On Thursday lunchtime, at 1.24pm, this voicemail was left on my phone:
'Hi Tamsin, it's Steve. I'm just... er... trying to catch up with you. I'm not sure if I've made a mistake but I'm at the Royal Opera House, kind of... hoping to meet up with you. [High-pitched nervous laugh]. So if you could give me a call, if you're about, if you're on your way or… if I've got the wrong day, please let me know. Thanks. Bye.'
Steve sounded like he was sweating through his shirt – possibly wishing he'd worn a different one. Steve sounded like Studied Insouciance grappling with High Anxiety. High Anxiety had Studied Insouciance on the ropes.
Steve sounded nice, really.
I couldn't say for certain that it was a date Steve and Tamsin were ineffectually trying to arrive together at. Perhaps it was a business meeting or a friendly lunch. Perhaps it was a friendly lunch that Steve was hoping might turn into a date. Perhaps Steve definitely did think it was a date, and Tamsin definitely didn't. It seems like Tamsin might not have been thinking of it at all.
I am a worrier by nature, and I felt worried about Steve, so I texted him. I told him he had left a voicemail on the wrong phone but that I hoped he had managed to find Tamsin. As much as I tried to suppress my usual sentimental extrapolation of the facts, thoughts like 'Imagine if he texted you back expressing his confusion at the mores of modern dating and you replied in sympathetic solidarity and this is how you met your future husband' and 'Imagine telling this story in 40 years' time at a big family lunch in the garden in front of your and Steve's 12 adorable, adoring grandchildren' and 'Do you remember when something like this happened to Kenny on Press Gang? I wish Kenny from Press Gang was a real person. He was lovely' kept curling a tentacle around my consciousness.
All these things ran through my head, quite against my wishes, as I texted Steve.
As I was passing Herne Hill's branch of Oxfam early on Saturday morning, I saw this donation left outside the closed shop – seemingly staged for maximum pathos.
There's something I find heartbreakingly stoic about the bear that has managed to remain upright. At some point over the last 14 hours or so, since the shop shut the day before, his previous owner had left him there. Maybe he watched them walking further and further away on their enviably sturdy human legs, into the distance or around the corner, expecting them to turn round and give a reassuring little wave at any moment, but in vain. Maybe their eyes met – the human's guilty, the bear's a little baffled – in the rear-view mirror as the car pulled away.
Who knows what ran through his soft, stuffed mind in the intervening time – the determination to embrace this unusual day out, excitement at witnessing south London's local colour, the conviction that this was only a temporary arrangement and he would be returning home any minute now, precariously suppressed terror at any passing urban fox or squirrel, surprise at the darkening of night and subsequent dawn, and then, some time at about 7am, a faltering of furry faith...
The white bear, meanwhile, all drama and emotion, had clearly been totally overwhelmed by his feelings of abandonment quite some hours ago.
I shake my head and laugh wryly and tell them that they have already made their first mistake. Never use coal to bake your cakes. I use a fan oven. Here it is:
After I have made this little joke, people seem less inclined to hear my account of the cut and thrust of competition, but as a homage both to the Inspiring Photo Essays of Dr Robert Hudson, and to Them Apples, who is now, officially, the 35th most powerful food blogger in the UK, I am going to share with you the honest inside story of this weekend's baking competition – the sugar-fuelled highs and the oven-scorched heartaches.
Strap in. We may be here some time.
Many rookies assume that entering a competition means you can throw all your baking tricks at the judges, dazzling them with your elaborate sugarcraft and daring flavour chemistry.
You have to respect the rules. Baking is founded on rules, so how else could competitions like this proceed? So this weekend, we were baking to specific recipes which allow not only for like to be judged against like, but also for confusing typos in the ingredients to provoke a sense of genuine culinary jeopardy among competitors.
This year's categories were as follows:
Boiled Fruit Cake (baking drudgery)
Bakewell Tart (pastry fiddliness)
There were no biscuits. I am good with biscuits. I am the best at biscuits. Apart from when I am second best at biscuits. These four options were clearly meant to dissuade me from entering, after I shook up the competition and swept to a podium finish, twice over, last year, on a one-way ticket from Nowhere Town to Prize Bakingford. A gauntlet had been thrown down, and while I had no option but to accept it, or whatever it is one does with gauntlets, I was left with few options. It is less that we had chosen the categories of Cherry Loaf and Cheese Scones, and more that they had chosen us.
First assemble your ingredients. This is not essential, but I like to have them all there in front of me at the start, and gradually put them away as I use them. I don't know why. That's what works for me, just like the way Colin Jackson would have to stretch out his legs a certain number of times when settling into his blocks at the start of a hurdles race. Colin Jackson and I often laugh together about our competitive foibles, but sometimes the conversation takes a darker turn when Colin gets angry remembering the ludicrous mannequins show dance Erin Boag made him do in the final of Strictly Come Dancing series 3.
Anyway, the ingredients:
You will notice that mine are mostly from Marks & Spencer. This is not a decision based on quality of produce but on sloth, since there is a branch right near work.
We will begin with the cherry loaf. First, you need to rinse and dry 100g glacé cherries. Here we encounter our first dilemma. What to use? Brand-new undyed glacé cherries from M&S [below, right]? Or glowing-with-nuclear-red-food-colouring, been-in-the-fridge-since-the-Christmas-cake glacé cherries from Sainsbo's [below, left]?
It's true to say that the organisers of this contest are a fairly conventional group. Fashionably uncoloured glacé cherries that are not the colour of an old-fashioned telephone box may be literally a shade too cutting edge. These dilemmas, while testing, are vital to the psychology of competition. In the event that you do not win, you can blame your defeat on the judges narrow-mindedly preferring the option you did not choose. Also, they should have been more clear in their instructions.
Forget about the cherries, even though they will be gnawing at your consciousness like fat shiny rats.
Next, mix together 200g self-raising flour and a pinch of salt. I like to sieve the flour first. I am a fan of sieving. Quite apart from the lightness it brings to your baking, it is tremendously soothing and therapeutic, and lets you think about all manner of thorny philosophical questions, such as will I ever fix the damp and alarmingly cracked patch of ceiling in the hallway right outside my kitchen door? What am I going to do with all those home-made sweet potato falafels in the freezer that I neither want to eat or throw out?
It is true. Sieving opens your mind. I went to one of Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurants on Saturday, where he has a range of merchandise with various Jamie logos on. If I were to open similar premises, I would sell an apron emblazoned with the words 'Live to sieve'.
When you have sieved the flour, then dropped the salt on to it, it makes a nice pattern like this:
...like some kind of futuristic moon-crater snowscape in an eco-sci-fi, box-office-busting movie spectacular. But in your own kitchen! That is the magic of baking RIGHT THERE.
Next, add 100g butter to the flour and salt and rub in until you have a fine breadcrumbs effect going on. Then add 100g caster sugar and the cherries, which you will have chopped up, into a size that is helpfully not specified. I have gone for small-ish but still recognisably cherries.
Next, make a well in the centre of your mixture and add one egg, which you have beaten, and half a teaspoon of vanilla essence. That's essence, you will note, not extract. I don't have old-school synthetic vanilla essence. I have smug middle-class vanilla extract, bought at great expense from the speciality section of my largest local supermarket. Are essence and extract the same? I ask the wonderweb. There is absolutely no definitive answer. Honestly, it is almost as if the internet is awash with ill-earned authority, misplaced opinion and guesswork.
I use the same amount of extract as essence and be damned.
Pour about 5 tablespoons of milk into a measuring jug and add some to the mixture, stirring together the wet and dry ingredients. Add more milk if you need to until the mixture is of a 'dropping consistency'. This means if you hold a spoon of mixture upside down over your worktop, the mixture will drop off – not run off, nor stick to the spoon – on to your worktop and, if you are like me, you will ineffectually wipe it off with a piece of kitchen towel.
You will probably be ready for a cup of tea at this point.
In addition, it may be helpful to listen to some soothing music. I am using a compilation CD given as a favour to all the guests at my friends Nick and Channy's wedding a few weeks ago, in particular this , this and this. Oh and this.
Put the mixture into your mouth into a loaf tin of highly specific dimensions, level the top and put it in the oven (preheated, obviously; 180C/GM4 if you must be exact, and I'm telling you, you must) for about an hour and 15 minutes until it is golden brown, firm to the touch and – now pay close attention to this next bit because I will be bitterly invoking it later – well risen.
At around this time, I start to worry that my cakes and scones will have an unmistakeable taint of Lincolnshire sausages, which was the last thing that was cooked in the general area of my oven.
Baking is full of the unexpected. In this case, your cake may already be golden brown after 30 minutes, forcing you to improvise wildly using whatever resources can be found around you. I am the Bear Grylls of baking, and I wrap the cake in a tin foil blanket to stop it burning.
Still, when it comes out of the oven, it is still on the brown side of golden brown.
Never mind, it's late and there's still work to do. It's all to bake for, etc. Let's press on. Scones next. Turn the oven up to 220C/GM7. This is officially hotter than hell. Hell is only 218C. There are no Gas Marks in hell. Satan prefers an electric oven, as he finds it cooks things much more evenly.
First, mix 225g self-raising flour and 'a pinch of teaspoonful of salt'. What does this mean? I have no idea. This doesn't bode well, scones-wise.
Then rub in 40g butter. What is it with all the 'rubbing in'? First the cake, then the scones. The bakewell tart also calls for rubbing in. This is clearly the key skill of this year's competition. It's probably the case that this competition attracts an older class of entrants, and rubbing in may well be a recommended exercise to guard against arthritis. Alternatively, the common occurrence of arthritis in the elderly may be a direct result of too much competitive baking.
It's worth pointing out that if you don't have at least some flour on your trousers at this point, you're probably doing something wrong.
Next, finely grate 75g cheese (what kind of cheese? Philadelphia? Stinking Bishop? Call me old-fashioned, I plumped for Cheddar), and stir half of it in, along with a level teaspoon of dried mustard. Let us take a moment to salute a true design classic of packaging:
And also to remark on how, in contrast to, say, a bag of Walkers crisps, Colman's really offer their customer value for money when it comes to jamming the product in. Although slightly less so when you've spilled a quarter of it on the floor as the tin bursts open.
Finally, stir in 1/4 pint of milk, or enough to give a fairly soft, light dough. Now roll the dough out to 3/4in thick, and cut out using a 2in plain cutter. Here is mine. I measured it with my Kew Gardens souvenir ruler.
Then I measured it on the back of the ruler to see which common British bird it equated to. The answer is the magpie.
Cut out the scones and put them on a greased baking tray. Locate your pastry brush from the Kitchen Drawer Of Doom. Good luck with that.
Brush the naked scones with milk and sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake near the top of the oven (preheated to 220C/GM7) for about 10 minutes. Here they are before...
Not bad, yes? I learnt that from Gordon Ramsay. Yes? That's what he says at the end of a sentence, yes? He also calls everyone 'big guy'. The ladies of competitive baking are not really into being called 'big guy', I have found.
Anyway, while your scones are cooking, you might like to tidy up a bit.
It's important here to point out that under no circumstances should you attempt to eat any of the leftover raw savoury dough.
Then you will have to go to bed because it's about half past midnight and you are by now exhausted because you are a busy thirtysomething woman trying to juggle work and homelife, and you have to be up at 6.30 to take your baking to the competition tent because you then have to go to Bath for the day and 6.30 is pretty much the earliest you've been up on a Saturday in YOUR WHOLE LIFE.
Still, taking your baking to the competition tent at a ludicrous hour in the morning is quite exciting as you get to see all the nearby fair rides asleep.
However, when you return to the tent the day after, post-judging, to find out the results of your endeavours, the world stops turning.
Firstly, your scones are not placed. They are next to the first prize-winner. They don't look dissimilar.
Your cake is not placed either.
WHAT THE F*CKING F*CK?
But look at the winning cake (centre). IT LOOKS LIKE A HOUSE BRICK. IT IS NOT 'WELL RISEN'. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE OUTRAGE.
Again, your cake is next to the one that is placed first. Coincidence? I don't think so. I think the judge had some ocular and spatial disability which resulted in him/her inadvertently placing the first-place sticker on the wrong dish on two separate occasions.
I'm joking of course. You cannot win a prize every time, and there is a lesson to learn from this. A genuine, character-building lesson, particularly relating to grace in defeat.
That lesson is that sometimes the judges just get it wrong. They are stupid. But deep down inside, you can be proud because you know that you were QUITE OBVIOUSLY the best.
Come on, everyone. Buck up. I have. I raised my spirits by buying some peonies from the nearby flower tent.
It got me thinking that I might enter a flower-arranging contest next year. I think you can tell from this picture that I have quite the raw talent.
I was walking along Borough High Street at lunchtime today, on my way to pick up a very reasonably priced and delicious mediterranean salad from Tas, when behind me I heard the clatter of carton on pavement. I am extremely squeamish about the dropping of litter, as was my father – it is genetic – so my senses are always on high alert and have subsequently become five times more sensitive than the average human.
Behind me, and on the other side of some wire fencing, a construction worker was side-footing a milk carton, still a quarter full, into a medium-sized hole in the road.
A medium-sized hole like this. Well, not like this. Actually this:
The milk carton was followed by a yogurt pot, casually jettisoned into the doom.
While I was digusted by this man's approach to waste management, I was impressed by his commitment to calcium consumption. I imagine strong bones must be a boon in that kind of job.
Still, I was unable to remonstrate with the offender. Chiefly, because he was quite hard-looking and I felt a bit scared of him, with his fluorescent gilet and shaved head and outdoor-employment tan. Furthermore, even if I had the courage of my convictions - and one day soon I really plan to – to the extent where a proper confrontation was a real possibility, I would have had to shin over the red wire fences which were higher than my head, and if you know anything about me, you will know that I am not cut out for The Krypton Factor.
Also, I was REALLY hungry. I wanted those dolmas real bad.
But still, while I was eating them, I kept thinking about those dregs of dairy produce, soon to be buried beneath the road. A quarter of a pint of milk. Some smearings of yoghurt. What if that man did the same thing every day for the duration of Borough High Street's roadworks (which, let me tell you, Southwark council, feels like a lifetime)? Ate and drank the same things? More and more cow juice, accumulating in some kind of mucusy landfill.
I'm no expert, but it must, eventually, fuse into some kind of cheese product, coagulating and curding beneath the feet of thousands of city dwellers for days and weeks and months.
And what happens then?
Gradually, gradually, people who are lactose intolerant start experiencing minor symptoms when they pass over the site. Suddenly, sinuses feel bothered. Eczema blooms. Bathrooms are sought with increasing urgency. Soon people are scurrying from the site in all directions, clutching stomachs, scratching skin, rubbing eyes, blowing noses...
Around those areas filled in by the roadworkers, tiny cracks appear. The smell of cheese starts to pervade - at first merely suggesting there may be a pizza restaurant nearby. Then a branch of Neal's Yard Dairy. Then it is simply an overpowering stench, which you can only walk past if you have your sleeve pressed over your nose.
If you spend any length of time in the area, as opposed to just bustling past (perhaps you work in the office opposite and have a window on the street), you might eventually discern those new areas of tarmac rising and falling, rhythmically, almost imperceptibly.
Somebody is breathing underneath. Or something.
Then one day, the cracks begin to burst open. Two thick, terrible yellow arms emerge, lifting up the tarmac above it like one giant black biscuit and hurling it to one side. And an enormous cheese colussus climbs out and pulls itself up to its full height, towering over people and structures.
It starts to stumble through the streets, terrifying all inhabitants, except for the city's mice who are kind of excited. It is hunting down the construction worker who started it all.
Well, I say a workshop. More of an evening class. There's some immense feat of endurance implied in the words evening class, though – all term-long commitment, chilly school corridors and winter colds. This was just a one-night stand, and 'workshop' has a pleasing one-offness about it, as well as a whiff of either sawdust or the sweat of improv, depending on which particular pastoral GCSEs you did.
So Simmo and I learnt to decorate cupcakes. We did actual piping. We rolled our own sugar roses, if you can believe such a thing. We are now highly-skilled sugarcraft ninjas. Or, more accurately, we have learned a small and simple range of devastatingly effective techniques, which is the closely-guarded secret of all ninjas. Most of it is just costume and theatrics. And having the right equipment – ceremonial sword, nunchucks, the right diameter of piping nozzle...
The fact remains, though, that piping buttercream icing is still tricksy. Like milking a fat eel in a plastic bag.
(Milking a cow, meanwhile, is something I enduringly believe I'd be good at. This is because I always have warm hands. Which may or may not be because MY HEART IS STONY COLD. In reality, if I was confronted with a cow needing to be milked, I would probably just start edging away, flinching at a volley of imaginary kicks. Or simply start crying. Other things I think I would be good at include playing the xylophone and plastering. Things I am resolutely sure I would not be good at include the entire range of 'action' sports.)
Anyway, in the picture above, bottom left is my favourite. Top left is a bit shit. But still, these were my first and only attempts. There was no scraping of icing into a nearby pot plant, or surreptitious sliding of botched cupcake into wastebasket. This is raw and uncensored cake craft I am presenting to you. In any case, I always feel a fondness for the runts of the litter. This is not just because of Charlotte's Web, but also because once upon a time, a few years ago, I baked 100 cupcakes, for free, for a charity event. It took me bloody ages, and they really didn't look too shabby, with their near-perfect pink ribbons that I had painstakingly iced on. Flour-streaked and exhausted, I took them along to the event, as they were setting up chairs and tables. As I presented them to one of the organisers, her idiot boyfriend, leaning over her shoulder, pointed at one of my cakes and said, 'That one's a bit small.'
I could honestly have killed him, at that moment. I was a lioness protecting my cakey cubs.
So anyway, my new-found icing smarts spell bad news for my friends, since I am now even more likely to pitch up at social events wielding some freshly baked batch or other, while they offer a weak smile of 'Oh, more cakes? Great', their expressions just like the Leadbeatters being presented with a gift of handmade trousers by the Goods, of which the legs are different colours. This in turn ensures the weather will be abominable, since whenever I am carrying a box of delicately iced cakes anywhere, it is guaranteed to be pouring with rain, the wind catching underneath the box, and threatening to wrench it out of my sodden grip and toss it upturned onto the pavement. I turn up at the event bedraggled, corned-beef fingers frozen solid from clutching the box in front of me, the contents resembling some kind of WI show styled by Jackson Pollock.
Still, since the cupcake market is apparently immune to saturation – it is an urban truth that in London now you are never more than 12 feet from a cupcake concession – this could prove to be a lucrative new venture, just as it has for all the other women who've gone before and now appear in Red magazine talking about it.
Starting my own small business is surely only the-financial-support-of-my-husband-who-happens-to-work-in-banking away.
When my choir friend Simon's bag was stolen, with his much-loved camera inside, an anonymous reader of his blog bought him a new one – a gesture that provided a heartwarming and humans-can-actually-be-quite-brilliant ending to an unhappy episode.
Simon did eventually establish some details of the benefactor. It seemed that the gift was an act of reciprocation, a reward for the considerable amount of cheer he had gifted them over many years, sometimes when it was badly needed indeed.
I have none of that emotional elixir to offer, in terms of either quality or longevity. Nor any such Genuine Deservingness (yes, it's in the dictionary actually). Instead I have two and a half years of sporadic self-indulgence and the fact that my very expensive liquid eyeliner has dried up after only a month and the dishwasher at work never cleans the mugs properly so you have to rinse them out again yourself. I can see that the Miss Jones Benevolent Fund is still a long way from being so much as a kindly twinkle in its founders' eyes. But still, if I was to compose a wish list of costly trinkets to be purchased by anonymous wellwishers, a grotesque counterpoint to World Vision's pumps and ploughs and goats, this would be at the top of it.
It is a light-up sign. Is there anything that is not improved by the ability to light up? A disguise kit, perhaps. Camouflage, unless you are attempting to camouflage yourself in Blackpool at certain times of the year. Blackout blinds. I digress. It used to live in an actual hospital, and now it lives in the salvage yard on Vauxhall Cross, which is less a yard and more a racketty-packetty rambling house of treasures with a cosy cafe inside which looks like it might be vegetarian but also might not necessarily be. All this, in combination with its South London location, makes it a dream day out for me.
Anyway, the box. It is £300.
It would be ever so useful in any number of situations. Post-Doctor Who episode. Post-baking experiment. Post-fraught emotional situation of any description. Post-ill-advised blog posts inciting unmerited acts of charity from readership.
Although I am currently working for an American-owned company, I was still a little bit surprised to see this on the door to the toilets recently.
This uninhibited embrace of the US vernacular confused me, as I had the firm understanding that the building remained a bastion of Britishness, an impression based on the following lazy stereotypes watertight scientific evidence:
In the shadow of the building, on the East side, people like to drink beer in a huge crowd outside a bar, at the merest suggestion of sunshine.
For the last two weeks, these people have also been watching Wimbledon on a big screen temporarily erected there.
Most of the offices inside the building work to the rhythms of an endless cycle of tea drinking.
There is always fish and chips in the canteen on a Friday.
Given this conviction, and the fact that the day had been low on drama thus far, I wondered if some kind of Star Spangled Banner-related adventure might occur only when you walked through the door. The sign was a message, an invitation. Mostly, I hoped that if I went in, used the toilet and came out again, it would not be into the lair of the women's glossy magazine from whence I'd come, but some detail-perfect US office environs – with my wishlist scenarios being the newsroom in Broadcast News or Cagney and Lacey's professional base camp. Or that I would not exit through a door, but have to climb out of a filing cabinet, like Hong Kong Phooey. That is the power of the word janitor.
A few years ago, Ms S and I went to a Halloween party as dead Cagney and Lacey. It wasn't that we wished Christine and Mary-Beth ill – far from it. It was more that we were seeking some blonde/brunette duo to essay, and we needed a seasonally spooky twist.
I have blacked our eyes out, to protect Ms S's identity and my own, and also because I am proud of my laughably limited Photoshop skills.
You can see from this photo that while Ms S looks awesome, I have failed to achieve a truly convincing physical representation of Mary-Beth Lacy. It is almost as though tucking some cushions in your waistband just makes you look like yourself but with cushions tucked in your waistband, as opposed to a matronly and thick-set 46-year-old several sizes bigger than you. As it is, my puny Joneser The Softy shoulders and child hands are still much in evidence.
What you cannot see in this photo, though – not clearly anyway – are: 1) Our brilliant facsimile NYPD badges, designed by Ms S, and crafted from foam board and safety pins. 2) Our attention to detail with the fake blood, which was exemplary, in particular where it was coming out of our ears. This, as everyone knows, is TV shorthand for 'OK, this is really bad. You know how this is the last episode of the series? Well, come the next one, this much-loved character with blood coming out of their ears will not be in it.'
Anyway. Did I go through the door? Have I now returned from a dreamlike American adventure in which I was a stranger in a strange land? I did not. I have not. It was the men's toilets.