Mary Berry Cooks

It can’t have escaped your attention that The Great British Bake Off returns to our screens this evening, in a whirlwind of publicity and excitement.

While last year’s finale gained the highest TV rating for 2014 of any non-sporting event, I’ve been feeling a little bemused. Having only just got back to the UK after five years living in the southern US, my absence coincided entirely with the rise of GBBO mania. Upon my return and re-acquaintance with long-lost friends, conversation inevitably turned to GBBO.

“Let me get this right,” I would say. “The biggest show on TV is a cross between The X Factor and MasterChef, but focused entirely on home baking?”

“Are you telling me you don’t even know about the Baked Alaska Incident?” came the inevitable response.

An alien in my own country, I’ve been wandering blindly through many similar conversations. Until tonight, that is, when I finally get to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course, the success makes sense. While the days of the “search-for-a-star” singing contests seem to be numbered as the public realises there are only so many Christmas number ones our ears can take, the re-assignment of the format to something more quintessentially British and less threatening was a stroke of genius.

And what a boon it’s been for the home baking category. As our recent report suggests, the once ailing sector has been resurrected – along with membership of the Women’s Institute, if you believe the media – with a little sprinkling of Hollywood (that joke is mandatory in any GBBO piece, my colleagues inform me).

Indeed, retailers are catering to the show by ensuring that ingredients featured in each week’s episode are overstocked and ready to go, for when the nation feels the bite of baking mania the following day. The vision of twitchy category buyers watching the show on the edge of their seats and hurriedly dialling suppliers to shout down the phone, all in the aid of catering for the British public’s sudden whimsical desire for frozen raspberries, is at least slightly entertaining.

I also note the beginning, on ITV, of a rival that threatens to work the same wonders on another category, the brand new BBQ Champ. As we pointed out in our report on the barbecue category earlier this year, the trend for Americana looks set to re-light the proverbial flame, and this new series – so American-zeitgeist targeted it’s brought in everyone’s favourite Man v Food guzzler Adam Richman as a judge – generated some serious social buzz when it launched last week.

While the British summer, an aspect of living overseas I didn’t really miss, threatens to ruin any good feeling about the barbecue category, at Grocer HQ we’ve been pondering if any other categories are ripe for a talent show makeover. While I’m not sure about one suggestion, “Currying the Nation’s Favour” (a curry-off isn’t a visually appealing prospect), our news editor’s suggestions of “Blessed Are The Cheesemakers” and “Brew Do You Think You Are?” prove he may have missed his calling as a programming director at the BBC.

The winner for me is a cocktail-making contest, especially with the home boozing market on the up recently from the sharp growth in off-trade sales. Think Tom Cruise in Cocktail, but with shaker mishaps, tipsy judges and a flotilla of tiny umbrellas. BBC, you know who to call.