The past decade has seen the popularity of baking surge on more than one occasion. Who can forget the banana bread obsession during lockdown or how TV’s Great British Bake Off and soggy bottoms led Mary Berry to a damehood?
The TV series may now be a shadow of its former self (thanks in no small part to the cream curdling lack of chemistry between its hosts) and, since life returned to some semblance of normality, many mixing bowls and cake tins have been relegated to the back of the cupboard, but Manchester’s Village Bakers group is still going strong.
Formed by friends in 2012, the LGBTQ+ social group meet monthly at The Molly House to share homemade cake, a drink and a catch-up. This November, the group celebrates ten years with The Great Village Bake Off 2022.
Chairperson Kevin Sargent has been involved with the group since its inception. Did he ever think that the joy of the bake would last this long?
“When I set Village Bakers up I never thought it would still be going strong after all this time,” he admits. “I’m really proud of what we’ve all achieved over ten years and it’s still great seeing new people come along to the group and the long timers who have stayed and made it part of their social circle.
“It came about because there wasn’t a social group within the gay village that resonated with any of my interests. I didn’t think I was the only person who enjoyed the process of baking, so wanted to see who else was out there and if they wanted to share their efforts.”
In these often insane times, a major benefit of baking is that it can help to lower stress and encourage mindfulness. It’s not something I’ve experienced personally (my last effort wasn’t worthy of hurling into a skip) but it’s clear that for many others, and Sargent in particular, baking is a major source of relaxation.
“Oh yes, definitely. It remains a real passion of mine and offers me the chance to completely switch off, escape and relax for a bit. It doesn’t even matter if the results don’t always turn out how you’d like, it’s the joy you get from creating something that matters.”
On that note, Sargent is keen to emphasise that bakers of all standards, including total novices, are welcome join the group. Clearly it’s the coming together that’s the important thing.
“You don’t have to be good at it to join us. I believe anyone can bake and whatever your results you can bring it along and it will be enjoyed. Village Bakers has always been about appreciating people having a go. We all have failures at times but you learn the most from those. It’s never been about being the most amazing baker.”
With that last point in mind, everyone is encouraged to enter the event, from long-time bakers to those who have barely battered a bap.
“There are prizes to be won plus the chance to be crowned Star Baker,” explains Sargent. “It’s free to enter and there are three categories to consider – two for beginners (savoury or sweet) – and the showstopper. The only rule is that each entry must link to the theme of ten. After the judging, all the efforts are then shared and scoffed.
“My advice for beginners is to try making chocolate chip cookies. It’s just flour, sugar, butter, eggs and chocolate. Mix it all together, shape into biscuits, then bake. In our competition sometimes it’s the simplest things than win. Basic things done extremely well.”
This year’s judge is former Bake Off alumnus Howard Middleton from series four. Previous judges include past winner John Whaite and Corrie’s Jennie ‘Fizz’ McAlpine.
Speaking of the TV show, I wondered what Sargent thinks of its current Channel 4 incarnation.
“Some of the buzz has died down and I think it lost a bit of its mojo when it moved from the BBC. It needed a bit of reinvention but that didn’t really happen. Most shows reach a peak followed by a bit of a decline though and there remains a lot of love for the programme and it still makes for great TV. Most importantly, people’s passion for baking is still very much evident in communities and that’s testament to the power food has to bring people together.”
So, in an arm wrestling contest who would win? Prue Leith or Mary Berry? “My money’s on Mary,” Sargent confesses. “Never underestimate her, she could fight to the death.”
One thing that has always dogged both the TV series and the Village Bakers is the endless barrage of dodgy, suggestive baking puns. Endless innuendos include soggy bottoms, having a bun in the oven, watch it rise, etc. What’s the one that still makes Sargent giggle?
“Stiff peaks,” he admits. “There’s also a really famous line from Fanny Craddock’s TV show in the 60s when she was making doughnuts. Towards the end of the episode her assistant (and husband) Johnny announced ‘may all your doughnuts rise like Fanny’s’. It all adds to the fun.”
Just out of curiosity, what causes a soggy bottom?
“It’s when your pastry is underbaked,” he explains. “A regular cause is using a ceramic baking dish which doesn’t conduct the heat properly. Always use a metal tin and check that the temperature in your oven is high enough. Better still, blind bake your pastry first.”
In these days of gluten, fat and dairy-free alternatives, is Sargent an advocate of cutting calories when it comes to the pleasure of cake?
“So long as you don’t have any allergies, I say go for full fat every time. Life’s too damn short.”
The Village Bakers Great Village Bake Off will take place November 13, 2022 at 1pm in The Molly House, Richmond Street, Manchester. Click here for more details.