On Saturday I was lucky enough to be part of the Rural Living Show in Taunton, an annual event that has become a fixture in the Christmas calendar in Somerset. Styling itself a ‘craft and lifestyle show’ it is a great showcase for local craft, design and food producers who travel from all over the South West to take part. Thousands of people attend every year to buy or order artisan made gifts and consumables. Many will be Christmas presents or wonderful puddings and preserves. Others will be like the stand I was part of – delicious food you might intend for later but which actually lasts no longer than the length of the show.
My friend Charlie is a fellow breast cancer survivor and has been appointed Corporate Ambassador for Macmillan Cancer Support. Deciding to step back from a hectic life as a recruitment consultant she has now started her own business – Charlotte Jane Cakes – making celebration cupcakes, organising cupcake parties and producing those teeny little flags you see decorating plates of sandwiches at parties. This was her first time at the Rural Living Show and we weren’t quite sure how it would go, especially as we found we were sited next to an enormous chocolate fountain running with Nutcombe chocolate…
In fact it was a great success. Charlie sold more than 500 cupcakes, had a number of enquiries for parties and a christening and made a lot of new contacts. She also got a ‘wow’ from the WI and a cookery teacher. A wonderful time was had by all.
Earlier this year I wrote an article published in Family Tree magazine entitled ‘Cupcakes & cucumber sandwiches’. It was a brief history of tea time, inspired by my love of all things Victorian and the cupcake craze that Charlie has helped bring to Somerset.
‘Afternoon tea’ reputedly first became popular in the early 19th century (although there is some evidence of a similar ritual earlier than this). Anna Duchess of Bedford was visiting Belvoir Castle near Grantham and disliking the hunt she found herself left behind with a ‘hungry gap’ between lunch and dinner. She began a habit of taking tea and cake in her rooms with similarly peckish house guests and the ritual continued on her return to London.
Teatime and teashops have contributed to the emancipation of women – offering them somewhere respectable to meet without a chaperone – the tourist industry and our waistlines; surviving two world wars, changing fashions and ubiquitous high street coffee mega chains such as Starbucks. However much has changed in the 21st century. Tea time is now part of the heritage visitor experience – think cream teas in a National Trust cafe – and is rarely part of a daily routine in the home.
So why the new craze for cupcakes, macaroons and other decorative delectables?
There may be a clue in some recent newspaper reports and other media on our new obsession with baking. Programmes such as ‘The Great British Bake-off’ and ‘Kirstie’s Handmade Britain’‘ allow us to worship cakes and biscuits without piling on the pounds. The recipes included produce things that are so beautiful we begin to drool and simply can’t resist trying them for ourselves. It takes a lot of practice however, to produce something so very beautiful and cupcakes are deceptively difficult to get right. It is no wonder that the number of companies offering their expert services is growing.
And apparently we just cannot get enough. When a Reading woman offered her cupcakes at a reduced rate on voucher site Groupon she had to absorb a £12,000 loss when more than 8,500 signed up for the deal. Other reports suggest that the cupcake is the ultimate sugar fix. It is literally addictive (apparently more so than cocaine; but the report was in The Sun…). You don’t like cake? Well the frosting is the thing. Buy a lover four ‘Red Velvet’ Cupcakes for Valentine’s day and they will have enough energy to stay awake all night……..
I know we really have to address problems of obesity across all age groups but to be honest my experience of Saturday suggests that it isn’t beautiful baking that is the problem. Quality food is good to look at, so delicious you take time to savour every mouthful and so much more expensive that it has (for me anyway) to be saved for special occasions. It is often incredibly rich and even a convinced calories consumer like myself can only eat a small amount at one sitting. The food tent on Saturday was full of pies, pasties, breads and confectionery but it wasn’t a scene of gluttony. It was a celebration of all that is great about our local farms, breweries, bakeries and speciality food producers.
A bigger concern must be the high street. A Costa Coffee has just opened in ours. apparently that means it is only a matter of time before Starbucks takes up a lease on an empty shop. Further on is a Greggs, next door to which planning permission has been sought for a new Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Wellington is a small place in the heart of a rural community. Why do we need so much processed food?
We don’t. We are programmed by the big companies to want it. Disturbingly there are two high schools that let older pupils out to eat at lunchtime. Like many a school uniform waistband, Greggs is bursting at the seams.
Less is more is an adage that applies to many things. (‘None is plenty’ should apply to KFC in my opinion). But with cupcakes and good food it is most certainly true. I can eat a whole bar of Dairy Milk, but can ‘make do’ with a couple of squares of a Hotel Chocolat bar.
If it is an addiction it doesn’t need a cure. I don’t want one anyway….