The opening episode of The Delicious Miss Dahl might just have been the most relentlessly twee 29 minutes ever broadcast by the BBC.
I began to feel nauseous just watching the precious, curtain-raising animation sequence – not an ideal sensation to induce at the start of a half-hour cookery show. Bile rose in my throat at the news that the series would be split into six food "moods", which turned out to be an overcooked hash of abstract nouns and adjectives: "Escapism", "Melancholy", "Nostalgia", "Romance", "Celebratory" and, this week's, "Selfish".
The producers clearly expected us to salivate at the sight of Sophie Dahl's kitchen (or rather, the kitchen the production company hired for the show) but it was all too sickly-sweet for me, like some faux-nostalgic Cath Kidston photo-shoot with its quaint tea-room crockery, its artificially weathered utensils, its Coronation-chic tablecloths and carefully arranged hydrangeas. In the garden, to which Dahl occasionally retreated to read poetry and consume tea and squares of her peanut-butter fudge, some eager set dresser had strung bunting between the trees. Bunting? Give me strength.
Maybe Dahl was born in the wrong decade. Her first recipe, the Arnold Bennett omelette, was originally concocted by an otherwise unremarkable mid-20th century novelist. Her love of cooking, she claimed more than once, was inspired by her two grandmothers. Even when she got out of the house to go cheese shopping, she did so in soft-focus, digitally distressed film stock with a distinctly old-school soundtrack. In an antique store, she had a convenient Katharine Hepburn anecdote to hand as she bought an Art Deco cocktail shaker for the express purpose of mixing a Dirty Martini, "like an old broad".
If Miss Dahl intends to maintain this saccharine pretence of living in the 1950s, shouldn't the show at least be entitled "The Delicious Mrs Cullum"? Compare her to Nigella all you like, but Dahl's retro-sexuality made it feel more like cooking with Mad Men's Joan Holloway. "I fantasise about this cheese," she said as she cupped a bag of buffalo mozzarella suggestively. Among her more risqué references was a reminder that she has a bra named after her (though she'd prefer it were an omelette).
To balance the scales back in the show's favour, the hostess herself was perfectly charming, despite her habit of quoting lines from Dorothy Parker or Dryden like some insufferable Eng Lit undergraduate. And her food looked fine, too, if flagrantly unoriginal.
One commentator has made the baffling accusation that Dahl's ersatz culinary skill was exposed by her inability to slice bread in the correct fashion as she assembled her monolithic bruschetta. Is there really a wrong way to slice bread? Surely not – although there's certainly a wrong way to bake it, as Tom Herbert, the protagonist of BBC4's documentary In Search of the Perfect Loaf, discovered. Herbert comes from five generations of Gloucestershire bakers, and last year his loaf won first prize in its category at the National Organic Food Awards. The programme followed him as he prepared to defend his title.
Herbert's quest took him to a mocked-up Iron Age village in Cornwall to test ancient baking techniques; to a kosher bakery in Salford to see a rabbi blessing bread; and to the streets of Bristol to taste the world's finest cheese toastie. After all that conspicuous research, the loaf he plumped for was made with just three simple ingredients: spelt grown in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, spring water straight from the side of a Cotswold hill; and Cornish sea salt from the Lizard.
If the desired effect of the documentary was to encourage its viewers to buy fresh, handmade bread – as opposed to the standard sliced supermarket rubbish – then it certainly worked on me. But sadly not even niche specialists BBC4 could wring much tension from the contest. "This is groundbreaking stuff," Herbert insisted, as his loaf rose in the oven. "I'm completely off script! I've never made such a big loaf; I've never done a square loaf; I've never risen and proved a loaf in a cake tin before!"
Not exactly Andy Murray at Wimbledon, is it? That said, the story ended rather too much like Andy Murray's: Herbert's "Shepherd Loaf" only managed second place at the food awards, though it did at least win over the man who makes the cheese toasties.
All those production budgets and tie-in publishing deals, and still the best thing on either menu was a bit of bread and cheese.Reuse content