Being a judge for the National Cupcake Championships was only half the reason I went to Cake International in Birmingham recently. I also went trend-spotting, digging for new decorating materials and anything else that might inspire and give food for thought.
Upon stepping off the train at the NEC, I found myself swept along in a stream of mostly women, all heading for the exhibition hall. Had they all come to see Mary Berry? Half of them veered to the Christmas Hobby and Crafts Fair, taking place at the same time, but the others came in search of cake, decorating supplies and to marvel at the displays.
Walking through, I wondered if I had accidentally ended up in the wrong fair after all. This kind of cake-making seemed to have a lot more in common with hobbies and craft than cake-making of the sort that also involves baking and usually eating them too.
One cake, an astonishing tower of epic buttercream piping proportions, actually looked like tapestry. It would have taken one person several weeks to complete, the first bit of buttercream possibly going off before the last ‘stitch’ was piped on.
There were many more cakes, from the sublime to the ridiculous, classy and kitsch. A first prize went to a fishing scene cake. It featured astonishing details, executed with utmost perfection. It would require a client with a big fat cheque book to pay for all the hours of labour that go into a cake like this. I cannot imagine the army of women (and handful of men) who streamed to the NEC are doing it just for love, although there is no doubt in my mind that many of these extravagant cakes can only be made and priced by applying a ‘mates’ rate.
A few cakes on show had a ‘Gatsby’ flair about them, quite on trend with 1920s wedding dresses being en vogue. A handful also acknowledged that we’ve moved on since the cake equivalent of Princess Di’s wedding dress. Whether David Emanuel would find them tastier than jungle food is another matter.
On a contemporary note, I spotted an exhibitor from the Netherlands, Cakes by Bien, that had designed a range and were selling all the components that enabled cake-makers to copy. From unusual cutters to stencils, visitors were given instant access to a suite of cake designs worthy of a Belgravia cake parlour - a little retro with a dose of pinkish brown. Besides the product, I thought it was also a good and well-executed business idea.
There was very little chocolate in the showcase section - or was I too dazzled by that ‘basket filled with puppies’ cake? - and there was even less of the bitter-sweet stuff elsewhere. The exception was chocolatier David Leslie, who demonstrated truffle-making and offered chocolate workshops.
Maybe next time the organisers could invite cake-makers to enter some more non-sugarcraft creations. There is definitely demand for them beyond the walls of the NEC. Our most popular wedding cake is chocolate with vanilla frosting, and the brain behind the aforementioned cake parlour, Peggy Porschen, has just launched a patisserie range with not a hint of sugar paste in sight.
Simplicity, such as a ‘Naked Cake’ at a wedding, would have been unheard of a few years ago.
There is a fresh breeze blowing through Britain’s cake bakeries. Let’s see if it reaches the West Midlands next time round.