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Nadiya, and the UK’s mixing bowl

16 October 2015

A Muslim Bake-Off winner has won over the critics, says Paul Vallely

I THINK I must be the only person in the country who has not seen the final of The Great British Bake-Off. This is an odd development, because I watched much of the series. Indeed, it became such a fixation in our house that we relaxed our "no telly during dinner" rule to watch these masters of the sweet arts perform while consuming my own altogether more modest savoury offerings. But I missed the climax.

On the night of the final, my son was in a play at school; so we recorded Bake Off. Next morning, it was all over the news that Nadiya Hussain had won. Somehow, that robbed me of the incentive to press the play button on the recorder. It seemed like watching a football match when you already know the score. But 14 million others did watch, and saw a Muslim woman in a headscarf triumph in something quintessentially British.

Not everyone was pleased by her progress in the competition. One Daily Mail columnist, Amanda Platell, lamenting the elimination of another contestant — a white middle-class young Scottish woman — complained that "if she’d made a chocolate mosque, she’d have stood a better chance."

Other scions of the Tory press bemoaned the fact that the three finalists were a Muslim woman, a gay doctor, and someone disparagingly dismissed as "a new man". It was, they suggested, not about baking but about political correctness.

What was clear to any fan of the series was that Mrs Hussain, like the others, was a star baker. But that was not what made the great British public take her to their hearts. She was warm, modest, self-deprecating, funny, and possessed of a girl-next-door ordinariness that exploded many of the stereotypes on which populist prejudice lies.

Her show-stopper bake for the final was a more eloquent expression of contemporary Britishness than anything our politicians have ever contrived — a wedding cake, topped with a red rose, wrapped in a red, white, and blue Union-flag sari, bedecked with jewels from her wedding day.

Even David Cameron — whose speech at the Conservative Party Conference followed the "nasty party" offering of the anti-immigration Home Secretary, Theresa May — felt obliged to insert a Bake Off reference in his address to the party faithful, and let it be known that he wanted Mrs Hussain to win.

Ms Platell, in a spectacular about-face, afterwards wrote: "One of the many appealing things about Nadiya is her solid bedrock of home and family, of traditional values." The columnist even lauded Mrs Hussain’s origins as "the daughter of a Bangladeshi couple who moved to England in the Seventies to escape poverty", which makes her parents the kind of economic migrants of whom Mrs May so volubly disapproves.

The rest of the nation voted with their spatulas: there was a run on Kenwood mixers, crème-brulée ramekins, and Waitrose’s salted-caramel filling after Mrs Hussain’s peanut, salted-caramel, and chocolate tart. But that was not all the nation purchased: we bought into a Bake Off Britain that is a kinder, gentler, and more decent place than the country we so often read about in our newspapers. Perhaps I should watch that recording, after all.

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