Where can I find good Scottish baking?
Imagine you're looking for a cake for a wedding or special occasion. Or you could be looking for a tearoom with freshly baked scones and cakes for afternoon tea. Did you know you can look up a list of award-winning Scottish bakers online? I've met Melanie Andrews (MBE) the founder of the Scottish Baking Awards, and been assessed for the Certificate of Excellence. Let me explain how the scheme works - if you like the sound of it, you can go and check out the award winners.
What are the Scottish Baking Awards? It's quite possible you're not aware of these awards. I remember stumbling across them online one afternoon. My first reaction was ‘I’ve never heard of them but they sound like a good idea’.
At this time, my customers were mostly friends and family who knew and trusted my baking skills. I needed to expand my business to reach customers from further away, people outside my wee Scottish village. What better way to reassure people about the standard of my baking than to have a go at winning an award?
On checking out the website www.scottishbakingawards.co.uk I discovered that the scheme had been set up in 2009 and was being run virtually single-handedly by Melanie Andrews. She comes across as being very passionate about Scottish baking and its traditions. She also feels very strongly about giving recognition where it’s due. Can't say I'd argue with that.
She appeared more than qualified to run this scheme, owning four tearooms and having written three books on baking. She had awarded Certificates of Excellence to home-based bakers as well as tearooms and restaurants up and down the country. And she was clearly not a woman to accept that any old sign in a tearoom that says 'Home Baking' should be taken as read. How does the Scottish Baking Award scheme work? Initially, I was a bit concerned about paying a £95 fee up front. Not just because that's a lot of money to a wee business like mine. My first thought was ‘Oh no, so people are just paying to be listed in a directory like some trade associations associated with plumbing and the like’.
That thought was soon dismissed when I learned that Melanie had been travelling the length and breadth of Scotland to assess bakers, in whatever time off she could get from running her own tea-rooms. I was paying for an assessment - with no guarantee that I'd receive an award. The fees go towards Melanie's travelling costs and the running of the scheme.
How does a baker prepare for a Scottish Baking Award assessment?
To get ready for Melanie’s visit, I had to prepare a variety of different bakes. This was beginning to sound like a mini ‘Bake Off’. For the first time in my baking life (from age 6 or thereabouts) an actual expert was going to pass judgement.
This was serious stuff. Everything would be assessed on a wide range of criteria: texture, flavour, appearance, presentation, taste, skill involved and use of ingredients. No room to hide. And to win an award, there was a minimum pass mark. No pressure then. What happens during the judging? The day arrived. To show a variety of techniques I’d prepared a Madeira cake, fruit cake, Pavlova, scones and macaroon tarts. The appointment time was getting nearer. The dining-room table was dressed up with a retro tablecloth. Pretty pink vintage crockery was laid out for a perfect cup of tea.
The tension was high enough without getting the news that Melanie was running late. Oh, the tension!
Melanie and her lovely husband/photographer eventually arrived and she seemed pretty impressed by the display I'd arranged so I was hopeful this was a good start to the proceedings. I was a tiny bit put out when she refused the offer of tea and asked for water but she did admire my vintage tea set all the same.
The conversation started well when she asked me about the recipes I had used. The scone recipe came from an ancient Be-Ro bakery book of Mum’s. That got me some Brownie points as Melanie is a great believer in traditional tried and tested recipes and doesn’t have much faith in newcomers and celebrities with fancy recipe books.
We actually got on really well, being similar ages, eventually reminiscing about old recipes and baking experiences. However, it was slightly disconcerting that she only sampled a small portion of each item. I started wondering where all the baking was going to end up as it would have to be eaten.
But it appears a small tasting accompanied by some prodding and a close visual inspection was all that was needed. Melanie 'deliberated and cogitated' and the ‘scores on the doors’ were then added up. Crikey, two Seventies gameshow quotes rather gave my age away there. (Cue drum roll.)
What happens when a Scottish Baking Award is given?
That heading kind of spoils the ending. But I'm hoping you'd guessed by now that I did in fact win the sought-after SBA Certificate of Excellence and the certificate was signed and presented by Melanie there and then. The sense of relief was incredible, I wanted to hug the woman and I didn’t care that I had enough baking left over to feed the village.
Melanie's husband was summoned to take a few photos for us both to use on our respective websites, social media etc. It really was like winning ‘Bake Off’.
I then learned that out of four places visited that day, the only two businesses that received certificates were myself and the coffee shop at Cairn O’Mhor winery run by a husband and wife jointly known as 'AliBob' (check out their website here). They went on to win the SBA Overall Award for the year and, having tasted their scrummy cakes and amazing scones myself, I can see why.
So you see, some people do pay the fee for the assessment without winning an award. Points make prizes and a lack of points means you don’t get so much as a mention on the Scottish Baking Awards website. So no negative reviews, just no mention at all. You can always try again the following year. Where can I find out who's won a Scottish Baking Award? On her return home from each assessment trip, Melanie writes up a full review of each visit, publishes it on the Scottish Baking Awards website and promotes it on social media. Her reviews are both comprehensive and entertaining and I recommend you give the site a browse. The fact that you've read this far hopefully means you're convinced that it's worth taking a look.
Which is why it’s so daft that since I won the award a year ago, I’ve only just this weekend found the time to add the logo to my website. Us Scots, we’re so self-deprecating, you’d think we didn’t want to win anything. Or maybe I'm thinking about the football. Actually they probably don't deserve to win anything.
Some other useful tips when you need to find quality bakers
Ask friends and neighbours (or tourist offices) for recommendations.
Look for customer reviews on cake makers' websites or Facebook pages.
Ask cake makers if it’s possible to taste a sample before ordering. For wedding cake enquiries this should be no problem. For anything else, you may have to be a wee bit cheeky.
Have you found a great award-winning baker? Or do you have any recommendations of your own you'd like to pass on? Feel free to add your comments below.