Each year when the Great British Bake Off finally returns to our screens and our hearts, without fail there is at least one contender who is as adorably sweet as the creme-pat-filled gingerbread castle she creates. In 2014, this role was filled by a 17-year-old student named Martha Collison. The Berkshire-born baker wowed us with her seamless Sachertorte as the youngest contestant EVER to take part in the Great British Bake Off. Whilst many in Martha’s age group are immersed in the latest clean eating fad; spending their evenings scrolling through “fitspo” posts on Instagram, or googling how many dishes they can make with an avocado, this young foodie was tempering chocolate and perfecting her sugary buttercream. Mmmmmmmmmm buttercream. With her second book, Crave: Brilliantly indulgent recipes (which consists mainly of recipes to satisfy our sweet toothed cravings) newly released, we spoke to the self-taught cook about her thoughts on the current health obsession of the food world and how, given the ingredients of most of her recipes, she manages to stick to her gluten-loving ways.
“People always say to me, ‘how do you stay so slim?” she tells me. To which I reply; “isn’t it interesting that it’s your weight that people feel the need to focus on?” “It’s weird,” she admits, “I don’t have a secret! It’s just having a balanced diet and doing a bit of exercise – that’s it. Our relationship to food has become a bit skewed in many ways. I see all food as good food and just enjoy it. I think having that attitude makes you happier as well.” Martha is perfect testament to the benefits of eating in tune with your body and without giving it too much thought. Admittedly she “has a fine metabolism”, but ultimately, having an unlimited supply of all the sweet treats and supposedly “naughty” foods day in and day out means she’s LESS likely to want to eat it all immediately. Plus, Martha grants herself to eat whatever she wants, whenever she wants and guess what – she still stays perfectly healthy.
“PEOPLE EVENTUALLY REALISE THAT JUST EATING NORMALLY IS THE WAY TO GO”
“It’s not like every time I see a cake I eat it,” she says, “because I think when you’re constantly surrounded by something it becomes second nature. I’ve always had a passionfor food ever since I can remember.” Hence, if something in your head is telling you not to eat a certain food, the likelihood is, you’re probably going to eat more of it than you actually want. In other words, any food rule whatsoever is a complete and utter waste of time (unless you’re alle rgic/intolerant/a chronic shitter of course). At just 19-years-old, Martha speaks with the maturity and sensibility of someone twice her age. A conversation with her is a total breath of fresh air amongst the teen Instagram starlets who fill their feeds with lycra clad selfies and skilfully arranged plates of vegetables. How does she cope with sticking out from the crowd?
“Essentially, for me,” she says, “food is a positive thing and it always should be. There aren’t many things we need to live and food is one of them, so we should be celebrating it. These days, there’s even more variety, and so there’s all the more reason to celebrate it.” Taking pleasure in eating every meal is much more important to Martha than maintaining the perfect body, or even achieving optimum “health” – ironic, seeing as the process of not worrying about health probably makes her much more healthy than many of us who do. It would seem that young Martha figured this out way before any of us did.
“For most people it’s just a phase,” she says, “they eventually come out of it and realise that just eating normally is the best way to go. People go for a ‘sugar-free’ week or two, but then they end up losing who they are and what they enjoy.” It sounds as if Martha’s seen this exact pattern before for herself. Is she speaking from experience? “Yes I’ve noticed it with my friends,” she says, “and I do demonstrations with other food influencers and it’s interesting to see the type of audience they get.
“SWEET POTATO BROWNIES JUST TASTE WRONG”
” I do a demo and there’s always a big spectrum of ages. But I see a lot of younger people watching the sort of ‘clean eating’ dieting things which makes me sad. It’s always the same type of audience of largely young women who have enough money to spend on clean eating. That’s the worrying thing, because it’s quite a wide market.” Martha’s account of the differences in audience is particularly depressing seeing as her recipes are a darn sight more delicious than a batch of sweet potato brownies – which, by the way, Martha isn’t much of a fan of either.
“I bought one on the train and it was all crumbly and horrible and tastes wrong. I could see people looking at me like; well done you’re eating healthy, but it wasn’t nice.” Cauliflower pizza didn’t go down too well with the star baker either. “I was intrigued to see what it would taste like,” she says, “and it would have been horrible if it wasn’t for the amount of cheese I put into the base. It just tasted like an upside-down pizza because I put so much cheese in it.” Mmmmmmm cheese.
Martha’s healthy relationship with all foods isn’t surprising, given her childhood fascination with everything edible – from oysters to coq au vin. Family dinners proved pretty cheap for her parents, as mini Martha would order an empty plate and proceed to steal bits and pieces off the “adults” plates. One meal just wouldn’t do the job – she wanted to try everything. Aged eight she entered the kitchen as a helpful pair of hands for her mum and a year or two later she was let loose and tasked with family dinners. The freedom provided by Martha’s parents enabled the young food fanatic to explore her culinary talents (and make a mess of the kitchen), which years down the line, saw her perfectly prepared to audition for the nation’s biggest baking competition.
“I applied online in a moment of procrastination,” she says, “I was supposed to be revising for my AS mock exams and I didn’t want to – so I applied for the bake off instead, but didn’t even tell anyone because I thought my parents would be annoyed that I’d wasted the day.” I’m pretty sure that your parents have since forgiven you, Martha. What with two Martha Collinson cookery books, a monthly column in Waitrose magazine, a partnership with Cadbury’s and 48,000 Twitter followers, she’s not done badly for a girl who took her A Levels whilst simultaneously being hounded by the British media. As for others who may aspire to achieve what she has in the foodie world, Martha has a couple of nuggets of simple, yet invaluable advice.
“FOOD IS…JOY. IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE JOYFUL”
“Try and follow the recipe accurately,” she advises, “you’re putting all that time, effort and money into cooking and you don’t want to waste it. If you’re measuring, measure accurately and be as precise as possible.” More generally speaking, Martha encourages all you wannabe Nigellas to give into your desire and be totally unapologetic about it. “For me,” she says, ” the smell of fresh bakeries is just the best thing in the world. What I don’t understand about people who do clean eating stuff is – what about bread! How can you not crave bread!?” Unfortunately I’m not able to provide an answer to Martha’s question; perhaps we’ve stumbled on the eighth wonder of the world…
Martha and I round-up our conversation with a bit of back-and-forth about the fundamental greatness of Mac ‘n’ Cheese. Closely followed by Swedish cinnamon buns, before eventually finishing off with fan-girling any kind of sweet dough. I might be getting ahead of myself, but I like to think this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. As much as I hate to bail on any food-related conversation, I have to go to work, so I put my final question to Martha. “Finish this sentence; Food is…”
To which she replies: “… joy. Whether you’re having lunch on your own; or you’re eating something that you’ve crafted for yourself; or you’re sharing the experience with other people – it should be joyful. You don’t get the joy of good food and good people around a table anywhere else in life. That’s why it’s so special.”
Brb just off to plan a dinner party (and invite Martha, obvs).