I’m sure you’ve noticed The Cake Shop on meandering trips through the bustling Covered Market. The bright display of elaborately-iced cakes and colourful sugar animals and figures is a unique attraction and never fails to draw the curiosity of Oxford’s discerning public. Inside, you can taste icing-sugar in the air and the staff are always hard at work, crafting some new and exotic design, all from sugar and marzipan. The shop churns out an impressive 200 cakes every week – and every single one is different.
Described mysteriously by Wikipedia as ‘one of the sugar arts’, cake-decorating is one of those luxury, celebratory things that provides a focal point for a party or wedding. It’s been around for longer than you might think, though, with the first artistic decorating going on during the mediaeval period, when hearty cakes made of meat and raisins were topped off with branches of herbs or flowers.
Today’s sweeter examples are rather more decadent and, indeed, beautiful. the Covered Market’s Cake Shop is cleverly designed so that three of its sides are fronted by large windows which let passers-by peer in at extravagant cakes and busily-engaged decorators at work.
‘It helps the business a lot,’ Sally Davis, founder of the Cake Shop, confirms, ‘and one of the Oxford walking-tours handily comes right by our shop. We get a lot of tourists who notice the cakes in the window, and the sugar animals are very popular with them. We also rotate the displays periodically to reflect seasonal demand and to provide variety.’
So how did the business begin? ‘I did a cake-decorating course at university, but I couldn’t get a job when I finished so I asked my parents for a little help and I started this business. I’ve always enjoyed cookery, and food, but I love art as well, so being a cake-decorator allows me to combine these things.’
The shop is now in its twenty-second year of business. ‘We don’t have any rivals who are working with the same level of skill. There is, also, definitely a Cake Shop way of doing things. We make special efforts to produce more realistic models and objects. Our figures have fingers, for example, rather than simple ball-shaped hands.’ I’m shown three tiny and very intricate icing dogs whose tongues have been lightly coated with jelly to make them look wet, as further proof of attention to detail.
But detail means time and time means money. The cost of buying a cake from Sally’s shop depends on how much time and effort has gone into its decoration. ‘You can get a nice, basic birthday cake for £30. This one’ – she pulls down a two-tiered birthday cake, topped with a pair of high-heeled icing shoes – ‘is £112. The more tiers you have, the more expensive they are. An average wedding cake will set you back £300 because they are multi-tiered and are often heavily personalised.’
I ask what the most expensive cake they’ve ever made has cost. In a very matter-of-fact way, Sally says, ‘We did one once for £2,800. It was a wedding cake for a DPhil student who was studying ancient history of some sort. She wanted a replica of a specific temple and her husband-to-be did very detailed botanical drawings of flowers which he wanted produced on it as well. It was a very realistic piece, and very large – we had to use a step-ladder to finish it.’
In one of their bulging portfolios are pictures of cakes in the shape of buildings. There’s one of Brasenose College, another of the Sheldonian theatre (with authentic-looking black railings which I’m told are made from dried spaghetti painted black) and another of the Taj Mahal. All of which are stunningly detailed.
‘Buildings are my favourite because they’re always such a challenge. We study the structure carefully before we do the icing, and we try and make them as proportional and realistic as possible,’ Sally says.
‘Oxford is a special town,’ she continues, ‘It has some quite unusual people in it, and that helps our business. The University fuels that, definitely. Last year a professor wanted a cake for his students and he wanted an inscription written in an ancient language on it. He gave us a copy of what he wanted, and we had to be very precise of course because his students would have been able to tell if we’d made a mistake.’
One of the most crowd-drawing cakes in the window at the moment is a wedding cake topped with two grooms. ‘We have quite a few gay customers,’ Sally explains, ‘and we really enjoy doing their weddings. Gay couples are fun to work with – they always ask for great colour schemes, glitter and so on. We’ve done a lot of gorgeous gay wedding cakes and we certainly don’t have a problem with it, but sometimes we hear exasperated people outside saying, “Hey, there’re two men on that cake!”’
No cake is truly worth its salt (or sugar), however, unless the cake-mix itself is up to scratch. As such, The Cake Shop say they pay just as much attention to taste as well as appearance.
‘There are two bakeries we use for our cakes: one in Yorkshire and one in Nottingham. We’ve tried to source them more locally, but the quality isn’t good enough, and we wouldn’t compromise on that. Every day another batch of vanilla or chocolate sponge and fruit cake is couriered to our shop from the bakeries. We quality-control them as well, so if a particular sponge isn’t good enough, we’ll send it back. The bakeries specialise just as we do, and our businesses support each other for that reason.’
It’s clear The Cake Shop offers service of high standards. The cakes in the window and the icing being made behind me all look stunning, but also a little fragile. Have any unfortunate accidents ever happened?
‘We get the occasional mishap from a customer who’s dropped it on the way home, but it doesn’t happen very often. If the cake is reparable, we’ll take it in and patch it up free of charge.’
So whether it’s an exact replica of the Radcliffe Camera or a birthday cake which reflects various aspects of an individual’s personality, The Cake Shop seems able to do it. They also very kindly made us a fantastic Cherwell cake and let me nose around their shop taking pictures. I guess you could say we’ve had our cake and eaten it all at once.