I have on my desk a list of inane scribbles that could, at a push, be ideas for a blog. I have 18 weird and wonderful anecdotes and several amusing and seemingly random metaphors which I will somehow need to relate back to the conference and meetings industry at some point.
That’s how most of my blogs are born. A random musing tickles my funny bone and I strive for a tenuous link back to the industry so that I can use it.
Inspiration for my blog can come from anything: doing the washing up, changing my daughter’s stool-filled nappy at 3am, a phone call from someone unpleasant, even.
Today, though, the inspiration comes from something not so funny: the attack on Westminster.
I bring it up because just 15 or so minutes before things unfolded, I had been right there, on Westminster Bridge. While there were hundreds – if not thousands – of people in the immediate proximity at the exact time of the attack who will have actually witnessed it all first hand, I still feel personally connected to the incident.
Of course, I didn’t realise what had happened until the push notification had come through on my phone, but still, I was only around the corner.
I stayed in London until about 7pm that evening and I was amazed. Everyone seemed to be carrying on as normal. The Underground was as packed as it always is, Waterloo just as busy. If you hadn’t been listening to the news, you would never have known something was afoot.
The following day I was due at ExCel London at 8am for the Great Agency Bake Off 2017 – getting there from the remote outpost in the Surrey Hills that I call home requires a 5am start, I hasten to add – and this required yet more travelling through the capital.
The atmosphere on the three different trains I used was no different to any other day. People were reading papers, listening to music, talking over the phone. The only clue as to the events of the day before was the front page of The Metro. Nothing else.
I arrived at ExCel London at 7.30am to meet my cameraman where we did a few pieces to camera for an upcoming launch video before amusing myself with a further series of bun-filled puns to camera before moving inside to get baking.
The Great Agency Bake Off, or #GABO if you want to be social, is an annual do organised by ExCel where agencies from around the UK go head-to-head with each other to see who is best at cooking.
At this point I feel obliged to point out that I am to cooking what Brian Blessed is to the 100m Sprint. Every time I go anywhere near a kitchen something catches fire or I end up with some mustard smeared on a digestive biscuit.
Cooking is not my thing. A point confirmed to my teammates, Lucy and Emma, when I asked what the difference was between baking and roasting. Food goes into a cooker, you press the same buttons, lots of heat, and it comes out brown. Why do you roast a turkey but not a Victoria sponge, or bake a pie but not a chicken? Lucy and Emma likely thought it was going to be a long day.
The brief was simple: we would first be making brownies with, weirdly, beetroot in them. This is something I would do for a laugh but no, it turns out it’s a real thing.
It was decided that I should be sent to collect the ingredients, and with the list in hand I made my way over to the ingredient table, and it was here where the problems began. I was able to identify the chocolate, but I was flummoxed by the different sugars. I needed sugar, but icing or caster? And then I needed a metric amount of them.
The best way to resolve this situation was to walk away and let Emma and Lucy get them instead. This proved far more successful.
Next it was time to get cooking. Firstly we had to make the ganache, which I misheard as Ganesh, the eight-armed Hindu elephant god. Confused, I helped pass the sugar, chocolate powder and water, and what looked like a cup of coupling grease from the tow bar of a HGV. There was much whisking.
The gelatinous goo was taken to the fridge where, presumably, it would set.
Next it was time to throw the cake bit together. Eggs were cracked, one type of sugar was tipped in and other ingredients may or may not have been added. More whisking was required.
The brown paste that resulted from the agonising labour was scooped into a baking tray and then put in the roasting machine, where it would stay for precisely 18 minutes and a bit.
Eighteen-minutes and bit later the brown paste was removed, now deceptively crustier around the edges. Had it hardened? No. The first attempt to remove it from the tray revealed that it had all the stability of Somalia’s government. No matter, we persevered, smearing the recently returned gelatinous goo over the top, conspicuously hiding the fault lines that had been exposed moments before.
Cunningly, we opted to cut out individual pieces and palm them off as ‘Rugged Hipster Sweet Cakes’ – this, equally, did not go well.
After some light refreshments it was time to crack on with the second task: macaroons.
Fullard’s First Law of Cooking is simple: If it’s hard to do, don’t bother. Macaroons are hard to make. Very hard. And the resultant catastrophe that ensued underlined this fact perfectly.
We began by making more ganache, with avocado bits floating in it this time. Lucy and Emma took charge of this and all seemed well. We were tasked with making 10 brown ones and 10 green ones, so we began with brown.
The various sugars, crushed almonds, chocolate powder and egg snot were thrown into a steel pot and much stirring was required. It is hard to describe just how hard the consequential paste was. Imagine trying to tear up the M25 with a drinking straw. Well it was harder than that. It is only thanks to a miracle of engineering that the wooden spoon wasn’t snapped in half.
Some sugary watery fluid was added in an otiose attempt to soften the asphalt so that it could be put into the squeezing bag. However, I had been tasked with getting the squeezing bag ready and had, wrongly it turns out, put the plastic nozzle thing on the outside, so when Lucy went to use it, it just fell off. It fell to Emma to roll up her sleeve and journey past the thick brown paste to place the nozzle where it was supposed to be. It was like birthing a calf.
Things were slightly better with the green paste that followed but the improved appearance proved a false dawn. When they were removed from the oven they weren’t so much peeled off the baking tray as they were scooped – before simply disintegrating.
It had not been a successful cake roasting exercise for our team, but looking around at our rival teams suggested at least we weren’t alone. One team, the winners, I think, seemed to have a handle on the macaroons, but otherwise it was clear that we are event professionals, not chefs.
The judging was done in private, probably to spare our blushes, and the winners announced in the Bridge Restaurant. There was much cheering and banter, and cries of foul play – or maybe that was just me?
When all was said and done I must confess I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Not the cake roasting part, that was just embarrassing, but the camaraderie in the team and friendly banter between agencies was superb. It shone the brightest of lights on the industry. It was a chance to meet new people in an off-the-cuff environment where everyone could be themselves. We had come together as an industry and cracked on as normal.
I’ve even had fun writing about it, yet can’t remember how I started…