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Foretaste of heaven with Mary Berry

17 October 2014

I AM quite surprised to be confessing this, but I was one of the 12.3 million to watch the final of The Great British Bake Off.

Surprised, not because I despise populist TV shows - I like to think I am discriminating - but simply because I don't salivate as much over cakes, scones, and pastry as I might over, say, scallops, pan-fried duck, and beetroot three ways.

This is why my attention wandered a bit as flour and eggs were whirled together, and dough was energetically kneaded. For me, the interest from the Bake Off final was more in the interplay of the characters than in that of the ingredients.

Bakers are the foot soldiers of the kitchen rather than the elite troops, and there was something pleasingly modest and humble about the finalists, Luis, Richard, and Nancy - not surprisingly, given that there is something so utterly hopeless about failed bakery: the terrible flop of the baked Alaska in an earlier episode; or the runny jam that wrecked a finalist's Victoria sandwich.

At least with other forms of cooking there is usually a way of redeeming failure: adding a new egg yolk to the mayonnaise and starting again, for example, which I had to do on a recent attempt. Salvation is part of the skill. But in baking there is no second chance.

There was, none the less, an atmosphere of jollity about the Bake Off final - a festival under canvas with crowds of supporters quaffing champagne between showers. They seemed to know that bakery is trivial stuff compared with haute cuisine, but they were there to have a good time, and so they did.

Dressed in pink florals, slightly detached from the rest of the team, Mary Berry terrified me. It was her quietness that threatened. The festive atmosphere did not disguise the seriousness of the judges' approach. You knew that she could spot the perfect cake, scone, and tart almost before the taste test. She carries the Platonic forms in her head.

But essence is nothing without manifestation. "When you want to impress, you pipe," she said firmly, as she dismissed a sad, nude tarte au citron.

And now for the moral. Bake Off entertains because it hints at the Gospel truth that our true works will indeed be revealed in the final judgement. We, like leaven, are tested and proved.

But think what an anticipation of our heavenly reward it would be to hear Mary Berry say: "That's a first-rate shortbread biscuit." Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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