Saturday, 8 June 2013

A Cupcaker's Adventure in a World of Cake!

Another late blog post as usual, but I know you'll forgive me ;)  And it's a bit of a long one I'm afraid, so I suggest you grab a cup of tea/coffee/glass of wine/G&T (delete as appropriate), and one of those spare cupcakes off the side, sit on the sofa and relax .....

I've always thought about heading to the big cake shows, like Cake International, but as a cupcaker who is VERY scared of 'big' cakes, I've always shied away from them. Until last year that is, when mini-me (8 going on 16) and I went to Cake & Bake in London and loved it! I'm a member of a couple of Facebook-based cake communities and when a 'meet-up' was suggested at Cake International in London, I was in! I was finally going to meet my longest-standing caking buddy, and 5 new friends too! I also found out that another cakey lady who lives local to me was going, so I had someone to talk 'cake' with for the drive there as well.

I was given the opportunity to write this little piece on Cake International, and the news that I could feel important for the day wearing a 'press-pass' was very exciting. If I'm honest, it was also a little scary for this fairly shy cupcaker, who prefers to hide at the back of the crowd (or in my kitchen), and who sent her 8 year old to get Paul Hollywood's autograph last year! But anyway, time to bite the bullet - this was too good an opportunity not to have a go!

I purposely stayed away from the cakey pages and groups online for the first 2 days of Cake International because I wanted to see everything with fresh eyes.  We arrived at 9:30am on the Sunday morning to a VERY quiet Excel arena. Having been to 'Cake and Bake' and been in the queue to get in that felt like it was miles long, I was surprised to be able to park so close to the doors, and then to see a queue of only about 50 people waiting for the doors to open at 10am. I was waiting for my cakey friends to arrive (some came from Wales just for the day – now that's dedication to cake!), so decided to have a cup of coffee and watch the queue grow. I bumped into the lovely Rosie from Cake Masters, who I'd had the pleasure to meet last year when I participated in one of her ever popular Cake Crawls, and we had a quick catch up. I really wasn't jealous that she'd just been to interview Paul H and Mary B. Nope. Not at all. Not a sausage. OK, so maybe a bit …

I was sat just opposite the entrance when it opened. Even the doors gave off an aura of being tired as they slowly rolled open, but I thought it was maybe just a Sunday morning feeling. The queue had probably doubled, but they were all in within about 10 minutes, and there was a little bit of a buzz emanating from the hall. I couldn't wait to get in and see what was happening.

The girls arrived, and with excitement we went into the hall. Show programme in hand we made a plan of how to get round the show. I'm going not going to give you a stand-by-stand account – to be honest you can go online and see who was there and what they have to offer. Instead I'm going to give you a few of my random ramblings on the stands that I thought stood out and seemed to attract the most attention, some of the amazing cakes we saw and also other things I wrote down about the show (if I can read my notes!).

Moulds, cutters, mats and impressions were definitely the leaders among the most popular things for sale at the show. There were a few stands that stood out in this area though. Rosgar Pins had a big crowd congregated around their stand as they were demonstrating their impression rolling pins. Their demonstrations were impressive, as was the sugarpaste they were using (PME). After all the news and talk recently about the supermarket brands changing their recipes and making their sugar paste difficult to work with, we noticed didn't seem to crack or rip. There was a collective “Ooooooo” from the girls! Sugar paste aside – the impressions that the Rosgar pins made on the sugar paste, and the effect that they had when draped over or wrapped around the dummy cakes was certainly eye-catching and a little creativity-sparking (it was one of the stands which made me think “how could I convert that to cupcakes?” ). And I wasn't the only person to think so - they certainly seemed to be selling a lot of their pins, so I'm watching out for the photos of cakes starting to appear in my newsfeed.

The biggest bargain of the day came from the Renshaw's stand – 250g coloured sugar paste for £1 per pack, and white flower paste for £1.50. Or a show special of 4 coloured 250g packs and 1 500g white pack for £5. There was (another) “Ooooo” from the group (this noise becomes quite common during the day), increased heart rates and slightly quicker feet towards the stand. It was reminiscent of the Christmas sales – the crowd congregating around the stand were 3 deep, money in hand and waving the icing colour cards! So we sharpened our elbows and battled through. The result was one heavy shopping bag to carry around for the rest of the show, one aching shoulder the next day, and a little pile of coloured bricks on my kitchen side now calling me!

We got completely sidetracked by the lovely looking, and beautifully smelling 'Brownie Bar', who were offering a wide range of different flavour brownies and blondies, as well as other goodies like salted caramel sauce (which I brought to try drizzled over some cupcakes!), and BIY (Bake-It-Yourself) (OMG – I think I may have developed a new acroymn!) kits. Their 2 best selling flavours were the 'Millionaire' and the 'Salted Caramel' brownies, and after reading some of the reviews online, I now wish I'd tried one! I totally meant to go back and get some Pistachio ones for the other half, but forgot – no-one tell him will you?

Another stand which was getting lots of attention, was the small but well-manned 'Foodie Flavours' – selling (as you'd expect) a massive range of flavourings. They probably had the smallest floor space at the show, but managed to have a crowd extending right out into the aisle. Fortunately they also had a representative at the back of the crowd clutching bottles which smelt yummy, and answering questions. The representatives were cheery and knowledgeable, and enticed you to spend money (it didn't take a lot) – the only question what which flavour to pick! I brought home a bottle of rhubarb flavouring and can't wait to bake some rhubarb and custard cupcakes.

One of the ladies I was with was on the hunt for a mould to make magnolia flowers, and hadn't been able to find one. Until she came across the small and understated stand ''. On display were the most amazing, colourful and delicate flowers I've seen. They could almost have been real, not made out of sugar. Especially the chrysanthemum, which I just wanted to look at all day. In fact I wanted to run away with it, bring it home and continue staring at it! The gentleman running the stall (who was the owner I believe) was charming. He told us how the moulds were all made using real flowers as templates, which is how they contain so much detail. I asked him how long it took him to make the chrysanthemum - “I started when I was 4” he replied, “now I'm 55!” But in all seriousness, he said it took 6 hours work, spread over a couple of days to allow for drying time for the glue in between the 3 sections. He showed my cakey friend a magnolia mould, which she promptly brought, and then he offered to demonstrate for her how to make a few petals from it, and didn't mind being video'd doing it. He was fascinating to watch, and kept half his focus on my cakey chum to make sure she was seeing what he was doing. A great example of customer focus. As a matter of interest, he was using Modena sugar paste at the show, but normally used modelling paste.

I spotted the EdAble Art stand, and knew I wanted to ask them 'that' question. The one we've all be talking about for months. 'Glitter-gate'. I just didn't know how to approach it (refer to earlier comment about how I prefer to stand at the back of the crowd!). Luckily another of my friends wasn't quite as reserved as me, and asked straight away - “Are your glitter's edible?”. Mark told her that they can't be classed as 'edible' as they are not absorbed by the body, but they are food safe for consumption. I asked him if they were approved by the FSA, and he replied that they were, and that EdAble Arts had had all the supporting documentation for 10 years. That's it – that's me becoming reacquainted with the glitter then! Hurrah! Well, I would've done if they had anything other than shades of orange left (PLEASE bring more stock next time EdAble!) ! I had to satisfy the glitter craving with just one pot of a lush blue-black for now, and internet shop later!

We rounded the next corner and happened upon the stand by Christina and Valeri from Queen of Hearts Couture Cakes. We were mesmerised by their buttercream work. Their cakes were extraordinary, and inspiring. It was hard to believe, looking at Christina's patchwork square tiered cake, that it was decorated buttercream. But close inspection proved that it was – and all in tiny dots. No wonder it took her 30 hours to decorate! Valeri's incredible award-winning cake was inspired by 2 different Tiffany-style lamps, and took her only 12 hours to decorate. The yellow gloss finish on the cake looked like glass, and I'm still none the wiser how she achieved that effect. It was stunning. All we could keep saying way “wow”. Suffice to say we were in awe.

A short while later there was a squeak of “Oh My God – It's Paul Bradford!”. I've never seen so many lip glosses appear quite so quickly! Paul was very happy to talk to us (it helped that he knew one of our party!), and even posed for a picture (which apparently he doesn't like doing – thanks Paul, you made our day!). I asked him how long it took to set up his stand, and he told us how they started at 11am on Thursday morning, and were finally done by 5:30pm! I asked how the show had been for him. He had enjoyed it, although the Saturday had been very busy – so busy that they couldn't see the carpet for feet by the stand, and there was even a queue for the gents! I was totally struck with one particular cake on Paul's stand – a magical wintery creation with icy baubles nestled in shards of ice is how I'd describe it. Then Paul showed us a picture of how it lit up. IT LIT UP! Whoa! 

After we'd visited Paul's stand, we decided that the time had come to look at some of the display and showcase cakes. There were some very impressive pieces of work from the colleges. I'm still in awe of anyone who has the courage to enter their creation into a stage such as Cake International. I wish I had taken photos of all of the cakes, but at the time I was too busy flitting from cake to cake looking at them all!

We were beginning to look around one of the competition classes, when I stumbled across a judge talking to an entrant in class F (a wedding cake of 2 or more tiers). The entrant was asking the judge how they felt they could do better next time. From what I could hear, the judge was very encouraging, and was talking about the use of dummy cakes rather than 'real' cakes, and the use of boards between the tiers (but covering them up). I could tell the entrant was appreciative of the feedback.

My biggest regret of the day was not finding the press room to see just how good the cakes were by the 'Queen of Hearts' ladies! Especially as we found that the food available at the Excel was VERY expensive! Nearly £11 for a jacket potato and cold drink – phew! I didn't have one, my brain was in that quandary of food 'vs' shopping (I'm sure some of you are nodding in recognition at this point), so I hope they were good!

After lunch we had a good look around the rest of the cakes in the competition classes. What can I say except WOW! There are some seriously talented people out there! There were cakes which completely blew me away. The ones that immediately spring to mind (and here I'm afraid that I didn't make a note of who the talented bakers were – they just have my admiration and envy!) are the 'Leaky Cauldron' from Harry Potter, the Dragon, the Alligator, the show-winning Mulberry handbag, and Carina Bentley's wedding cake because I loved how it was staged within the frame. Oh, and then there was the Madagascar cake, and the Winnie the Pooh book, and ….... and …... ! The list is quite long actually! There were obviously cakes which split opinion. I liked hearing people saying “I love that” while others say “it's not my cup of tea” - because it means people are talking about the cakes, rather than overlooking them. A cake is like a piece of art in my opinion – it needs to spark imagination, creativity, and an opinion.

A special mention has to go to the cakes entered in the junior classes. I could not believe that some of those were decorated by young people under 12. They really were outstanding. Sharp edges, smooth lines, faultless modelling. Incredible. I can only dream of achieving half of what they can do and I'm double their ages. Ok. I admit it. Treble their ages. And a little bit more! Some of these guys have long careers ahead of them.

As I was walking around the cakes, I noticed some of the judges talking to the entrants. Ahhhh – that's what 'Judge's Forum' meant in the show guide! It was great seeing the judges taking the time to talk to the entrants – going and standing by their cakes giving them honest and productive feedback, and suggestions as to what they could do 'next time'. I over heard one of the judges, Alan Shipmen, giving an entrant advice on modelling animals (they were comparing 2 cakes both containing modelling of horse figures) – talking about proportions between the legs and the head, and muscle structure. He said to the entrant “There isn't anything we don't look for.”

I caught Brian Taylor, the Chairman of the Judges, as he walked past me. He told me that it took them a full day to judge all the entrants. I asked him what they looked for, how did they decide the results as there were some amazing entrants. He said “It's fairly easy in some cases, not so easy in others.” Then he ran off - I guess either he thought I was a crazy person, or I caught him on the way elsewhere! As it happens, he went to get Alan Shipman and they retreated into their little office. I like to think that they were making the 'Best in Show' decision, and not hiding from me :)

During the day, I didn't sit in on any of the speakers, but if I'm honest, I don't feel like I missed out. It was this area that I felt that the 'Cake and Bake' show was far superior in my experience. There, there were multiple stages, and at each the crowd were double capacity and sitting on the floor in order to hear the greats of the baking world divulge their wisdom. As Cake International it felt like more of a subdued affair. But then 'Cake and Bake' is a much bigger arena, but far more different areas of specialism. Cake International is exactly what it says on the tin. Cake. I was disappointed that the great Mr Hollywood and Ms Berry weren't there on the Sunday, but I guess that's the way the cookie crumbles as they say. I'll know to check the timetable before I go next time, to set my own expectations.

I was briefly chatting to a lady on one stand (OK, I admit it, I was listening in to her conversation with her daughter and couldn't help but join in!) - she was commenting on how dis-interested some of the stall holders appeared to be, and even to the point of rude when she'd asked a question about the price of an item! I understand that it'd been a long few days for the stall holders, and this was Sunday afternoon, but the room was still buzzing with potential customers – not just those who were buying on the day, but those (like me) who go home, flick through the show guide and look at websites to see what they might like to buy. First impressions count and all that, and unfortunately It would make me choose a different supplier if it has happened to me.

Talking of shopping and bargains, now's probably a good time to say that we were a little disappointed as a group at the apparent lack of special offers and bargains at the show. Many of the big website names were there – you know, the ones we've all spent our money at at some time or another – and we were excited to investigate the products we've only usually seen in print or online. We were surprised that they weren't advertising 'Show Specials', and that the products were to our understanding, the same as you could buy online. They might have been offering products at a discount, but it didn't appear to be advertised as such. I certainly wasn't drawn to buy as much there as I thought I would. Although I did pick up a few new things to play with. Numerous non-cakey people have asked me why I needed foam half-balls. I'm tempted not to tell them and keep their wondering! We felt that for the ticket price, there might be more 'freebies' and more to see.

Please don't get me wrong - I had a fabulous day, but that this was more down to the company, gossip and giggles, and being able to talk 'cake' face-to-face instead of online. As a cupcaker, I did get some inspiration from the entrants in that class of the competition, rather than the exhibitors, which I felt were primarily aimed at 'big' cakes. And I have come home wanting to try out some new flavour combinations and new decoration styles. So Cake International gets a thumbs up from me. Would I go again? Yes, of course! But definitely with other people – we had a sugary ball! :)

(All my photographs can be found on my Facebook page - in THIS ALBUM )

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