Full name: Fiona Cairns
Role: Creative Director
Fun Fact: Of all the many chocolatey things that Fiona could have chosen, she loves Maltesers more than most….
J: Where did you pick up those considerable culinary skills and when did you know that this would be the career for you? I read that you qualified as a graphic designer and that was the original career plan?
F: That’s right, I trained in graphic design, and then worked as an illustrator for a few years. I didn’t really cook at all until I went on a cooking course in the 1980s – at La Petit Cuisine in Richmond, London. Lyn Hall, who ran the school, taught me a lot about cooking. Then I went to work at Hambleton Hall, a nearby country house hotel in Rutland, and learnt so much from Nick Gill, a Michelin starred chef, who was head chef there.
What has been your crowning culinary achievement so far? And what has been your proudest moment, whether business or otherwise…?
Being commissioned to make the Royal Wedding Cake was the most extraordinary privilege for us as a company. We received the call in February 2011 and the wedding was in April, so we had a relatively short time to design and make the cake. A team of eight of us created the cake in our Leicestershire bakery, before it was taken to Buckingham Palace.
Before that it was the phone call from the Harrods bakery buyer. I was in my home kitchen and he placed the first weekly order – dare I say it about 28 years ago!
Asides from said legendary Royal Wedding Cake of 2011, you’ve also created cakes for Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Bono? Could you tell us a little about what the experience is like catering for those guys, and what kind of stuff they ask for? (you don’t have to give too much away, of course!)
We made a cake for Sir Paul McCartney 21 years ago. He played a concert in 1990 and it won a Guinness World Record for the “Largest Stadium Attendance in History”- at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janiero. We made the cake to celebrate the record, which was displayed and eaten at a party in Soho, London. The cake was made to look like the stadium and was so intricate- a real architectural project. Over the years we have made around 20 or more cakes for him – I’ve lost count!
Apart from the look of the cake, everyone has ideas about what it should taste like too. So far no one has asked for anything we wouldn’t want to include in a recipe, and we can always guide them towards something which will taste delicious and still keep to their dietary requirements!
What’s the best reception received to one of your baked creations?
Over the years we have received countless cards, letters, emails and phone calls of thanks. The cake is often a central part of a celebration and often very personal. It makes all the hard work [and often stress] worthwhile!
What’s the process of putting together a cookbook like? You’re up to 3 now, right?
When I was first commissioned to write a book I had no idea how it would be! A huge amount of work but very enjoyable [well, most of the time]. Creating a cookery book involves quite a team – apart from the author! The commissioning editor, the editor, book designer, photographer and stylist.
…Quite apart from the help in the kitchen – all that washing up whilst the creative process takes place and a few disasters along the way! I am delighted with the books – and especially proud of “Seasonal Baking”, my most recent one. Rachel Eardley [who is our Creative Director in the bakery] helped me with many of the ideas – we have had many brainstorming sessions over the years.
Is it any different selling to the French market? You have a foothold there…?
We do sell to “Au Bon Marche” in Paris, yes. The French love our traditional fruitcake, especially with an equally traditional Rudolf on the top. The French and English styles of baking are quite different so it’s pleasing to know they want our iced Fairycakes as much as we want their light and buttery croissants!
How have things changed since you started 28 years back? How did you start out and how do you think that the business environment has evolved since then?
I started the business quite literally from my kitchen table. From there it expanded to a converted barn behind the house, then onto a bakery in a nearby village. Now, as we grow, we buy another building and split the different baking lines so each has more room.
The technical demands on us have become very restrictive and very time consuming. Of course this is completely understandable, but it can make being creative quite hard. In the early days – at least for the first 10 years, we didn’t have such technical demands.
When I began there was very little competition. Baking has become so fashionable now there is a lot of competition. Even more so now we have to compete on price as well as taste. Often now a buyer is trying to fulfil a “slot” in their range for a cake at a particular price, it’s up to us to create something delicious and beautiful and usually they can bend their restrictions to let us in.
What’s your day to day involvement with the business today? What’s a day in the life of Fiona like?
I never seem to have a typical day. I often start work at home, answering emails, testing recipes, preparing my thoughts and plans for the week. Then it could be over to the bakery to meet with our Design Director and spend time in the development kitchen, or a trip to London to talk about a new project. Maybe a demonstration or interview in the afternoon and a meeting with one of our customers. On top of all this I’m also a wife and mother, and we all know how varied that can be!
I read that your various ranges keep up with current trends, how do you do this exactly? Do you see what others are baking this season and put your own spin upon it? Where do you look for baking trends? Is it anything like the fashion industry?
Inspirations for my recipes and decorations can come from lots of different places. It’s often a classic with a twist, and I am occasionally influenced by my travels abroad. We visit India every year and I am always full of ideas when we return. I am also strongly influenced by the seasons. We designed a range of seasonal wedding cakes for the Quintessentially Wedding Atelier in October and we used colour palettes that really reflected the seasons, as well as shapes and textures you would find in nature.
In terms of trends, we are still seeing a general trend for ‘British’ baking and cakes. Last summer we created a range of retro treats, such as giant versions of the biscuits we all enjoyed in childhood, and a range of cupcakes reflecting traditional ice cream flavours. Nostalgic flavours are always very popular. A trend that seems to have come back round is for individual portions and miniature cakes, which I created 28 years ago from my kitchen table and was the only commercial product for a year or so!
I work with our Design Director, Rachel Eardley, who has a background in Interior Design. Together with the team at the bakery we gather inspiration from many different places, including fashion. You find that themes and trends spread across industry boundries, although I am yet to see a dress based on our giant Bourbon biscuit!
Your achievements and success are undeniable, but what is it that sets you aside from other bakers? Baking in general and cakes are massively popular today, it seems. How do you do so well in such a competitive market?
We have always maintained a complete attention to detail in our cakes, which is a precedent I set at the kitchen table all those years ago. People often comment that we have managed to maintain our quality throughout the growth we have experienced as a company- from one pair of hands, to two, to nearly one hundred pairs of hands today! All of our cakes are handmade and hand decorated and our team members are very dedicated, precise and skilled.
It’s so important to keep that level of finesse, and be very uncompromising in our dedication to detail! The development process is a very collaborative one; Rachel is constantly coming up with new designs at the bakery. Inspiration comes from all over; whether it be fabrics or flowers or the seasons.
Could you share three simple things that people can do to immediately improve their baking?
Use the very best ingredients you can afford – unsalted butter, free range eggs, good quality chocolate
Be organised and plan your baking. Read the recipe through and assemble all the equipment and ingredients before you start.
Preheat the oven before you begin. Uncooked cake batter doesn’t like to hang around so make sure everything is ready to go.
If you were forced to live on three foods for the rest of your life (perish the thought) – which would you pick?
Indian Alphonso Mangoes, Roast Chicken and Champagne.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what’d you be doing instead?
I’d probably be a painter, or something to do with growing flowers, or maybe growing flowers to paint!
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
My biggest challenge would have to be making the Royal Wedding cake. Everything else we’ve done at the bakery seems simple in comparison. It wasn’t just making it, but under the spotlight of global and media attention nothing could go wrong and it had to be perfect, all in around 6 weeks! The only way we could achieve the result we did was by calling on the skill of the bakers and decorators in the bakery. With teamwork and organisation anything is possible!
And then there’s our three customary ridiculous questions
If a wealthy benefactor donated a super powerful industrial cutting laser to your bakery and paid the power bill (and you HAD to use it for some reason or another…) – what would you do with it?
I’m not sure what we could do with a laser, but if someone gave us a 3D printer loaded with sugar we could create some amazing cakes!
If you could invent a completely new use for cake (assume that the laws of physics do exactly what you want to allow this to happen…) – what would you choose, and why?
I would create a cake which, when eaten, would transport the person to the spiritual home of the recipe, just for the time they are eating it of course. So a sliver of Sachertorte would send you to Vienna, a slice of Madeira cake would whisk you off to that Atlantic island and Fiona Cairns Fairycake would land you in the village of Fleckney!!
If you had to hire one of the Fellowship of the Ring (Frodo, Boromir, Gandalf etc) to come and work with you at the business, who would you hire and what role would you assign them?
I had to ask my Son for advice here! We would hire Galadriel in a flash, if she could bring me the recipe for Lembas! Shaped into thin cakes, it is very nutritious, stays fresh for months when kept unbroken in its original leaf-wrappings, and is used for sustenance on long journeys. It would be really popular with our wholesale customers due to its long shelf life and I am sure we could make it into an impressive Wedding Cake. Of course, if she looked like Cate Blanchet in the films, she could also become the new “face” of Fiona Cairns!