After the romance à la carte, the prix fixe

Strada is the cool pizza chain: it's the nouveau riche to Pizza Express's liberal bourgeois, the Campari to Domino's Carlsberg and the Fellini to Pizza Hut's Mike Myers. Thoughts of Fellini are never far from my mind when at Strada and they were especially present the other day, when, during an unseasonably hot lunchtime, I ate at a branch that had open windows facing on to an exhausted runnel of a street backed up with traffic. I found it difficult to sit there, contemplating the furled, white napery and the green place mats, without thinking of the opening sequence of his neorealist masterpiece La strada (1954), in which Gelsomina is hustled home from the beach by her sisters and sold to the travelling strongman Zampanò for 10,000 lire - it's bestial, sure, but cheap, too.

My god-daughter Beatrice was speaking, quite reasonably, of her wheat allergy to the waiter, asking if they did gluten-free pasta or pizza bases. At the end of the restaurant, the flames of the pizza oven played merrily on a ceiling-high, transparent wine cooler. All should've been right with the world and it would've been, were it not for this dreadful miasma that I could sense gushing from some internal vent, fogging up my mind.

Clone wars

There are 70-odd Stradas in Britain, with most of them - doh! - in London. The government wishes us to consume our way out of recession but that's not going to happen so long as the majority of a restaurant chain's outlets are bounded by the M25. What's needed is some Duce-style visionary sending pizzerias and burger joints to those latter-day equivalents of Abyssinia: the Midlands and (gulp!) the north. Only when every clone high street has every eatery - Subway biting down on Pret, Pret munching EAT, EAT stuffing itself with McDonald's - will the good times return.

No, the amiable waiter said, they didn't have gluten-free flour and if they did, they wouldn't be able to guarantee that it wasn't contaminated, because, you see, they make their own pasta and pizza dough and flour tends to gust about the kitchen in clouds that are at once insubstantial and grittily tangible - OK, I concede that the last bit was me, but the waiter was turning his inability to provide something into a selling point. Genius.

Beatrice ordered the risotto funghi and I chose the stufato di pesce. We had side salads - rocket and Parmesan, and mixed. With a Coke for me, still water for Bea and 10 per cent service included, the bill came to well under £30. We were ordering from the £6.95 prix fixe lunch menu - but then, isn't that the shape of things to come? Western civilisation is at the prix fixe stage of decline - long gone are à la carte days of yore. Soon enough, we'll be in the past-its-sell-by-date discounted dump bin of history. Bea was sitting on a banquette that had been covered with the kind of greyish, slightly shiny fabric that Communist Party apparatchiks wore during the Brezhnev era - like I say, Strada is cool.

The couple at the next table were Italian. I could tell because he, while looking perfectly tough, was wearing a pink Ralph Lauren shirt and she had white-blonde hair, cut to resemble vinyl. I explained to my god-daughter that funghi tasted lovely, although to my knowledge they had no food value whatsoever, even though the long filaments of their rhizomes can extend through the soil for kilometres, probing for heavy metal contaminants to suck into their fleshy heads. "Wow," she said, "they really are growths, aren't they?" "Oh, yes," I observed. "If they were grouped on the menu with athlete's foot, they'd get far fewer takers."

I see a darkness

I had to eat my hearty fish stew with my napkin tucked into my collar, lest I flick pasta grains and tomato sauce all over my shirt. It's like that nowadays - life has to be approached with new stratagems devised to counter embarrassment, both for me and others.

I called for the bill. I once heard two waitresses discussing the most offensive things patrons can do. One contended that it was hailing them with a finger click; the other that it was scribbling on an imaginary airborne bill. Long ago, I devised my own method, which involves thrusting both my arms in the air at odd angles while adopting a transfixed gurn. When I'd paid, I looked up and Beatrice had gone - either that or the miasma had grown thicker. Strada is the Dante to Pizza Express's Boccaccio and, in my middle years, I have found myself in a dark wood.

Next week: Madness of Crowds

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.