Extract from an Article by Eleanor Doughty for Daily Telegraph 15th August 2015
You are never too young – or too old – to succeed on the Great British Bake Off
Since the show pitter-pattered onto our television screens like a well-mannered middle-aged woman in 2010, it has become quite the phenomenon.There are now Bake Off measuring cups, enough recipe books to fill even the biggest bookcase, and GBBO-inspired babygros. The merchandising potential is unreal, and remains a growing market.
What Bake Off has done for us is make the country fall back in love with baking again. Whatever your age, baking is cool again. But for one contestant on this series of the Great British Bake Off, 66 year old Marie Campbell, cooking and baking had not been a lifelong dream. It was not her first thought out of the womb, that she must bake. No; in the programme notes for this series, Marie’s children claim that she couldn’t even boil an egg at one point during their childhood. It wasn’t until Marie went to live in Paris in her middle age that she was first inspired to get baking.
Although Marie left our screens this Wednesday, she isn’t the first older contestant on GBBO. Last year’s Diana Beard, who got herself all caught up in Alaska-gate – the incident involving Ian Watters’ Baked Alaska in series 5 – was 69 when she appeared on the Great British Bake Off, and last year’s winner, Nancy Birtwhistle, was 60. But we wondered: are there any other bakers out there that came to baking and cooking later in life? Spending time in the kitchen can be hugely therapeutic, and for many, baking is done as ‘therapy’.
Gaye Whitwam came late to the baking scene. Born in Cornwall just after the war, she lived a rationed life until she was five. “There were no fridges and little convenience food at the time, so women cooked daily with fresh, raw ingredients,” she says. “I grew up watching my mother cook and witnessed her excitement when rationing ended. I started cooking myself at around the age of eight.”
In 1990, when her daughter Sophie was two, Gaye started the nursery school that she would run until 2006. “At the beginning I cooked lunch every day for the children and staff,” she explains. “But as the business grew it became necessary to employ a cook, and to attend to others aspects of running the business.”
But she found retirement difficult. “Having worked all my adult life, and spent little time on leisure activities, I knew I had to find some occupation,” she says. It came to it that in 2007, she attended a workshop at Books for Cooks in Notting Hill, where organic baker Andrew Whitley was there talking about his new book Bread Matters, and about the Real Bread Campaign. “The aim of the Campaign is to encourage people to source bread that is made with natural ingredients, appropriate fermentation and no adulterants, or make their own,” Gaye explains. “I was hooked! I bought the book and signed up for one of Andrew’s courses in Cumbria.”
From then on, bread baking and Gaye came hand in hand. Three years later, in the summer of 2010, the Great British Bake Off started and suddenly being behind a KitchenAid making bread was the ‘in thing’. “Bread had now found its moment,” Gaye says, of that summer.
Now, she makes and sells her own bread to the customers of the Sutton Community Farm. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the next year, in January 2011 that Jane Mason, founder of Virtuous Bread, came into Gaye’s life. “At the time she was running a small home baking business and was about to launch Bread Angels, a network of micro bakers around the country, providing fresh, wholesome, additive-free bread to their local communities,” she explains. “I loved the idea of combining my new found passion for bread with my business experience, and starting up another business at home – just a smaller one this time!”
Gaye signed up for Jane Mason’s course, and became a Bread Angel in the summer of 2011.Since then, she’s been selling bread constantly. Her partnership with Sutton Community Farm was “almost immediate”. “The Farm is community owned and the biggest food growing space in London,” Gaye explains. “I bake on average up to 80 loaves a week for the Farm and neighbours.”
“Making bread is about your engagement with the dough. You are working with a living organism, so you can’t just follow a recipe. You need to become intuitive about what the dough needs and when, and it’s this engagement that is therapeutic. Because you are working with your hands, there is a physical element to the process, and this is curiously relaxing.”
It’s not just the workman’s tools but the end product too, which is captivating for new bakers
She is also putting her teaching experience to good use. “I teach a variety of bread making classes and the Bread Angels course too. So far I’ve trained over 30 people how to set up their own micro bakeries.”
Bread Angels work on a voluntary basis too. “I am currently teaching staff and offenders at the Clink, a restaurant in High Down prison in Surrey, how to make sourdough bread.”