The Sheffield Branch of the British Sugarcraft Guild still remember Harrogate 2013. “We wiped the floor with them,” said Jackie Buckley, with feeling.
“We scored 100%, which was unprecedented,” said Marilyn Hill. ”It had never happened before.” Clearly an away sugar victory at Harrogate is as good as a football victory at Elland Road in terms of Yorkshire bragging rights, although the Sheffield sugarcrafters seemed to celebrate their famous victory at the Harrogate show with more decorum. “It was one of our high points,” said Marilyn. “There is a bit of competition with Harrogate.”
The BSG Sheffield Branch held a special meeting to celebrate their 30th anniversary last Saturday, where 30 local crafters (and national guild officials) brought examples of their work and reminisced about past glories and how the craft has changed since 1985.
“Skills and standards have improved over the years,” said Marilyn, Sheffield Branch chairman. “There’s better teaching now, and you can buy better products commercially.”
In the early days, sugar enthusiasts would mix up their own combinations of glycerine, liquid glucose, royal icing and egg white which could often disintegrate at the final moments, but now you can often buy raw materials at supermarkets, said Marilyn.
Floral displays are a key aspect of sugarcraft, with crafters creating sculptures as close to the real thing as possible. “We used to do tiny little flowers, but now everything is bigger, and much more realistic and lifelike,” said Jackie Buckley. Cake decorating and sugarcraft boomed in the 1990s, she said, when Sheffield branch had over 100 members, and is now growing again, partly thanks to televised enthusiasm for baking.
“We love Bake Off,” said Jackie. “We love to see all the challenges. Some of the results are spectacular, but some are dire.” The recent bread-based lion was deemed ‘wonderful’ by local branch members, whereas the doughy interpretation of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed was less favourably received.
“The popularity of Bake Off will help us,” said Marilyn Hill. “If people bake a cake, the next step is to decorate it, so people will want to learn our skills.”
The Sheffield BSG branch meet every month on Saturday afternoons at the Scout and Guide headquarters on Trippet Lane in Sheffield. There’s usually a demonstration of a particular sugarcraft, and a chance for beginners and experts to meet and chat. Cost is £4 for new visitors, with reduced prices for BSG members - the next meeting on September 5 explores the ancient technique of freestyle ‘crewel’ embroidery, using sugar: probably not something you can expect on Mary Berry’s technical challenge anytime soon.
Guild members want to see sugarcraft nurtured and grown across the UK, and say they are keen to differentiate genuine crafting skills from the ‘cut, stamp and stick brigade’ exemplified by the recent rise and fall in High Street cupcake retailers. Although some cupcakes are works of art, they tend not to display a full range of piping, modelling and flower making skills, it was agreed.
“I don’t like cupcakes,” said Marilyn. “They’re very light, and often very sickly.”
Marilyn travels the UK as a judge at sugarcraft shows. “We’re looking for perfection,” she said, adding that errant bubbles, cracks and fingerprints will all bring your mark down.
Freda Digby noted that interest in sugarcrafting is growing as crafting generally become more popular.
Sugarcraft originated with Tudor aristocrats, who’d produce a showstopper at a banquet, which would then be broken up and eaten. Techniques may have changed, but the idea is still to produce a sculpture or cake decoration that encourages the viewer to ask: is that really sugar?
And of course because it really is, the creations can be preserved and saved, often for years. Many of the displays on Saturday had been brought carefully out of storage, including some from the victorious Harrogate table display depicting the four seasons, relating to flowers, colours and Vivaldi.
“We got the best in show, as well as 100%, scored by two judges,” said Jackie Buckley, proudly. “I don’t know if it will ever happen again.” More info: www.bsguk.org or 0114 2304041