The pristine High Street of Sunninghill, Berkshire is peppered with voluminous hanging baskets overflowing with petunias in bright shades of cerise and purple. Small independent shops and stores do a bustling trade, and a graceful sense of reserved calmness is in the air as locals sit and chatter as they take tea on the pavement café. How fitting that a very British picture-postcard Berkshire village should be home to the English Rose-like talent in the form of 17 year-old Charters’ School pupil Martha Collison.
Martha is a current contestant in the BBC One series “The Great British Bake Off”, having beaten off more than 17,000 applicants to grab a slice of the action in series 5 to become one of the 12 finalists. Tucked away in a corner of her favourite local tea room, Treacle, Xn caught up with Martha for an exclusive interview and photoshoot as the media frenzy over this blue-eyed Berkshire teen gathered ever-increasing momentum:
“I love baking”, she started: “I think I always have. The first thing I ever baked entirely on my own was a coconut cake when I was about 9.” It was a strange thing” she continued, “I’d put desiccated coconut into the mixture so as you can imagine, the cake turned out a bit gritty in texture! My parents still approved of it, though.”
As you’d expect, Martha sipped her tea from a china cup with saucer. She told of her family’s support in making it to the final dozen in the show, a smile beaming from ear to ear as she spoke: “When I auditioned I never thought I’d make it through. With each round I managed to get through to the next stage, we’d all have a little celebration as a family. I had it in the back of my mind that there might be a ‘small’ chance I’d get through but then when it got right down to the final 50 I thought, ‘Well, there’s a 1 in four chance of it happening now’. My parents have been so supportive and, like me, excited. They’ve also funded the cost of my ingredients which has been great, as it’s expensive to develop new recipes. We received four recipes a week from the BBC, so that takes some keeping up with!”
At just 17, Martha is the youngest ever contestant on the show in its five-year history. Martha is more than aware of this and doesn’t shun away from the potential this opportunity provides for other young aspiring bakers out there: “I definitely think I’m up there representing the up-and-coming bakers of tomorrow,” she said: “I’m the youngest by almost 15 years; the next contestant in age to me is 31, which makes me feel incredibly young! I found the challenges pretty good to deal with, too. I guess I show that young people can hold their own amongst the more experienced out there.”
It’s clear from the way she enthusiastically engaged in conversation that Martha adores baking. A current AS level student, Martha has ambitions of becoming a Food Scientist as a future career. Her heart overrules her head when it comes to food, as Martha explained: “I bake for the sheer enjoyment of it. I like the scientific aspect of it; how and why certain ingredients go well together and the process of creating something but for me it has to be to enjoy the baking first and foremost. I bake to eat, simple as. The science part of it is secondary, but I’d love to work somewhere involving food – product development, for example.”
The unique way in which Martha demonstrated her creativity was also a huge positive experience for her during the filming process. “As viewers saw on the second show,” Martha commented: “it’s clear when there are things I’ve done which have been my favourites as I planned more readily for them. In the second show I spent the most time planning a 3D biscuit scene of a skiing village. That was by far my most favourite thing to make on The Great British Bake Off.”
Filming for the series may have wrapped at the end of June, but Martha was astounded at the level of secrecy surrounding not only the final result, but the filming in itself. Describing her filming experience as “surreal”, Martha explained that it was like living in a bubble at times. “It was strange,” she said: “There I was – one moment in a huge tent in a field over at Welford Park on the outskirts of Newbury doing some filming for the show, and the next I was back in class with my friends, unable to utter a single word about what I’d been up to! At first I could make the odd excuse about not being able to go out with them, but it became hard after a while as I couldn’t tell them what I was doing, yet had to explain my absences from hanging out with them. Time management was also another thing; filming, doing my part-time job at a supermarket cheese counter and doing my studies meant I had to be enormously organised – but I like being busy!”
Setting apart the creations she has made on the series, Martha has some clear distinctions about what are (and aren’t) her favourite foods. “I love cheese,” she started: “Just as well, really, as I work on a cheese counter part-time! If I had a preference I’d go for a really nice mature Cheddar or a ripe Camembert. I love making cheese bread at home for the family. I stuff it with Camembert so it oozes out when you slice into the bread. The family love it; it’s a real favourite. I also love caramel, so a sticky toffee pudding with a caramel drizzle would be amazing.”
On the contrary, there’s a food which Martha dislikes with a passion: “I hate banana”, she said: “I don’t know what it is about it, but I just can’t stomach it. The texture… the taste. It’s something I’ve hated from being a young child.” There’s no prizes for guessing that banana loaf probably isn’t in Martha’s recipe collection!
Apart from gaining a lot of public attention from the television series, one could be left wondering what lies ahead for this extremely gifted young woman. Is there a book looming on the horizon or a future in television? “If the opportunity arose,” said Martha: “I’d love to do a book! Who wouldn’t want to see their name on the front of a recipe book? I’d love to perhaps do some cookery teaching, plus it’s important to me that I do something with my baking for charitable causes. I’d also like to continue with the help I give at the After School Club where I study.”
It is hoped that Martha’s appearance as a young contestant on the series will spark the imagination of other young bakers out there. Her advice for those aspiring to become bakers? “Get stuck in!” she exclaimed: “Learn through practice and don’t be afraid to try out new stuff. Enjoy it and, most of all, have fun!”
Finally, is Martha a “Team Mary” or a “Team Paul” sort of girl? “Oh,” she said: “It has to be Mary. Don’t get me wrong; I love Paul, but I don’t know that much about him whereas my mum and my grandma had Mary’s books in the kitchen all the time. My family have grown up with Mary’s recipes so I have to choose her. She’s a national treasure, isn’t she?”
Week 4 of the Great British Bake Off airs tonight (Wednesday September 3) on BBC 1 at 8pm. It’s “Pie Week” but we wonder whether Martha’s pie will be flaky or turn out to be the upper crust? Tune in to find out!