Oxford's little sugar folk bring cakes to life

10:11am Thursday 10th August 2006

By Helen Peacocke

Excited squeals often fill the air at Oxford's Covered Market on a Saturday morning. They come from children who have dragged their parents to see the little sugar people on display in the windows of The Cake Shop in Avenue Three.

There's something about these figures that captures the imagination of children and adults alike, as do the themed birthday, wedding, christening and anniversary cakes on which they sit. There are even cakes in the shape of a book on which a robed figure sits, complete with mortar board to celebrate a degree, or the passing of an exam, and cakes covered in handmade flowers for a summer wedding.

There are fishermen's cakes, jungle cakes which come complete with a lion, and even wacky cakes for couch potatoes and footie fans. In fact, you name the occasion and Sally Davis, proprietor of The Cake Shop, can design a themed cake to celebrate it. It's that kind of shop.

To her customers' delight, they can watch Sally and her staff creating the little people and icing the cakes. Although they use skills that have taken years to master, they make it seem effortless. It certainly encourages children to have a go when they get home.

Sally's talents for design began when she was a child and made Plasticine models. She spent three years on a bakery course at Cheltenham Technical College and proved so talented she was offered an extra year to specialise in cake decorating. During that year she won countless cups and trophies for her skills and original designs.

Her parents, who had encouraged her all the way through college, helped her set up her first cake shop in the centre of Woodstock, where she did very well. She moved into the Covered Market 19 years ago and has never looked back.

She explained that The Covered Market was where a shop like this should be.

"I couldn't set up this sort of business in the High Street. The Covered Market is the perfect place. People using the market are not in such a hurry, they have time to stop and stare," she said. She opened her second shop in Bridge Street, Banbury earlier this year.

Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, most cakes were iced with royal icing, made from egg whites and icing sugar. They were labour intensive and required a great deal of skill to obtain the smooth white finish most cakes of that period called for.

Sally explained that it was the introduction of the regal icing that changed all that.

"Suddenly in came this wonderful product, regal icing, that you rolled out and placed on a cake in minutes. Ten minutes at the most and the cake is iced. That changed everything," she said.

As apprenticeships were no longer being taken up, people with icing skills were hard to find, so the decorations on cakes got simpler and simpler.

The little sugar and marzipan people that are now the main feature of Sally's cakes are unique to The Cake Shop.

They have evolved and developed over the years. People try to copy them, but few manage to make figures with such mischievous smiles and fancy outfits.

Training a member of her staff to make the figures takes about three years.

They begin by modelling the marzipan fruits, then progress to making the small animals, then teddy bears and larger animals. Finally, they get to make a little person in one of the very basic house styles. When they can do that with confidence they can progress to more complex designs.

Sally says it's all about confidence. "I don't hurry the training. It's a matter of allowing someone to progress at their own speed.

"It takes an hour to two hours to make a very complex little person: a bride with all the trimmings for example, pearl earrings, necklace - the lot. People don't always realise this.

"We also try and get a likeness, which is why it's so important that the person ordering a figure remembers all the features that make up the person: glasses, the way they wear their clothes or anything that makes them an individual. Obviously, photographs help," she said.

It was Sally who created a thank you cake for the late Jim McClure, the former editor of The Oxford Times, who sadly died last month. He wanted to say thank you to the staff who had been so kind to him during his first stay in hospital. She created a hospital scene, with Jim sitting up in bed in striped pyjamas, surrounded by sugar models of the surgeons and nurses who had tended him. The cake was so amazing it kept Jim laughing for weeks.

Customers don't have to buy a completed cake - they can make their own and simply buy the trimmings and the little figures from The Cake Shop.

They can even buy the marzipan and the regal icing and have a go at making everything themselves. However, most admit in the end, that although they might be able to cover the cake with icing and make a reasonable job of it, modelling the figures is not easy.

They have to be sitting down for example, as the modelling materials are too soft during the initial stages to support a standing figure. The only way this could be done is to insert cocktail sticks in the legs, which is something Sally and her team would never do.

This is why her figures are all sitting down. That way they remain firm and sturdy. Once made, they take at least two weeks to dry out, so orders have to be given in advance.

Obviously, there's a fine display of ready-made figures for a customer to choose from if they have left it too late to have one made especially. There are ready-made iced cakes too and staff on hand to add a name or a greeting to the design if needed.

Two bakeries supply the 30 large slabs of sponge cake and 60 fruit cakes Sally needs each week to keep her two shops going. Both are made to her own recipe.

To see more of Sally's creations you can go to her website: www.the-cake-shop.co.uk

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