The Great Croydon Bake Off 2013 (Winter Edition)

By - Monday 18th February, 2013

Christo Matthews stokes the national passion for baking and uncovers four of Croydon’s master chefs. Rob Mayo is on hand to witness the birth of the Great Croydon Bake Off

After the pleasant surprise of the Cherry Orchards Arts Festival last year (my first journalistic mission in Croydon), I was pleased to hear that the organiser, Christo Matthews, was planning a series of events based on the extraordinarily popular BBC television series, the Great British Bake Off. Despite having to catch a red-eye flight to Barcelona the next morning, I resolved to be in Croydon for Christo’s new event.

I heard through the grapevine that morning that Christo was having some logistical problems – the marquee had been set up the previous night, but the ovens that were to be installed inside for the bakers were, apparently, not all accounted for. Imagining that some kind of pastry-based apocalypse was unfolding at Matthews Yard (no relation to Christo, before anyone cries nepotism), I arrived as close to noon as possible and offered Christo and Nigel Dias any help, which in the event was limited to moving some boxes for them. Clearly both men display better crisis management skills at the eleventh hour of a community event months in planning than I do when I run out of teabags, because the marquee was still standing and the only evidence of any hiccup was the slight disparity between ovens and tables for the bakers (3:4). Although two bakers had to share a cooker, there was no evidence of any bakers’ plans being ruined and their hopes and dreams dashed.

Speaking of the bakers: they were, from left to right, Kimberley Scott-Matthews (also no relation, I think), Deborah Mussell, Geoff Ranson, and Neil Ridulfa. They are aligned along one side of the marquee like a firing squad’s targets, and at this early stage of the day the marquee smells inexplicably and unmistakably of fireworks. The bakers are introduced by presenter Rebecca Perfect (surely not real name?), but no amount of exhortations from her for the crowd to speak to the bakers (‘they won’t bite!’) can induce the assembled baker-watchers to disturb the chefs as they prepare their savoury bakes – it feels somehow obscene to break this invisible wall between spectator and spectacle, as if doing so will destroy some kind of illusion. (Your correspondent theorises at this point in the day that the spectator feels that they would be usurping the roles of BBC’s Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and thereby bring about some kind of existential-ontological crisis, but that could just be the caffeine talking.)

These people probably don’t analyse the junction of fiction and reality quite so much.

Once the initial awkwardness/existential anxiety has faded, some of the crowd, your correspondent included, put their fingers through the metaphorical bars and talk to the bakers, who are all lovely people and don’t seem to begrudge the interruption of their focus on baking in the slightest. I am interested to note that Geoff had not met Christo or any of his fellow bakers until today – he answered the call to arms after seeing the event publicly advertised, and seems delighted with the event and the atmosphere of nearby host Matthews Yard. After the resounding success of the Matthews Yard Kickstarter campaign, it’s great to see evidence of the ‘MY scene’ attracting more and more talented and community-minded people.

After the savoury bakes have been made, the bakers leave the marquee so that the two judges can assess the array of dishes. This is done without the microphones that Christo and Rebecca have been using to narrate proceedings, and their assessments remain secret even to the end – possibly so that the bakers don’t get overly encouraged or discouraged by their performance in this first stage. Sadly I’m only able to sample Kimberley’s and Deborah’s offerings, but I can testify that they were both delicious.

I have to confess that I wasn’t a devoted spectator for the entire six hours. (Not even the running commentary from Christo and Rebecca can turn ‘watching things in an oven’ into a spectator sport.) In keeping with my self-appointed role of gonzo journalist, I devoted substantial time to binging on delightful cupcakes and Irish coffees. I also helped Nigel to man the cupcake table set up between the marquee and Matthews Yard, where we competed with the nearby Surrey Street market vendors by shouting at passers-by about the delicious wares on sale. It was here that I coined the promotional phrase, ‘it’s worth going in for the smell alone’. If Christo uses that to promote the Spring edition, he’d better lawyer up. (Not really – I’m too poor.)

Would you buy a cupcake from this man? You should, they’re delicious.

The sweet bake round, counter-intuitively, doesn’t smell quite so great. The firework smell returns as the savoury-bake smells dissipate, and is then replaced by the smell of burning chocolate after one baker has a spillage. The smell becomes delightful as soon as you can see what’s being made though, and the post-bake samples are even more delicious than the cupcakes sold by me and Nigel. Before the crowd can tuck in, however, the judges have the hard task of choosing a winner based on the sweet bakes and the still-unknown results of the savoury bake. The bakers are returned from exile and seated to hear the results – the judges’ baking champion is Kimberley, whose cointreau-laced tart is indeed a dream dessert. She wins a meal for two at a swanky restaurant, and at place at the star baker showdown at the autumn bake off.

Feeling bizarrely energised from the uncharacteristic amount of sugar and caffeine consumed today, I bid farewell to Christo and some of our wonderful contributors that I’ve met over the day (photos courtesy of Andrew Dickinson). It’s a shame not to be around for the well-deserved after party, but I have a good feeling that the Great Croydon Bake Off will be back before too long, and I for one will be there, fork in hand.

Kimberley (centre-right) discusses her winning creation with the judges and Rebecca Perfect.

Rob Mayo

Rob Mayo

The Managing Editor of the Croydon Citizen, and the only co-founder not to have ever lived in Croydon. Rob previously studied at University of Oxford and University of London, and regrets only one of them. Since co-founding the Citizen in 2012 Rob has completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Bristol, for whatever that's worth... Rob's stereotypically left-leaning views are personal, and not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Tim Richardson

    I laughed out loud more than once reading this. Good writing!

  • Wendy Ager

    Really hoping to make the next ones & have enjoyed the pics, videos & reviews of this one.

  • Kake

    While digging through pamphlets in the Local Studies Library the other day, I discovered that Croydon has a history of baking competitions. The library has a printed programme for the “Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Bread and Confectionery”, organised by the Croydon and District Master Bakers’ Association, held on 1 February 1933 at the Horniman Hall on North End. (I don’t know exactly where this hall was — suspect it’s been demolished.) It seems to have been quite a grand affair, with prizes sponsored by national firms.

    So Christo is actually reviving a tradition from the past!