Photo: Lee Woolcock
Interview: Helen Vass
Interview with Scottish baker Helen Vass
Scottish Baker Helen Vass talked to Nicola Thornton about her passion for baking and teaching.
I’m from Glasgow, which is a really great city, but I do love being here. I came in May 2007 to live. I did an intensive Spanish course three years earlier and fell in love with the city. We all do, don’t we? After the course, I worked in Pals in the Costa Brava as a campsite courier. It was the worst job ever but lots of fun and I moved to Barcelona after that.
I’ve been baking since I was 10 years old. My mum’s a nurse but she was always baking when I was little and she used to teach me, saying it was a good skill to have. When I was about 10 or 12, I used to sell cakes to the neighbours for pocket money. Mum taught me how to price everything, including the electricity, so I guess she is responsible for my entrepreneurial side!
Until last year, it was always a hobby, but now I run lots of classes and workshops in Barcelona to help people learn how to bake. I’ve always been told that I’m good at it. I would always be the one in charge of puddings and desserts and cakes for people, for example, so when people say that, you start to think “well, maybe…”
I teach good, old-fashioned British recipes, including cakes, bread, biscuits and, more recently, cupcakes and afternoon teas. People have the perception here that British cooking is bad, but it’s actually really tasty if you use good quality ingredients.
I’ve tried so many different things jobwise and it’s taken me a long time to realise I was passionate about making baking a career. I have a successful blog and Facebook page, and I make up my own recipes. I’ve done it all without a professional qualification. I believe that if you are good at what you do, it sells itself.
I hardly ever eat what I bake. The best thing for me is seeing someone enjoy something I’ve made. Most days I try and bake something, whether it’s bread or biscuits and then just hand it out to people, mainly my bosses and my friends. The joy is in the baking and the smell.
I got in touch with a London-based TV producer in June to see if they’d be interested in me doing a little programme about cooking as a Brit abroad in a Barcelona context, and he loved the idea. I picture myself going off to the Boqueria to pick up eggs and butter and then making something nice from my kitchen. I’m very confortable in front of the camera.
I do my classes in English and Spanish through the Ayuntamiento, at the Centre Civics. They are very participative and we have a lovely atmosphere. On one of the last courses, we had a student who used to bring in a magnum of cava every week, so we’d eat our cakes or whatever, and wash it all down with some bubbly.
I’m always inspired by people who have turned their love of baking into a successful job. I love The Great British Bake-off [a BBC show where guests compete to become the best home baker], and the winner of that, Jo Wheatley, is now a Facebook friend. It’s a very close-knit online community and we’re not at all competitive. I think there’s room for everyone. I’m going to a Cake and Bake show in the UK this month and everyone will be there. I would love to meet acclaimed cookery writer and ‘Queen of Cakes’, Mary Berry.
I couldn’t be without my Kenwood Chef, although in the workshops I use a normal hand-blender. Another essential thing is an oven thermometer. Your oven could say it is 200 degrees but the thermometer says 180...once you have your temperature correct, it all should be fine. Get one!
I turn down cake commissions a lot because of the time element. Doing the fondant and wraparound cakes takes up a lot of time. Last September, my chocolate wraparound cake won first prize for presentation at [the annual cake-making competition of] Gastronomia Activa. I’d been working on it for ages in the summer heat, getting up at three in the morning to make sure it would come out OK and to stop the chocolate melting.
I make my bread by hand. I want to show people you don’t need special equipment; with your hands you can make things easily, you just knead it and that’s it. Breadmakers are expensive and a lot of the time it comes out like a brick. People love them though, and obviously there’s a place for everything, but for me, making bread is all about feeling the textures.
Find Helen’s recipes, course details and blog here: http://thediaryofacakemaker.com