Friday, 6 March 2015

The Great Morrisian Bake Off

I can enjoy Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood in the BBC TV show The Great British Bake Off in small doses, but want to point out that, in terms of the celebration of baking, William Morris in his later works got there first – though it is bread rather than fancy cakes that is the object of culinary skill in his writings.

In The Water of the Wondrous Isles no sooner has Birdalone buried the body of her terrifying Witch-mistress than ‘she went about the house, and saw to the baking of bread’, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do at such a fraught moment. And perhaps it is; for when Arthur the Black Squire turns up at the cottage after their five years of anguished separation from each other, Birdalone celebrates with ‘fine bread made for that very occasion’. In The Well at the World’s End after Ralph and Ursula have made their way through the alarming mountain passes they come into a beautiful valley and rejoice because the Sage of Swevenham has told them ‘that there they should winter, because of the bread which they could make them of the chestnuts’. In News from Nowhere we see the delicious products of baking – thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust, big, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaves – but not, a little disappointingly, the act of baking itself.

Baking bread is thus a decidedly positive value in Morris, just as it has become once more in our own culture, as when Satish Kumar of the magazine Resurgence & Ecologist extols the slow, meditative virtues of home-baking – an altogether more attractive paradigm, to my mind, than the often hectic, unnecessarily competitive format of the Berry/Hollywood TV programme.

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