Ever since the cupcake craze saw sickly, vulgarly-coloured cupcakes take over ever other bakery, birthday party and “farmers’ market” in Britain, we’ve been asking what the next big baking trend would be. So, what are ‘the new cupcakes’?
Whoopie pies were mooted, but, perhaps because they sound far too much like something you might buy in a joke shop, that one never got off the ground. Some tried to convince us that brightly-coloured Parisian macaroons were the next big thing. Back when moods were correspondingly lighter and gloomy outlooks were less entrenched, it was almost a convincing pitch. But times have changed, and flippant French confections that melt to nothingness on the tongue just don’t cut it. (Not that I don’t like making and eating them – see here if you want to do it yourself.)
An age of austerity and recession calls for sober, down-to-earth, unpretentious baking. Tasty, but not too indulgent. Substantial, but not sickening. When things are going wrong, a society instinctively turns to its heritage and its traditions for security. When things are going wrong, I instinctively turn to carbs.
Put it all together and it’s clear – 2012 needs to be the year that great British baking makes a real comeback.
Currently, the situation isn’t good. It’s a cause for scandal that the best crumpet I’ve ever had was from a restaurant in Montreal. It was in a restaurant called The Sparrow, and it was a tangy, spongy, sourdough delight. It’s a crying shame that good tea cakes and toasted muffins are so scarce on the ground; that drop scones have been almost entirely superseded by American pancakes, and that potato scones almost never appear on cooked breakfast menus (outside of Scotland, anyway). Chelsea or Bath buns are virtually nowhere to be seen, despite their upstart French relations, pains aux raisins, becoming almost ubiquitous.
The different regions of Britain have some wonderful baking traditions– although baking is something of a misnomer, as lots of the examples don’t actually require an oven. Many, such as crumpets and drop scones, are cooked on a stove – the recipes are old enough to date back to a time when only the relatively wealthy had an oven in their homes, and most people would have cooked over a fire. They’re characterised, in many cases, by their relative plainness. They come from an era when raisins were a luxury item and even the slightest use of sugar or fat was enough to elevate a dish to the realm of a rare treat. They’re lessons in appreciating simple things and life’s small pleasures.
There are already some restaurateurs and bakers fighting the traditional British corner. St John, for example, offers seed cake and Eccles cake, for elevenses. The Flour Station (whose Chelsea buns are pictured above) make some lovely traditional products. But I’m hard-pressed to think of another bakery in my home city (London) that offers, say, a genuinely good, freshly-made crumpet. These shouldn’t be products that are consigned to specialist bakeries, or that you have to hunt down. I’d be very happy if 2012 turned out to be the year when that stopped being the case.