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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Fête Accompli - Portman Village Bakes up a Storm

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

Talk about a dream assignment. Would I like to judge a baking competition, alongside Great British Bake Off winner Frances Quinn, involving head chefs from some of London's top restaurants and hotels? I couldn't book the day off work fast enough.

It was all hosted by Portman Village, the not-quite Marylebone, not-quite Marble Arch part of central London just behind Selfridges. Local businesses have been holding a street party every summer, and given the nation's current love affair with cake, they decided this year's would kick off with their very own local Bake Off.

It was a blazing hot day and Portman Square was decked out like a proper village fete: there was bunting. There were tea urns. And - glory be - a large white marquee with trestle tables laden with cakes and desserts.

A quick rendevouz with Frances and the organisers to determine the rules:  and we were off, starting with best 'Native dessert'. We tucked into a gigantic lemon ice-box pie from The Lockhart, a dream of a dessert with an impeccably crunchy ginger biscuit base, glorious lemon curd and a vast pile of mallowy meringue. It was difficult not to just stop right there and finish the entire thing - but we had 35 more entries to go, and it seemed judicious to pace ourselves.

I was particularly taken with a moist, nutty banana bread from Daisy Green - and there was a  spicy ginger molasses loaf from Lanes of London which also scored well. A cheesecake beautifully decorated with berries was another favourite - surviving surprisingly well in the blazing heat - although we did deduct a few marks for the soggy bottom. Harsh - but fair.

On we went. The 'Tastiest Cake' category beckoned - and there was one outstanding winner for all of us - The Grazing Goat's dark, rich flourless chocolate cakes topped with a perfect quenelle of almond-butter mousse: think peanut butter taken to the next level.

We went back for more, just to make sure they really were that good. Daisy Green's 'Mega banana bread' made a reappearance, this time stuffed with copious amounts of whipped cream and strawberries. Mega was the word.

By this stage, the cookie category seemed like light relief. Some strawberry shortcake cookies from Lanes of London scored well for the buttery, short biscuits, but were let down by a too-sweet strawberry filling.

Top marks went to the Grazing Goat again, for some utterly perfect chocolate chip cookies: melting chocolate, soft centre, crisp around the edge. Exemplary.

The contest wasn't just open to chefs: some local businesses had also got involved - and we had especially high praise for Zora Govorusa from Zoki Couture for her crumbly pecan-based cookies - along with some attractive looking creations in the best Decorated Cake category.

By the end we were all surfing on a massive sugar high and a large queue of punters were impatiently lining up, waiting to be allowed into the tent to try the entries for themselves, once we'd awarded the prizes. Frances and I may have sneaked back for another spoonful of the chocolate cake - before announcing the winners. The Lockhart for their lemon icebox pie, and the Grazing Goat for their cookies and their flourless chocolate cakes.

By this time the square was full of the happy buzz of families enjoying the other activities, from a 'pin the beard on Paul Hollywood' game to stalls raising money for a local homeless charity, the West London Day Centre. Local restaurants and cafes were staying open late into the night, offering special menus, cocktails, special discounts and live music.

Reluctantly, though, we had to leave: Frances and I were due at another event involving - yes - more cake. But what an afternoon we had: I'm already looking forward to another Portman Village Bake Off next year.

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