, Mercotte!" said the presenter lady, desperately.
"Si ce n'est pas assez imbibé, c'est pas bon".
By this time I was ready to suck every single misshaped rum baba dry.
Cyril's eyes are filled with mute, millionaire entreaty. He doesn't know who he is any more. He just wants a microwave pizza and a cuddle. The two of them together have the chemistry of, I don't know. What is the most inert element in the world? Helium, apparently, says Google. Well, together they are like a sad, sad, cylinder of helium. Cyril patronises Mercotte uneasily in that 'isn't she marvellous?' way. Mercotte says "imbibé". I weep. The saddest times are when they make him and Mercotte go and sit in a little tent with a tea pot and talk about the candidates who Cyril obviously doesn't know from Adam despite some frantic last minute briefing from the production team. All the sadness of the world is in that flouncy tent of broken dreams and dead formats and bad cakes. Maybe it doesn't matter. I think I'm the only person in the world watching.
The presenter .. no. I can't even go there. Imagine Mel and Sue. Imagine taking away everything that makes them funny and clever and interesting and real and touching. Give them glossy hair and a Zara trouser suit and an expression of faint, glazed anxiety. There you go. She does, however, get to say "A vos marques, prêts, patissez" which as my television companion/fellow sufferer kept saying angrily IS NOT A VERB.
"Well" I say pedantically. "Pâtir is a verb, so pâtissez does actually exist".
"Yes. But it is NOT THE VERB TO BAKE".
(Pâtir means to suffer, or endure. This is perhaps not entirely inappropriate).
They have kept the signature bake, technical bake, showstopper format, but the theme of each week is so loose as to be absolutely indiscernible. I turned on late last night: someone was making a macaron, someone made a Paris-Brest, then everyone made rum babas, and then they all made "gâteau surprise anglo-saxon", of which more later. What on earth was the theme? I have gone to look it up and apparently it was "Family cakes". Because who doesn't make rum babas every Sunday to relax. Nothing says 'chilling with my family' to me like a temperamental, sticky, unpredictable dough I need to soak in syrup for two hours at the risk of it collapsing entirely.
Also, because it is France, and French cookery competitions must resemble painful, transcendent, gladiatorial combat in which everyone is pushed to sweating, quivering breaking point in the manner of an erotic film about the Foreign Legion, they have introduced another, final, knock out elimination bake in which the bottom three bakers must "reinvent" a classic cake and only one of them is saved (for some reason they have decided the format can only bear 4 episodes, I cannot imagine why). It takes the programme time to a ludicrous TWO HOURS and is a colossal yawn. Cyril "reinvents" the thing by making it square instead of round, usually, and everyone stands slackjawed in admiration at his audace and creativity. Last night they "reinvented" the bûche de noel. One lady made hers into spring rolls with a dipping sauce but was censured as insufficiently creative because it still involved rolled up sponge. No, me neither.
Three tiny salvations.
1. ELODIE. Most of the candidates are dull as anything. Elodie is not. Elodie is obsessed with the 18th century and making everything PRETTY. She is basically Marie-Antoinette crossed with La Cicciolina and in her eye is the glint of sugar-fuelled madness. There is nothing Elodie will not apply glitter, or a butterfly motif, or a sugar curlicue to. Last night she made a sort of Wedgwood inspired blue and white bird cage cake, complete with a life sized robin on the top and green butterflies concealed within. Everyone looked a little bit frightened as she brought forth her creation, as well they might. I want to see how she's going to top it and this alone is keeping me watching. A coach and four driven by a lifesize meringue Cyril Lignac? A scale model of the Hall of Mirrors in Versaille in gilded genoise? I would also like to see her against Brendan, actually, though Brendan could totally take her.
2. Last night's slapstick around the "gâteau surprise anglo-saxon". This - those silly things they do where you cut the cake and there's something hiding inside - we were informed are "very fashionable in anglo-saxon countries". You could almost feel the ripple of disapproval around the room at this crass notion. Thomas, who is an utter perfectionist swot and almost certain to win, pursed his lips and refused to sully his hands with fondant icing. "I do not like those cakes which are all about appearance and not taste" he said, tightly, putting defiant raspberries on the top of his distinctly gallic looking cake. The "anglo-saxon cake specialist" brought in as a guest judge remonstrated with him. "Are you using pâte à sucre?" (fondant) "No. I do not like pâte à sucre". He was unrepentant, and his uncompromising attitude was of course rewarded when he finally won star baker, despite the grudging, barely discernible "surprise" in his cake. No one puts Thomas in a fondant corner.
3. The guests during the "boring history bit", because it is almost always Philippe Conticini from the Pâtisserie des Rêves, who looks exactly as a genius baker should, big and jolly and like he enjoys his cakes. Also, there was a short sequence in Stohrer last night, which made me weep with nostalgia and wish I was there with M eating a pistachio macaron with raspberries and getting shouted at by the local pensioners.
I am actually quite sad about Meilleur Pâtissier. I feel cheated: it could - should! - have been amazing. France is, basically, a thousand times better at cake than us, and they aren't short of fiery, angry, amazing pastry chefs to do shouting, and coaching, and to bring some heart to the programme. Why such an unseemly rush to get it on screen and why didn't they take their time and make something a bit Kings of Pastry? Why is there no time to get to know and develop some kind of affection for the candidates? If feels like they sort of realised they had a turkey while they were still filming and decided to get the whole sorry business over in an unseemly rush. I am going to need an enormous cake to get over my disappointment. Maybe Elodie could oblige with one shaped like a Regency fop on a pony? I would not even mind if she put a gilded butterfly or forty on the pony's fetlocks.