Friday, 11 November 2011

Baking a Difference to British Life: An Interview with The Great British Bake Off's Holly Bell

UNLESS you’ve been hiding out on an anonymous planet for the past couple of years, you’ll have noticed that there’s been something of a baking revolution afoot in British kitchens. Cupcakes, sponges, pies, bread- we’re all at it. So much so that the final of the BBC television programme “The Great British Bake Off”, which has just finished its second series, notched up a massive 5 million viewers. It’s cute, it’s quaint, and it seems to be just what this country needs right now. Lifestyle caught up with the runner-up of this year’s show, Holly Bell, to see what all the fuss is about.

If one well-known newspaper columnist is to be believed, this is ‘Puddies for Hoodies’ at its finest. So does the baking phenomenon have anything to do with reuniting ‘Broken Britain’? “The summer of unrest that the UK experienced meant that people were kind of ripe for a bit of wholesome fun,” says Holly. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s just a really nice programme, a nice programme with lots of really normal, nice people. I enjoy watching MasterChef, but I enjoy watching it for the drama, as well as the foodie element. The Bake Off is pleasurable and not super-competitive. It’s quite gentle in its approach and I think that after the summer that the UK had it was actually perfect.”

Evidently, the London Riots act as a pertinent point of comparison for critics of the show. There’s no crystal clear solution to the problems that arose in August; this isn’t a race to ready, set, bake the recipe for social success and Cameron’s conundrum won’t be solved with sugar, butter, eggs, flour, a drop of vanilla essence. However, there’s no doubt that the GBBO has captured the imaginations of millions of Britons, some of whom would otherwise be watching Young, Dumb and Living off Mum.

The popularity of baking is also practical: “Part of it as well is that people don’t have as much money any more,”Holly continues. The viewing figures certainly point to a show which got people inspired to get back in the kitchen: “It grew a bit organically because it was the second series, but it’s been a storming success. The viewing figures are nuts. You don’t expect 3.9 million viewers for a first episode on BBC 2- I don’t think anyone expected it really. Everyone knew it would be successful as the production team are so slick and the way it’s run is just amazing but it does make you slightly quiver. You think “Really? That many people?!” When I go out people do come up to me, my first response is “How do they know who I am?” and then I realise, and I’m like “Oh, of course!”

The show is filmed in a marquee at Valentines Mansion and Gardens in Ilford, Essex. “It took six weeks to film, and we filmed eight episodes in six weeks. For the most part it was weekends, two days of filming and then you go home and practise for the next week. It was hard work, I’d never lie about that, but it was really enjoyable as well.”

Talking animatedly about the Great British Bake Off, mother-of-two Holly recalls learning plenty of baking lessons from both the judges, royal baker Paul Hollywood and the doyenne of home baking, Mary Berry, and the other contestants. “There was such a wealth of knowledge there. It was fantastic to have all these people that were so passionate about baking. I made some really good friends there as well. Jo, who won, I speak to almost every day. We get on really, really well, she’s lovely. Urvashi and Ian went out in the third week, but I really got on with them. Ian is hilarious; he used to have everyone in stitches. I’ve been out for lunch with Rob too. Everybody got on very well but obviously some people are more friendly that others.”

Perhaps the reason why people love baking is because they can improve on their mistakes and keep practising, but I imagine it must have been hard being judged on something that you love doing: “I don’t find criticism easy to take, I don’t think many people do, if they’re honest. It is hard, but you do have to take it on the chin. They are the experts, and even if I didn’t always agree, I would think “Well, you are an expert.”

“I read English at Liverpool University and I’d write an essay which I thought was fantastic and then I’d get the marks back and actually it wasn’t as fantastic as I thought. You look at it and go “Hang on a minute, you’re right, of course you’re right, you’re the expert! I think doing your best is a good way to look at it, but to do your best you also have to push yourself a little bit.” I ask about Jason, the 19-year-old contestant who was also a student and a member of his university’s Baking Society, and it appears that the show gave him the impetus he needed to kick-start his career. “He’s dropped out of university and is retraining as a chef. The show made him think “You know what, I want to follow my dreams,” she says. “I’m really impressed by him doing that. I think his age was a really positive thing because he hadn’t had years of “Oh you only do it this way, or you only do it that way” and I think that’s actually really refreshing.”

Anyone who watched the show will remember Holly’s perfectionism, turning out great bakes every week with very few mistakes. It might surprise a few to know that pie week was her favourite. “ I’m actually more of a savoury person than a sweet person,” she says. “I love anything with blue cheese and caramelised onions and I made a pie which was a Stilton, onion and potato pie and that is my kind of food. I also really enjoyed making pork pies, as that’s something I’d never, ever do at home.

I could talk about the Great British Bake Off forever, but the point of our chat was to work out what it is about the present moment that’s got people so into home baking. Is it nostalgia, I wonder? When our lives are flooded with technology, does baking bring us home and remind us of what we need in order to retain a sense of normality? “I’ve been really surprised by how many young people follow me on Twitter and by how many people in their early twenties are getting really into baking. In your teenage years you forget and then you come back to these things and there’s a sense of nostalgia. It’s heart-warming when you can do something that reminds you of home.

“University can be really tough. I really missed the familiarity of my hometown and my parents’ house, so I started to cook. I used to do big roast dinners on a Sunday for people in halls and I look back now and think about why I did it and I think “God, it’s so obvious”- I did it to recreate some kind of homely atmosphere, because halls can feel quite sterile.”

It begins to strike me that people bake at home because they desire to strike a balance between old and new. “People want their iPhones and iPads and they want to bake. It’s like there’s a sense of security from baking your own cakes at home and then being able to tweet about it afterwards! I hope that people continue to do the homely things that keep them grounded because it’s so easy to become wrapped up in technology.”

And there we have it: baking offers salvation from our crazy, mixed-up modern world, riots and all. But what does the future hold for Holly? “I’m writing a book at the moment and I am also in the process of setting up a cupcake baking and decorating school, which is exciting” she says. “I blog, and I tweet away and try and keep up with all of that. I’m busier than I’ve ever been, in a really good way though. I’m not complaining at all.”

Read Holly’s blog at and follow her on Twitter: @HollyBellMummy

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Wandering with the Mind

This piece was published in the Autumn 2011 issue of Razz My Berries magazine.

In an ideal, altruistic, utopian world, there would be no harm in letting your imagination explore the deepest recesses of daydream. But in today’s pressured social landscape, escaping into your thoughts, even just for a second, is a sign of weakness. The act of daydreaming implies that you’re somewhere other than where you’re meant to be; you’ve lost focus; you’ve fallen out of sync.

Ergo- I’m going to use this space to escape, and really imagine the kind of world that allows people to lose themselves in thought. Just for these brief words will I think about a society which values the benefits of the daydream to the individual.

Far from being a failure of mental discipline, daydreaming is a healthy way to explore long-term plans, dreams and goals that a pragmatist would never consider. Those in the know classify daydreaming as a lapse into ‘task-unrelated thoughts’, which sounds like a strangely paradoxical way of categorising the uncategorisable.

A recent article in the New York Times had a lot to say on this topic. It made the very interesting point that we live by the mantra: ‘I think, therefore I am’; we should know what is going on in our own minds. But when you think about it, hell, you might even daydream about it, then you’d have to admit that daydreams are evidence that we cannot control the seemingly meaningless meanderings of our brains. Daydreams are our mind’s way of telling us that we don’t know everything; we need a little subconscious to point us in the right direction.

So why is daydreaming so fundamental, particularly in our modern, busy lives? Well, believe it or not, I would say that it helps us to put things in perspective. When we daydream, our minds never drift off into the sensational Hollywood dramas that seem to come alive at night. What they do is give us a space within which we can consider the potential consequences of potential actions. It’s a healthy space, a ‘trial run’, if you like.

In many facets of life, we are told that we should only entertain the tangible and the pragmatic, we don’t trust what we cannot see for ourselves. Daydreaming contradicts this. A recent study found that above a certain point, money, ambition and status cannot provide happiness, so we must ask: what can? Is the answer to that which is one of life’s great conundrums actually calm, vision and hope? Is daydreaming the portal through which we gain a sense of who we are and what we could become?

Perhaps- at least, given the perpetually increasing stress levels of the population, we should probably give it a go. As much as daydreaming is a subject of derision for many, it could be, even if only symptomatically, what our individual bodies and social body are craving. When we consider it at the most basic level, not allowing your mind the opportunity to slip into daydream is a sign of over-activity. Time is a precious commodity, but what doesn’t seem immediately obvious to many is that time is precious whether it’s being filled or not.

I am a victim, as I’m sure are many, of the feeling that empty time is time wasted. In fact, I still struggle with the concept of doing ‘nothing’. But nothing is never nothing; nothing is the space which your mind needs in order to sit back and, ironically, to capitalise on who you are. After all, each and every one of us is more than an employee. The daydream allows the story of our lives to unfurl in ways which don’t tend to happen when we’re consciously thinking about what we’re ‘supposed’ to be doing.

So next time you’re feeling half-baked and frazzled from work and sleep deprivation, don’t be afraid to take time out to think. Chances are your mind will wander, daydreams will form, and light will be shed on the problems that seem unfathomable in the conscious bubble of daily life.