Back in the early nineties, I was working as a commis chef at the Marguerite restaurant in Bristol, whilst studying for a City & Guilds 706 1&2 at the Brunel College on day release.
I’d always preferred preparing desserts to other types of food and so took over making cakes, bread and biscuits at the restaurant. Then one day, the head chef/owner explained that they had a very important wedding party booked and needed a traditional Royal Iced wedding cake of three tiers. It’s one of those situations where you hear yourself saying “yes, of course I can do it - no problem” and then wondered what I’d let myself in for as I didn't even know how to make Royal Icing!.
Next day, at college I spoke with the cake decorating tutor - Mr Graham Chubb - about my predicament, and he very kindly offered to teach me during lunch-times. Over some weeks I managed to learn enough to pull it off - it probably hideous looking back but looked great in the photographs.
But, by then, I had become hooked on cake decorating. I started going to all of Graham’s classes and eagerly absorbed every thing I could about the subject. I must have taken out and read every book on the subject in the city library.
I couldn’t afford to buy books on a commis chef’s wages and so I’d spend any spare time in the local WH Smiths reading Nick Lodge and Tombi Peck’s books - I’d then practice each technique and then go back for the next chapter.
I couldn’t afford fancy cutters and so I’d make them myself from cut up tin cans or adapt them - a habit I still have to this day. Why buy a fancy set of rose petal cutters when you can use a 99p set of cookie cutters from the local cheapie shop - does exactly the same job.
My next wedding cake commission followed - my good friend Juliet wanted
an ice blue cake decorated with white cherry blossoms, in three tiers; traditional fruit cakes soaked in brandy and covered with marzipan and a rather new product called sugarpaste!
The cakes were very proudly placed at the stern of the Tower Belle sail-boat on our way along the canal to Bath and back.
I must say that I loved cake decorating so much that I took on another course at college - patisserie & sugarcraft!
Mr Chubb introduced me to the British Sugarcraft Guild and encouraged me to start entering competitions, The first competition I ever entered (nervously) was at Telford - I went along with a group of friends, we set up my entries and then we went shopping.
I’d entered a bunch of dandelions in the specimen flower class and a Jemima Puddleduck carved cake complete with Easter bonnet and a small piped basket filled with flowers in the novelty cake class.
We came back late afternoon to find that the dandelions had won a First Place, the duck cake also won First Place in its class. The bunch of dandelions also won ‘Best Exhibit in Competition’ and was featured in an article in the Sunday Express - wow, what a start eh.
By this time, I was building a solid reputation in and around Bristol and Bath, taking on commissions for celebration cakes and being asked to demonstrate techniques for the BSG and the Women's Institute.
Then one day I got a surprise:
A request from the English National Ballet school to make a cake for Princess Diana’s 30th birthday party at Kensington Palace. Again, Graham kindly provided support and I decided that as Diana was patron of the school then the cake should have a ballet theme.
The cake was a fourteen inch round rich fruit, covered with traditional marzipan and twelve coats of Royal Icing. For the decoration, I took inspiration from Beryl Cook - a very popular artist at the time with her paintings of rather large ladies; and so I created characters in ballet poses wearing tutus - all made from runout icing.
The top of the cake was decorated with a scene of swans on a lake using brushed Royal Icing.
Once finished, a reporter from the Bristol Evening Post came to do an article and take photographs.
The cake was then taken to the Palace for the party. The ‘thank you’ letter from St. James’s Palace mentioned that Her Royal Highness was “most touched by the thoughtful and very generous gift, which was very much appreciated. The ballet theme drew particular admiration!”. Wow...
Such a great time but unfortunately it wasn’t paying the bills, and so I started work for TV Licensing. But, I never lost my love for the subject, and now years later I’ve come back to it.
I recently finished Uni where I gained a teaching qualification and I now work for two wonderful organisations - Adult Education Wales and Cardiff Adult Community Learing. I deliver courses all over South Wales which enables me to repay some of the kindness and encouragement shown to me over the years by my tutors and mentors - and to meet some fantastic people. I’m now officially registered as a Further Education Tutor here in Wales - wow again!
I’m actively involved with the British Sugarcraft Guild as a judge at national competitions and also organise the annual Welsh Sugarcraft & Cake Competition at Llancaiach Fawr.
Hope to see you on one of my workshops soon.
A great honour to find myself working with
Eddie Spence MBE at the Brighton BSG competition.
Saturday 16 May, 2015
Article published in the British Baker magazine
Beryl Cook's dancers -
cheeky inspiration for the ballerinas around the sides of the cake.