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Getting my Bake Off on at The Thame Food Festival 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I had the very real pleasure of being invited along to the Thame Food Festival 2018 and I was delighted to accept. A fair few of my Twitter chums have headed over in the past and I have always enjoyed living vicariously through them, but I decided that this was the year that I checked it out for myself.

Since its inception in 2008, the festival has been based in the small market town of Thame, about 13 miles east of Oxford, and, over the years, it has attracted the fantastic support of scores of celebrity and local chefs, who come to the festival to demonstrate for absolutely NOTHING simply because they love what they do and are happy to be part of this glorious celebration of local British produce.

Run as a non-profit by a small group of local people, this is a business with primarily social objectives whose profits are reinvested back into the festival or into the local community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners – and that community feel flows through every individual element of the festival, including their ‘Local Artisan Producer Bursary’ and the free space provided to local charities, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Thomley and the WI at Denman College, enabling them to raise both money and awareness over the two days of the event.

When deciding which day of the two-day Festival I would head up for, I scoured the event programme, where I was captivated by the incredible line up of chefs and bakers who would be appearing on the Magimix Stage. The Saturday was to feature appearances from the youngest ever GBBO contestant and now successful author and Waitrose columnist, Martha Collison; 2016 MasterChef champion, Jane Devonshire; Raymond Blanc OBE; and Bake Off: The Professionals judge and Chef Patissier at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Benoit Blin and it certainly seemed like an event not to be missed. However, I have to say that my inner GBBO fanboy squealed when I saw who would be demonstrating on the Sunday!

With a line up set to include Suzy Pelta, Lotte Duncan and a whole host of former GBBOers, such as series one’s Miranda Gore Browne, series four’s Howard Middleton, series seven’s Jane Beedle and Candice Brown (who would be accompanied by her Dancing on Ice partner, Matt Evers) and series eight’s Steven Carter-Bailey, the decision was made for me and so, on Sunday, I headed off up the A34 on my first ever visit to Thame.

In spite of travelling solo, I was warmly welcomed on arrival by members of the festival’s ‘Foodie Force’, an army of friendly and enthusiastic volunteers who immediately made me feel at ease – even after I tripped over a fence navigating my way through the huge (and FREE!) carpark! They quickly gave me directions to the show’s main feature, the Magimix Stage, where I planned to set up camp to ensure that I would have a prime view of all of the day’s incredible demonstrations.

First up was a demo by food blogger, author and fellow member of team #creamfirst, Suzy Pelta who would be acting as our host throughout the day’s events and it was great to have the chance to talk to her in person after being twitter chums for a fair old while now. In fact, if you’d indulge me jumping ahead briefly, that was one of my favourite aspects of the entire day. Thanks to the wonderfully intimate nature of the festival, I was able to grab a few minutes with every single one of the special guests. Having been Twitter  chums with many of them for some time, it was great to finally be able to have a proper chat.

Yes, I had trimmed my beard too short only that morning. No, I don’t want to talk about it… 😉

But back to the action…

After Suzy’s quick and tasty S’mores Cookie Squares, we were joined by one of The Great British Bake Off’s inaugural bakers, Miranda Gore Browne who wowed us all with an essential guide to the perfect royal-iced biscuit. Having wanted to turn my hand to this art form for a long while now, I picked up a lot of top tips that I hope to be able to put to good use sometime soon.

Of course, I couldn’t come all this way without checking out some of the other incredible sights and smells on show, so I dashed out after Miranda’s demo to have a wander around the festival ground taking in the headline sponsors Magimix’s marquee and show favourites, the Pop-up Pub and the Botanical Gin Garden, conveniently located either side of the festival’s newest feature, the live Music Stage, which featured a fabulous programme of musicians throughout the weekend.

I managed to show some real restraint in Humble Country – a marquee full of tempting hand-picked and unique homeware – but sadly (or not in actual fact) my restraint didn’t last quite so long in the Artisan Market or the Street Food Zone, where I was tempted to indulge in the wonderful selection of fabulous local ingredients and some hot and tasty dishes and bakes.

Yeah, I found some cake, because… cake.

After that, I headed back to the Magimix Stage to catch the end of Liam and Ryan Simpson-Trotman of Orwells’ fabulous cooking demonstration, before it was time for the biggest draw of the day, Dancing on Icing Sugar – with Candice Brown and Matt Evers, during which we howled with laughter. These was to become a theme for the rest of the day!

In fact, as I tweeted during the afternoon, my jaw actually hurt from laughing so much. The GBBO bakers really are an entertaining bunch!

Between Suzy, Candice, Matt, Steven, Howard and Jane, I would be hard-pressed to choose a favourite demonstration and that is without including some of the industry insider gossip shared by show director and patron, Lotte Duncan.

What repeatedly struck me, particularly as I stood back and watched the chefs and bakers engage with their fans, was how accessible they were. If you compare the Thame weekend with other, bigger events like last weekend’s The Cake and Bake Show (stay tuned for a special guest post all about that soon), you rarely have the chance to meet all of your baking heroes at such a big event, simply because they are so big. Yet, just one week earlier, many of the same faces were right there in Thame, happily chatting away, posing for photos and giving the public as much time as was needed to ensure that everyone got a look in – why are more of us not heading along to this incredible event?

And of course, in addition to the fantastic demonstrations, amazing local produce and dazzling array of cuisines on offer, the little ones are also well taken care of, with their very own Children’s Activity Area, with swings, rides and plenty of other activities to keep them busy. The festival is also ‘dog-friendly’, which means that even the smallest members of the family are welcome along – I loved meeting so many adorable bundles of fluff, including some of the pooches brought along by the Hearing Dogs for Deaf People charity, who were hosting a Fun Dog Show.

Add on to this the Vintage Tea Tent from Dottie about Cake and a fabulous demonstration schedule from members of The WI, courtesy of Denman College, WI HQ, there really was something new to see and do whichever way you turned!

A whole shack of crumble! Autumnal heaven!

In fact, the only thing missing from the whole weekend was a lil’ cake decorating demonstration from a humble little cake blogger – how’s about it, Lotte? 😉

In all seriousness, I had an absolutely fabulous time at the Thame Food Festival and I would heartily recommend it as a fun day out for anyone with a love of cooking, baking, eating or even just drinking (Make sure you bring a designated driver though people – safety first!). The fact that you can bring the dog, the kids and pretty much any of your friends (as there really was something for everyone) means that you are guaranteed a top day out, but don’t just take my word for it – The Thame Food Festival returns to the Thame Showground next year on 28-29 September 2019. Head on down and find out for yourself!

Thank you so much to Rachel and Lotte for having me along to the Thame Food Festival 2018 and for being such wonderful hosts both during the build up to the event and on the day. I will definitely be back for more next year!

Hopefully I’ll see you all there too!

x

To stay up to date with the latest news and information about the Thame Food Festival 2019, head to the official festival website here.

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Guest Post: Becky Jenkins – Salon Culinaire 2018

International Salon Culinaire is the UK’s largest and most prestigious chefs competition programme. If that sentence alone isn’t enough to make you want to run and hide, then, like this week’s guest writer, you must love a challenge. Based across two shows, it comprises of four competition categories – Salon Display, Live Theatre, Skills Theatre and La Parade des Chefs – which showcase the terrific skills and talent within the hospitality industry. Included in these competitions are the Senior Sugarcraft Competition Classes – a chance for the brightest and best within the cake world to share their work with a wider audience – and one competitor who scored particularly well at the 2018 show was Becky Jenkins.

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Better known as Becky Jenkins – Sugar Artist, Becky is a multiple gold-award-winning cake artist and recently started her training to become a fully accredited British Sugar Guild Demonstrator.

I reached out to Becky to find out more about International Salon Culinaire, hear all of this year’s gossip and to find out how it felt to scoop some of the show’s biggest awards.

Salon-Logo

I’ve been competing for the last 6 years and attending cake shows and exhibitions annually since the age of 18, so when I was first handed the competition schedule for Salon Culinaire, 5 years ago, I was both intrigued and anxious at the thought of entering. It actually took me a couple of years to pluck up the courage, after hearing tales of their high standards and the fierce competition from the industry’s finest.

Finally, in 2017, I submitted my entry into The Great Hospitality Show and was thrilled to walk away with a Best in Class award and the Best Sugarcraft Exhibit gong for my Wolf and the Picnic Basket display piece. I felt like I had experienced a different kind of competition and felt a whole new level of achievement.

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As a result, Salon 2018 was a guaranteed fixture in this year’s diary and, now I felt a bit more confident, I even managed to talk a few friends into entering with me.

On entering the show, you are instantly greeted with the wonderful aromas from the trade stands and Salon Kitchens. Samples of food and drink are readily available – as are free products to take away. There are displays showcasing the latest culinary trends, seminars, demonstrations and workshops on the different aspects of the catering and food industry and lots of other things to see and do – if you feel so inclined. The Salon competitions themselves consist of over 100 different classes spread over the four days of the show, with some taking place live and others displayed for you to look at and enjoy.

As I’ve said, 2018 was my second year entering Salon Culinaire and it is still a very new experience. Although similar to the competition set up at Cake International, which readers may be more familiar with, particularly in regard to the rules and schedules, it’s always daunting to step into a new arena.

The organisers and judges are very helpful and welcoming though and on hand from start to finish to answer any queries and give advice and, as the number of entries are far fewer than the bigger more cake-focused shows, feedback is more relaxed.

This year, my entries took over 300 hours and cost me many a sleepless night. I was determined not to rush and end up with a group of half-finished entries, because I knew it would only lead to disappointment later on and – importantly – I started early, originally had the crazy idea of entering five categories! I eventually managed to complete three pieces that I was satisfied I had put my all into them.

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For the Miniature Class, I created an artist’s studio, inspired by the fact that I have been getting back into my artwork, so I found it really quite fitting and a subject that I could sink my teeth into. Each piece was hand-modelled from Saracino’s modelling paste and left to harden, before piecing it together. The whole model had to fit within a 6” cube, so details where very tiny and very fiddly.

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I painted each piece using a mixture of alcohol and petal dust and the canvases were hand-painted using Saracino cocoa butter and dust colours. In total, my Miniature took around 50 hours to make and won a gold medal and the Best in Class award. I think the best reward though was being told, ‘it was a pleasure to judge and executed to perfection’. I couldn’t have asked for better feedback. I’ve never seen myself as someone who manages to achieve perfection and, even now, I could still sit and find a fault somewhere – I am definitely my own worst critic!

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My second entry was entered into the Wedding category and took well over 200 hours (maybe more – I quickly lost count) to complete. It honestly felt like it would never be finished at one point.

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The four tiers were covered in hand-painted details, again using Saracino Cocoa butter, and the whole piece sat on a coral pedestal stand, hand-sculpted from Saracino modelling paste and sugarpaste.

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It has a total of over 30 handmade sea creatures and fish, more than 200 sea shells and pebbles and nearly 150 individually made pieces of coral adorning its layers, all painted with cocoa butter. It also won a gold medal and the Best in Class award, which I was both thrilled and shocked to receive.

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My final piece was entered into the Sculpted Novelty Cake category and was a life-sized sculpted salmon. The rules stated that they wanted to see a good proportion of cake, so I didn’t want to overcomplicate the design and, as it is a chef’s competition, I decided to go with a foodie option.

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My salmon was served on a bed of isomalt, with wedges of lemon handcrafted from Saracino products. The scales where individually embossed, which took a total of 2.5 hours, and the details were hand-painted.

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Many people were fooled by the realism of this piece and came back for a second glance – just to make sure it really was a cake! I love being able to fool the eye and I feel getting people to interact with your work is sometimes more rewarding than any award.

On the final day of the show, all competitors are invited to attend the presentation of prizes and we were individually called upon to receive our framed certificates and medals for gold, silver and bronze awards. Commemorative plates were also awarded for the Best in Class awards and similar. Although competing for me has never really been about the material rewards, I’ll admit being presented with a lovely shiny gold medal was an added bonus. It gave me a great sense of achievement and pride to walk away from a show respected by professionals from all around the globe and to be recognised as one of them.

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All in all, it was a successful day for the cake world, with an array of talent on display from as far afield as New York, Cyprus and Salvador. And let’s not forget the show’s big winners, with the Professional Cake Decorator of the Year going to Jacqui Kelly, the Best Sugarcraft Exhibit to Beth Dove for her amazing chocolate sculpture and the Best Senior and Chairman’s Award to Urszula Maczka for her beautiful Rabbit Figurine – the detail on it was out of this world.

Jacqui Kelly
Professional Cake Decorator of the Year, Jacqui Kelly

There were so many works of art that it’s hard to pick a favourite, but the ones that really jumped out at me were the beautiful examples of pulled sugar work and the gorgeous sugar flowers – things that I currently only wish I had the skills to do, but I hope to have a go them at one day.

One of the other biggest highlights of this year’s competition had to be the turnout of familiar faces and talent from the cake world supporting and cheering each other on. When it came to the awards, the rest of the show certainly knew we were there, which was not only wonderful to see and be part of, but it also showed that while we may only be a small part of the food service industry, together we can make a big impact.

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Photo courtesy of Rhianydd Webb of Dragons and Daffodils Cakes

If you were to ask me whether you should enter Salon, I would say one hundred percent yes! Don’t ever be afraid to have a go and try something new. The organisers and judges are on hand every step of the way to advise and guide you and they are always more than happy to help. All abilities and levels of experience receive a warm friendly welcome, so don’t put it off as long as I did. You never know, you could be the next cake artist to walk away with a shiny medal or even a Best in Show award.

I will most definitely have my name down to enter next year and really hope that many more of you will join me. Good luck and I hope to see you there!

It sounds like an amazing experience Becky and I am genuinely so sad to have missed it. Thank you so much for allowing us to share in your show journey – it was certainly the next best thing to being there in person.

To find out more about Becky and her incredible cake artistry – including her pieces from this year’s shows – you can find her website here or why not follow her on Facebook?

And if you are interested in finding out more about Salon Culinaire and upcoming shows and events, you can visit their website.

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Wickham Tastes Good to Me…

Just down the road from here, there is a charming little village called Wickham. Centred around a bustling village square, the enchanting place is steeped in history and full of character.

Once a year, all of the local businesses come together to produce a wonderful occasion, the Taste of Wickham Festival – a celebration of all the fine foods and flavours available within the immediate vicinity. With such a delight on our doorstep, we obviously had to head down to see what it was all about.

The slick organisation of this event becomes clear before you even arrive, with clear signposting, enthusiastic volunteer marshals offering directions, ample free car parking and even a free park-and-ride service up to the village square. That people have chosen to give up their time (and their home comforts) on a fairly grey and blustery day to help bring this event to life just shows how much pride the inhabitants of Wickham take in their little corner of the Hampshire countryside.

Alighting from our minibus, we were immediately engulfed by a variety of enticing sights and smells and these were quickly followed by an array of free tasty samples available to try, from freshly cooked meats, luxury chocolates, artisan breads, cheeses and more.

The first item on our to-do list was to satisfy our lunch cravings and our party numbered four, including a vegetarian, a gluten-avoider, a sugar-fiend and an all-food-enthusiast – a tricky combination to please at the best of times! I think it’s safe to say that we all managed to find tasty delights to enjoy though. Personally, I (the awkward vegetarian), started with a veggie-burger topped with my choice of enhancements, while the others enjoyed a pulled-pork roll, Chilli with gluten free tortilla chips and a freshly baked sausage roll between them. No complaints from anyone at this stage, which is very unusual from this bunch – believe me! We ate accompanied by live music (regretfully I didn’t hear the talented chap’s name though) and then it was time to catch one of the five live cookery demonstrations happening across the day.

Debbie Towlson, a lecturer from Fareham College, explained how to create her Goat’s Cheese, Potato and Thyme Soda Bread, usually taught as part of the college’s Artisan Bread Course, before (in true Blue Peter-style) whipping out enough ‘here’s some I prepared earliers’ to ensure the entire audience was able to taste the results (with even more goat’s cheese and a yummy chutney). Some people even managed to go up for seconds and thirds, although that may just have been me…..

All of Wickham’s local businesses were open and joining in with the fun too and so our next port of call was Lilly’s Tea & Coffee House, where we sugared up with a selection of mini-cakes (including two gluten-free options) and hot beverages. The venue was absolutely crammed full of people eager to enjoy the array of food on offer, mostly made with locally-sourced ingredients, but the staff ensured everyone was squeezed in and well-looked after.

Then it was back to the fair proper to spend our remaining pennies on some take-home treats, including some traditional bread pudding from the local bakery and a jar of Shirrel Heath Pure Honey (look out for that in a recipe soon).

The local retailers were out in force and amongst the array of antiques and crafts on offer, we may have found the perfect bench seat for our porch – although some measuring will be required before that comes home with us.

There was plenty for the family to see and do too, with dance performances from local troupes, magic shows, kids’ crafts, two free bouncy castles and even free face-painting!

The weather held off for most of the day, staying dry and even a little bright at times, but even the odd bit of drizzle didn’t put a dampener on our day. The festival certainly gave me a Taste of Wickham – a taste that I will definitely be back to enjoy again.

To find out more about Wickham and to keep up to date with what’s happening in and around the village square, there is a dedicated website.

Did anyone else make it down to the Taste of Wickham Festival? What was your highlight?