Great British Bake Off star Flora Shedden on opening her own cafe: 'The best part of food is meeting people having conversation'
She may have been a finalist on The Great British bake Off But it's cookery rather than cakes that has always been flora Shedden's first love
At a time when most of the young women her age writing about food are from a cohort that has imposed restrictive rules on itself, Flora Shedden is a breath of fresh air. She is, as food writer, Diana Henry, puts it, "basically joy in the kitchen", and her first book, Gatherings: Recipes for Feasts Great and Small, is an encouragement to sit down and eat delicious things with your family and friends, accompanied by a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and a good 'blether'.
"People my age don't tend to have such a sociable attitude to food," says the 21-year-old, "it's more about removing things from their diet than adding things in.
"In my family, we always ate our meals together; there's a big table in the middle of the kitchen where everyone gathers. I thought that it was like that for everyone, but I gradually became aware when I left home and moved away that what I took for granted in my home wasn't happening in other people's homes. I'd like to encourage people to do that, and that's really what the book is about."
Gatherings is very much a book for the home cook in a domestic kitchen, rather than for aspiring chefs. As Shedden writes in the introduction: "…I have never cooked anything sous vide, or used those scary and wildly efficient blenders all chefs seem to have. There is no stainless steel present in my kitchen, nor are there seven willing pot-washers waiting for the dishes (unfortunately). I am a home cook, with skills no greater than most others…These recipes are not flashy or difficult, nor are they expensive or time-consuming. They simply offer a way of sharing ideas I have discovered while playing around in the kitchen, combinations I have found particularly tasty and even passing on the classics that I was taught to make at a young age."
If Shedden looks familiar, it may be because you recognise her from the 2015 series of Great British Bake Off, the one eventually won by Nadiya Hussain. At 19, she was the youngest ever contestant, the Scottish girl who almost made it into the final (it was the cocoa carousel that did for her in the end), charming and irritating viewers in equal measure. She got the short end of the Daily Mail stick for one thing, with the paper obsessing over everything from the Aga in her home kitchen, her sisters' names (Hebe and Willow, "we all have botanical names because my mother is a florist," she explains), the family's German gun dog, and her utter middle-classness.
"I'm completely self-taught," she says of her kitchen skills. "My mum is an amazing cook and I used to help her from when I was about three or four years old. When you are that age you just want to be like them, don't you? I helped her when she was catering events, and I gradually got more and more involved, and more competent.
"After school, I left home to study architecture in Edinburgh. I enjoyed the study element of it, but I wasn't sure that I wanted to be an architect and I dropped out. I started working in a gallery and then started a food blog. I loved studying all the way through school, and I was quite good at school. The blog was a way of figuring out what I wanted to do, a wee pottering around kind of thing."
Shedden taught herself how to take food photographs with a Nikon D700 camera that she bought second-hand on eBay and a "cheap and cheerful" 50mm f1.8 lens.
"Then all my friends started saying that I should apply to Bake Off, but I wasn't sure - I was always more of a cook than a baker. But everyone said, 'what's the worst thing that can happen?' So, I sent off an application on the day before the deadline in a typical last-minute rush."
Shedden diplomatically describes her experience on the show as "interesting". "I don't think that I'd do it again. It was fascinating and I loved seeing the behind-the-scenes side of television but I'm not sure how much I enjoyed actually being on telly. I think I was quite naive when I started, which was probably the best position to be in, I wasn't really aware of myself. I didn't see any of it until the public saw it, when the first episode was broadcast..."
The extent of the media interest in her was something that she quickly had to learn how to cope with. "I realised that it was something to be wary of, all the attention. It got to the stage that I would look at Twitter only when I was with my friends or family and we could have a laugh about it. My sister Hebe would tease me and say 'but yes you are like that!' Twitter can get so nasty, I didn't want to put myself in the position of looking at it on my own late at night. I had to be self-disciplined about it."
One good thing about being on the show was that Shedden's baking skills improved hugely. "It was ironic in a way, because I would never have said that I was a baker before appearing on Bake Off. I knew a bit about baking before I started, but I definitely taught myself to bake through being on the programme."
Come the end of the filming, Shedden says that she was craving salt and savoury food. So when she moved to St Andrew's with the plan of re-enrolling in university - this time she planned to study history of art and maths, which she thought would be "less vocational" than architecture - and started working on a book proposal, she was determined that it wasn't going to be a baking book. "The idea of the book is that it reflects how I cook on a day-to-day basis. Yes, there are some sweet things in it, but that's not the focus."
When she found a publisher, Shedden deferred starting university. "I just got too busy and there wasn't one thing that I wanted to do that badly. I might go back some day, although that's looking further and further away…"
Writing the book took up most of the following year, and Shedden says that it's her favourite thing that she has done so far, although at times she found the process frustrating. "The more people that get involved, the more it becomes a conversation, something different to what you imagined at the beginning. There's lots I would do differently if I had it over again. The photos were my favourite stage. The design and layout is a huge team effort and I became very close with lots of people, especially Laura Edwards, the photographer, Annie Rigg, the food stylist and Tabitha Hawkins, the props person. We had a great time together.
"In terms of the text and the recipes which tend to get done via email it's harder. I do like the book but it's very hard not to look at it and wish that I had done a few things differently. But I'm a perfectionist, and that's the way we are. The response to the book has been great and now I'm just trying to teach myself how to let go."
During Bake Off, Shedden was mocked for admitting to having a collection of over 100 cookbooks, which seemed unfair, given that she was a participant in a cookery programme. "My heroes are Georgie Hayden who wrote Stirring Slowly - she's a food stylist with Jamie magazine, and also Ottolenghi and Diana Henry, who is the best of them all. I need a whole other room for all my cookbooks, I have a huge collection and my favourites keep changing all the time, but those three are pretty constant."
With her own book on the shelves, Shedden, still only 21, has plenty to occupy her. "I moved back home and my partner, James, and I have bought a building in the village of Dunkeld, which is just beside where I grew up and where I went to school. There's a flat upstairs and we are going to be opening a bakery downstairs in the summer. We got the keys on December 23."
Shedden and her partner have spent the first few months of the year getting the bakery ready. So, rather than spending her time elbow-deep in dough, she has been scraping walls, sanding and sealing floors, covered in dust.
"It's a busy wee village so we're hoping it'll be a year-round business, but we'll review that in January. We plan to keep it all very locally based, and change what we're making according to the seasons. There's an orchard in the village where we'll be able to get our apples, and The Field is a community fruit and vegetable growing initiative that'll be supplying us. James does his own thing, but he'll be helping on the business and social media side, giving me a few pointers.
"There'll be an open-plan kitchen and it'll be more takeaway than eat-in. We'll serve teas and coffees. It's called Aran Bakery - which [like in Irish] means bread in Scottish Gaelic. I'll be hands on - I've always enjoyed waitressing, and the sociable side of food. That's the best part of food, meeting people, having conversation, I like using food in that way."