I don’t know when I first heard the rumours about BBC Food. A while ago, I think, maybe months – a low murmur amongst the more switched-on of my foodie Twitter friends. Nobody seemed entirely certain, but they were sure on one thing: changes were afoot at BBC Food. Maybe it was closing. Maybe not. It was nebulous and uncertain, and I paid no attention.
And now we have an answer (ish). The BBC is stripping back anything it deems to be surplus to requirements, in response to budget cuts – and included in that surplus are 11,000 recipes. It is not immediately clear what that stripping back is going to entail – the word “archive” is being bandied about without much clear assessment of what it might mean.
It seems clear, though, that the BBC Food site will no longer be updated or promoted; new recipes from new shows will be added for 30 days only, and they will apparently cease to be visible on Google, as other recipe sites (owned privately, and for profit) slink in to fill the gaps. BBC Good Food (a separate entity) will continue to exist and be updated.
It might be hard to see, in this environment, why it matters that BBC Food is closing its doors. The internet is full of recipes, after all. One site more or less – well, it’s hardly a tragedy, is it? But in a world where we’re being told that cooking from scratch is crucial to beat obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health concerns (and thereby take the pressure off our NHS), it seems baffling to take away one of the best ways to help people do just that.
“My family didn’t teach me to cook,” says food blogger Amy Jones. “They worked all the hours God sent and so we relied on pre-made food. I learned to cook from BBC recipes, and now I’m a fairly good cook…[but] without that resource I’d probably be buying pre-made meals from ASDA.”
She’s not alone – my Twitter timeline is full of young people who taught themselves to cook with help from the BBC. Including me. I started to cook three years ago, to help with my mental health, and now am working on my first cookbook.
And I am dreading the demise of BBC Food – as a resource for cooks of all stripes, it’s irreplaceable. I have a houseful of cookbooks and I look things up on the BBC daily, whether it’s timings for a roast, or just to check my own workings in devising a recipe. How to make a meringue; whether 40 minutes is absurd for a date cake; what the safe internal temperature of roast pork should be – all kinds of things that can be surprisingly tricky to know where to look up. Asking Google, in some cases, can even be dangerous – the internet is full of different ideas about, say, a safe temperature for roast pork, and it’s hard to know who to trust.
Whether it’s an Instagram-sponsored post for a “detox tea”, or MPs rallying in support of McDonald's, we are bombarded with misinformation about food – we are a culture deeply confused about what we should be eating and how we should be eating it. A trusted, free, accessible, easily navigable, nationally owned database of recipes, which can be made by all kinds of home cooks, is exactly what we need. You can sort by ingredient, by cook, by occasion, by season. You can sort by cuisine or by technique or by programme. You can choose to see only easy recipes, only quick recipes or only vegetarian recipes – and all of them validated by the BBC. Not just anyone can add to this resource, and that really matters – it’s like the difference between asking an expert and looking something up on Wikipedia.
I might be ready to spread my wings and make a pie without Nigel Slater's dulcet tones, but what about all the people after me
BBC Food has our trust. And that's what learning to cook is, really: an exercise in trust.
You invest your money, your ingredients and your time, and you trust that some stranger’s instructions will make it worthwhile. And if you get it wrong? Well, then you go hungry. Or your kids go hungry. Or they have cereal for tea. Maybe you can afford to replace the ingredients, maybe you can’t – either way, you’ve wasted the time.
Probably, you feel less confident, too, especially if you’re a beginner cook. Maybe you feel like it was you who got it wrong. Maybe you feel like you should have known enough to realise that the “tbsp" of bicarb was probably a typo for “tsp”; maybe you feel like you should have known when to add that ingredient listed at the top but missing from the directions themselves. Maybe you feel like you’ve failed. Maybe you feel like you’re not cut out for this. Maybe you feel like you can’t cook. So maybe you don’t cook again. You can’t afford that kind of waste.
The repercussions of a bad recipe – and, trust me, the internet is full of bad recipes – can reach further than one disaster dinner.
It’s not always easy, either, to tell a bad recipe from a good one. You need to know about flavours, about proportions, even about chemistry. You need, for example, to know that a recipe is unlikely to call for a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda – and although it might seem like common sense to people who cook a lot, to a beginner it can be baffling. Which is where the BBC comes in: Nigella, Nigel, Mary Berry, even the Hairy bloody Bikers are people we know. We trust them because we’ve seen them do it, and alongside the recipes there are often little clips, to show you exactly how these recipes are going to work for you. There’s a bit of Nigel Slater making a butternut squash pie that I watch both when I want to make a butternut squash pie, and whenever I feel particularly stressed. “The genius of the butternut squash pie is that it is both soft…and crisp, crisp and soft,” he intones, gently, stirring nutmeg through melting butter.
It is delightful, and it taught me to make pies, and I am so sad that it will be lost – I might be ready to spread my wings and make a pie without Nigel's dulcet tones, but what about all the people after me? There are hundreds of bad pie recipes on the internet. What if they pick the wrong one, and end up thinking it’s them who can’t cook? When I first started cooking, one unhappy effort might have put me off for life.
And I’m not alone, it seems – a petition to save BBC Food has more than 100,000 signatures.
We know, I think, the value of what we have, and perhaps the BBC will come to realise this, too. As I type, rumours of a potential U-turn are rife: Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post tweets that a source has told him, “Your mum’s favourite apple crumble won’t disappear.” Let’s hope so.