Saturday, 4 May 2013

A Slice of the Action: The Rise of the Clandestine Cake Club

This is my first baking feature, a write up of a meeting of the Surbiton CCC that I attended on the 20th April. Enjoy!

It is 2pm on a bright April day. I can hear the jingle of the ice-cream man’s van winding slowly around the quiet suburban streets and a gentle breeze is stirring the trees that line the road, but I am not feeling very cool. At a little pub in a corner of Surbiton, I am struggling to furtively remove a large coffee and walnut cake from my car and to manoeuvre it, unobserved, under my jacket.

I am not the only person spending my weekend engaged in shady sponge-based activity. Up and down the country, a quiet revolution is gathering pace, and now there is barely a corner of England it hasn’t spread to.

Welcome to the Clandestine Cake Club. The first rule of Clandestine Cake Club is: You do talk about Clandestine Cake Club. Founder Lynn Hill, 62, will not come after you with a spatula if you do. In fact, she’s more than happy for you to tell friends and family: “It is a bit of fun and I'm more than happy for members to spread the word. The clandestine bit is the location, which is only revealed to those who book a place. It makes these events different from the norm and people feel part of something that is special.”

And spread the word they have. Almost as soon as I sidle into the back room of The Castle pub, and gingerly place my cake down on the table, other cakes start to appear. Chocolate fudge, cherry streusel, chunky apple, sticky toffee, banana loaves, chocolate and almond and sachertorte – by the time we start cutting the cakes I’m spoilt for choice. The knife trembles in my hand, the sweat beads on my forehead – can I really have my cake and eat it?

In the end I plump for the chocolate fudge cake, but commit a massive tactical blunder by cutting what I consider a small piece, and then noticing that everyone else is cutting paper-thin slivers, so as to have room to try everything. Still, in between pawing cake into my face, I am somehow able to express that I am pleasantly surprised by the broad demographic to Anita, 36. “It’s honestly for anyone; men, women, young, old and kids,” she answers.

I am also pleasantly surprised by the lack of a competitive atmosphere, having heard from another baker that she had attended a meeting that was all frosty smiles and perfect cakes. This is much more of a social occasion. Anita, stepping backwards to avoid my shower of crumbs, sums it up in three words: “What does the Clandestine Cake Club mean to me? Community, cake and sharing.”

“It’s something everyone contributes to and everyone takes something away from. And it’s really versatile. Anyone can make a cake so anyone can participate, it’s really inclusive. I think the clandestine part makes it even more fun because there’s an element of mystery.”

This inclusivity and the sense of a social occasion seem to be exactly what Lynn was looking for when she founded the club in Leeds in December 2010. She had already been holding Secret Tea Rooms at her house long before shows like the Great British Bake Off helped to spark a revival in baking, and was blogging about her experience: “No-one else was doing anything like this and I wanted to bring people together, a social gathering, through tea and cake.”

The idea appears to have really struck a chord with people all over the globe – there are now clubs in the US, China, the Bermudas, Canada, France and India to name but a few, not to mention the over 150 groups in the UK. It really is a case of the rise and rise of the Clandestine Cake Club, and now everyone seems to want a slice of the action. The ‘clandestine’ part imbues the whole occasion with a real sense of mischief, which all the bakers mention as one of the best things about it, and something that really piqued their interest. The idea of meeting up to eat cake in semi-secret came as a real novelty, as Geraldine, 39, tells me: “You don’t always get many groups that are for people who enjoy talking about cake. I haven’t come across another club that’s about cake.

“The secret bit allows you to check out different venues and you get to find out about the area you live in and find out what’s on your doorstep. The downside is you can’t advertise very well.” Laura, 35, agrees that the main point of the secrecy around location was fun. She said: “I don’t think it’s vital but the idea of eating cake in secret just adds to the fun.”

By now I’ve shovelled down some of the cherry streusel cake (still warm in the middle), and am starting to get a bit of a cake headache. But I push on with a wafer thin slice of the sachertorte, spurred on by a sense of duty to try all the cakes on the table, lest some baker be offended that my gluttony does not extend to theirs.

At this meeting, our cakes have been inspired by the theme ‘Doing a Delia’, which has resulted in a range of retro cakes, some made straight from Delia’s 70s recipes, others from her updated books or with a modern twist added by the baker who’s brought it. Paula, 55, tells me that the themes often result in crazy creations, and things sometimes get a trifle out of hand: “I once found myself sneaking out of an important meeting to build a bonfire on a cake for our November theme!”

It’s now 4pm, and we’re dividing up the cakes into our respective Tupperware containers. But there’s one thing I’m just dying to ask about. Although much about the Clandestine Cake Club is very laid back, I did discover whilst on the website that there is one hard and fast rule, which is as follows and is typed rather emphatically in bold text: “Sorry, but NO cupcakes, Muffins, Brownies, Cookies, Pies or Tarts.”

I ask Deon, 34, what he thinks of this rule. Why limit bakers’ creativity like this? As he looks slightly askance at me, I begin to feel like I’m treading on thin icing. Then he says firmly: “It’s not fairy cakes, or biscuits, or pies. It’s just cakes. That’s why there’s a place for the club: because everyone likes cake.”

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