No piece of cake – The Age

Cake decorating is more than just icing on the cake, illness as Helen Razer discovers when she gets into a sticky situation with some talented sugar artists.

‘I do tend to always have some mouding paste close byTrevillean with an inventive flourish of her hands. It’s best to have the medium at hand, decease she says. Even if your husband complains; you never see your kitchen table for piping paraphernalia; and every domestic surface has grown a stubborn crust of sugar.

“You never do know when you’re going to be struck by inspiration,” she says, giving the infatuated shrug of an artist. She turns to stare at her all-sucrose rendering of a jet-fuel daffodil from what is, perhaps, the hundredth critical angle of the afternoon.

How on earth did she manage to replicate such a jolly springtime bulb from foodstuffs? She answers with all the vigour and impenetrability of an excitable calculus lecturer with a new slide rule. By the time she arrives at the tricky part about the florist’s wire and the cantilever, I’m lost. And all I can say is, “Well, it’s a very pretty yellow flower”.

At 32, Trevillean is one of the emerging artists with work on show at the 13th National Seminar of the Australian National Cake Decorators Association. She helped organise the biennial event and describes herself as a newbie. As one who’s been tampering with fondant for a mere decade, she’s barely begun what many embrace as a lifetime’s journey towards sugary rapture.

“Oh, I have a long way to go,” she says of her apprenticeship. “Some of these ladies have been at it forever.”

Among them is multi-awardwinning decorator and cheeky grandma Eileen Scriven. Her spectacular arrangement of indigenous flora is on show to the public today at the seminar, which this year bills itself as “the Academy Awards of cake decorating”.

“I love the Australian natives, so I went with the waratahs,” Scriven, a resident of the NSW South Coast, says. “And I matched them with the mountain devil, the flowering gum and the flannel

The effect of her labour is stunning and a near-perfect duplicate of the natural originals. “It’s beautiful,” she says. One can but concur. “I’ve been doing this for years.”

A hardcore, old-school sugar architect, she fashions her moulding paste from scratch. “I love sugar, I just love working with it,” she says brightly, and with a fervour one might imagine to be generally reserved for sculptors discussing the relative merits of Italian marble.

“It’s just a beautiful medium. I relax by making my flowers and such at night.
The Rabbit-Proof Fence work from WA

The Rabbit-Proof Fence work from WA
Photo:Gary Medlicott

“I have four daughters and eight grandchildren, and one little one with autistic features. We have a battle. But I have my cake decorating.”

“She has the passion,” a soft voice says.

Speaking is Helen Paumpa, president of the National Cake Decorators Association, the sort of person you immediately crave as a family member and the type of woman who would once have been called genteel. “I have the passion,” affirms Scriven.

“I have the passion. We all have the passion. It’s the passion you just can’t escape. The only way you would stop is if you lost the use of your hands. And sharing the skills is the best part. It’s so rewarding,” says Paumpa.

“We love it. We are family. We share skills. Now come and look at my wedding cake,” says Scriven.

It’s not difficult to enunciate the requisite oohs and aahs when beholding Scriven’s multitiered confection. It’s a fabulous testimony to skill, patience and creativity. And, of course, passion.

I love it, I tell her. But I like your other cake perhaps a little more. “The waratahs are not a cake,” she says firmly. “That is sugar art.”

I have lurched into a sticky controversy. Cake decorating, it seems, is at the midpoint of a renaissance wherein its very designation is called into question.

“I am personally very eager to see the phrase ‘cake decorating’ shifted to that of ‘sugar art’,” says Cake Decorating Victoria president and seminar hostess Jan Murphy.

“Many people understand cake decorating to be those few roses grandma made for your wedding cake. As anyone who looks at the pieces on show will tell, it’s really so much more than that,” she says.

She has a point. Rococo surges of matrimonial icing jostle for table space with minimalist sculpting and waywardly cheery, ineffably intricate fairytale scapes. There’s even a collaborative cake “diorama” in homage to the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence. If you suspected women with a fondness for frosting had no social conscience, you’d be wrong. Humpies, a broken-down car and the Australian landscape have been faithfully and edibly reproduced by the team from Western Australia.

Like the pursuit of knitting, which has transmuted into textile art, or the hobby of floristry, which is reborn as botanical sculpture, cake decorating is a craft aggressively redefining itself.

“Fine piping and lacework is wonderful, but in contemporary and modern wedding cakes, for example, we have to allow people to pursue their creativity,” says Murphy the sugar art visionary.

“I think we need to change more. I might get howled down by judges! But I believe if we want to get young people on board, we need to broaden our knowledge and broaden our minds.

“We have an older generation of cake decorators in Australia at the moment, and we are striving to encourage younger membership. And, in Victoria, particularly, this seems to be working quite well. It’s crucial that these skills are passed on.”

Equally, she says, it’s vital that sugar artists continue to defy and smash our pastel expectations of their products. Out with the doilies and in with the stark social realism, vibrant food dyes and expressionist fruit cake.

Trevillean agrees that now is an exciting time for cake decorators. There is, it appears, an intriguing tension as the form attempts to place itself in the breach between craft and art.

“I suppose with my daffodil, I am trying to represent as well as reproduce,” Trevillean says, as she gives the little flower one more grave and furtive glance.

Outside the professionalising limits of traditional art, but not entirely within the CWA lacetrimmed community hall, these gals – and half a dozen blokes – are giving it all for edible beauty. There’s a dazzling fragility to so many of these sugar pieces.

Their splendour is made all the more poignant by their everyday provenance. Cake decorating is what happens when a woman redefines her kitchen as an artist’s studio.

“Yes, we’ve got the passion,” says the president.

The 13th National Seminar of the Australian National Cake Decorators Association Inc is at Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre, corner of Bell Street and St Georges Road, Preston. The cakes are on display until Friday.