Cast your mind back to last summer and this week’s Big Personality was making sweet, caramel coated waves across the whole of Great Britain. The youngest of a tribe of twelve bakers, Flora Shedden caused a nation to fall in love with her uber-expressive facial contortions almost as much as they did her delectable, crème and sugar filled patisserie. And if the nation fell in love, us Perthshire dwelling bods went one further, proudly and loudly claiming her as one of our own. It was a #FloraLoveFest of show-stopping proportions.
It’s now a year down the line since she joined the set of The Great British Bake Off and in that time she has signed a book deal, an agent and been invited to Jimmy’s Farm. She has also been described by the Daily Fail as ‘pretty but sturdy’ (you do just want to firebomb them don’t you?) and asked by a female journalist when she planned to marry and have babies. She’s not happy about this; neither is she afraid to stand up and be counted as a person who is not happy about this.
You see, Flora indeed may be sweet, a little self-deprecating as all funny Scots are, and with a book deal that may just launch her into a different sort of world altogether, but make no mistake about the fact that this young girl is whip-smart. Grab a cuppa and a traybake because you are about to meet one of the brightest young women I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Baker, Blogger, Feminist; is the world ready for Flora?
Anyone who followed the story will know that she lives in Trochry just outside Dunkeld with her Mum, Dad and sisters – Hebe and Willow. “My mum was a florist, we’re all named after flowers.” She was born right here in Perth and the family moved to an old cow shed in the countryside when she was just knee-high to a mixing bowl. She has, she tells me, been cooking and baking for as long as she can remember.
“My mum is a really good cook and baker and probably like all wee girls, I just wanted to be like her. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t make pancakes. Proper Scotch pancakes - that was the first thing I ever learned to make on my own and I still do it now in pounds and ounces. There are photos of me in my pyjamas at three years old flipping pancakes.
I probably cooked more than I baked though; we don’t really eat that many cakes do we? I’d cook dinner for the family and really the cake thing was more about making Wedding Cakes for people when I was younger.”
Flora is sitting over from me in Birnam Arts Centre; she is mockingly aghast at the giant poster of her face adorning their windows advertising her upcoming ‘Audience With Flora’. I’m tucking into one of their (rather splendid) custard creams and after greeting me with a hug (I have never met her before!) she tells me they are her Mum’s all-time favourites. She looks younger in real life, closer to her twenty years, and is warm and affectionate with everyone who stops to chat.
She has very obviously grown up as part of her local community way before the fame of Bake Off took hold – babysitting, yoga, mutual friends cleaning messy flats are all topics of conversation that buzz around our table during our leisurely blether. You can see instantly that her people, the ones she grew up around, enjoyed her company and that big, wide, glorious smile way before she picked up a wooden spoon for BBC.
“My mum catered for weddings for friends and people in the village for years – she knows everyone my mum – and when I was a teenager I was roped into doing the Wedding Cakes which I suppose I was quite good at and I did enjoy doing. But I’d also help out serving at the weddings and I’d be there at the very end doing the dishes until 2am and vowing I’d never go into catering. Even my mum would say ‘never go into catering’. It’s just so many long hours and weekends.”
What Flora did instead was head off to Edinburgh to study Architecture, however, after just one year she was suitably convinced she didn’t really want to be an architect and decided to quit while she was ahead. She moved home and was lucky enough to pick up a job in Frames Gallery, which she loved and where she stayed for around eighteen months.
“I was doing a blog for the website in the gallery and that’s what gave me the idea to do one for myself. I was cooking and baking loads while I was at home and I thought it might be nice to record it and take pictures and create a nice food blog… you know, like we need another one of those! So I saved all my wages for a few months, bought a decent camera and taught myself how to use it from google and youtube. People seemed to like what I was doing – it’s called www.florashedden.com which wasn’t my most original idea.
It was my sister Hebe’s idea that I should apply for the show though. Hebe was 16 at the time and so she was at home while I was taking my time off from studying. She pestered me to apply and eventually we opened a bottle of wine and wrote an application – I think I got it in about half an hour before the deadline. I was all confident with the wine… ‘Oh I can totally do a crème pat’... And I sent it off and didn’t really think about it again.”
Until three days later when she received a phonecall from London – ‘I thought it was another annoying PPI call’ – and a man called from a company called Love Production and informed her they’d received her application and would like to invite her to do an interview.
“At the time, as well as the gallery I was also working weekends in The Watermill and I spent so much time pulling into laybys on the road between Trochry and Aberfeldy doing 30 minute phone interviews! Then I did an audition in Manchester where I had to take a bake, do a screen test and a Q&A.
Only my immediate family knew, and Hugh from Frames because I needed time off. He loved it! I got through all of these rounds and then I was asked to do a final selection in Hackney at a 9am audition. It was a nightmare flight; they tried to land the plane six times but there was snow on the runway and it eventually made it down about two hours late. I jumped on a train to Victoria and then ran from there to Hackney, carrying three cake tins and a tub of shortbread.
I’ve never run so far in my life and I burst into the room, all sweaty and in a horrendous state. It was the final fifty and we were making some strawberry Wimbledon cake only I slammed the door shut and my flame went out. I wasn’t due to fly home until eight but when it all finished I just headed for Gatwick and slept for two hours. It was the most ridiculous day – I have no idea how I ended up getting through.”
I wonder if her younger sister gloated a bit at being the one who had suggested the whole thing. I ask because I know what would happen if my sister and I were in that situation.
Her face is mock-firm, a small smirk forming at the sides of her lips; “Hebe is such a bully. She’s so much cooler than I am. She always has been. She’s off playing netball and being clever and honestly, I thought she’d never stop saying ‘I told you so!’ ”
As a semi-finalist Flora was part of filming each and every week. The punishing schedule saw her fly from London, stay in a hotel with the other bakers, film two really long days and then fly back Sunday night. Episodes five and six were done in one weekend and she stayed an extra day to make it all happen.
“Hugh was so kind, he was really supportive and excited for me. I never dreamed I’d get as far as I did so I only practiced the first four shows. You submit your recipes at the very beginning and we found out in April when we were accepted what the showstoppers were for each episode. It was quite a retro series I thought, with the Spanish Vintortes and Arctic Rolls. I didn’t even know what an Arctic Roll was – I thought you just bought them frozen!
Everyone chopped and changed their recipes as they went though and the amazing thing was you could say the night before ‘may I have a kilo of raspberries instead of strawberries’ and they’d be there. I do wish I’d taken full advantage and scrapped the pomegranates.”
The filming ended in June and at that point, Flora and her fellow bakers may have known the results but they hadn’t seen any of the edited episodes.
“It was awful. The first time I saw an edited episode was with everyone else. I remember watching telly one night and the first advert came on. I was carrying a cake and it split and my face just went (she opens her mouth as wide as you can image and raises her eyebrows to the sky) straight to camera. I went into a corner and retched.
It was so surreal. The first time I saw and heard it on the telly I have never hated myself so much! I just don’t know how you would ever get used to that. People would stop me in Tesco and they were always really lovely but it was just weird. Of course, I knew what was going to happen and lovely old ladies were saying ‘I hope you win’ and I was thinking, ‘I won’t. I get booted off next week!’”
I put it to her that it’s one of the biggest shows on TV. Didn’t she think people would notice her? Wasn’t she briefed?
“Well yes, but the press briefing came after the filming but before the show went out on TV. Up until then I was just kind of plodding along, enjoying the fun of it all. I think if I’d really thought it through at any point I may not have done it all! I was a bit like… “Oh yeah, this is going out on telly.
I was completely oblivious as to what that might mean – I think until you’ve done it you don’t really know. I was quite relieved to be sent home after the semi-final in fact, I was so knackered I just wanted to sleep. There were 12 cameras in the tent and to begin with that meant one on each of us but at the end it was three cameras on your every move. Imagine that!
I don’t know… looking back it might have been nice to make it to the final three. People locally were just so bloody lovely and when they were coming up saying ‘I want you to win’ it was heartbreaking. I felt like I’d let them down because I knew I wasn’t going to win. Little kids in the street telling you they were rooting for you. I had a mum send me a picture of a seven year old who’d sold his Lego to buy a mixer because he loved me. There’s a picture of him with it and I’m thinking... ‘Yeah, I lose.’ Another mum sent me a video of her son crying his eyes out after I was sent home. It was terrible!”
It was this level of personal contact that Flora could never have predicted. She and her mum would sit at end of each episode and go through Facebook, Twitter and her blog emails, answering everyone and thanking them for their support. Of course, as the way of the world amongst the good, must come the downright odd and bonkers. From haters to crazy, she attracted them all. She even received marriage proposals – including a ‘doctor’!
“My mum said.. ‘Oh Flora, a doctor’ and I had to explain to her that men who say they’re doctors on twitter are not necessarily doctors. The best one ever though was this a tweet that said ‘Flora Shedden’s bowel movements would look like they were designed by Cath Kidston.’ Hebe and I loved that. So weird and yet so descriptive! We still laugh at it.
It was important I did it with my mum and sisters; if I’d sat on my own and read it all I’d have become so depressed. Twitter is an addictive and dangerous past time. There are nice people and there are mean people and then there are people who want to paint me as this Posh Girl from Perthshire just because your Mum has an Aga in your old cow shed kitchen.”
Ahhhh. The Aga Saga. The show, as you would expect, has story producers who are tasked with finding a thread and running with it. Flora was edited down to give the Posh Girl line some credence and quite apart from the fact that she attended Breadalbane Community campus like the rest of the teenagers from Birnam & Dunkeld, had several jobs growing up and returned to Frames each week in between filming, it’s one that kind of stuck throughout the British media.
As did the terrific edit that showed her Mum as some fame hungry show-mother! As anyone with a Scottish Mum will know ‘Don’t bother coming home if you don’t get through!” is the fondest term of endearment which translates exactly as “We are all so proud of you darling.” However, edited into a short interview, with no context it means ‘don’t come home!’.
“It was so frustrating. A journalist from The Times had tracked down Hebe to her Saturday job in the Deli in Dunkeld and phoned her up to ask her opinion on the ‘Four Horses and a Landrover’ comment. She said it’s more like four hens and a skoda. I was so happy and proud of her at that moment. It was a tough time for me – people judge you instantly and think you’re the person who has been edited for telly. That’s one hour a week, about baking, where I would normally pop up and say something stupid. It was very strange!”
After all the hype of Bake Off – people would say to Flora that they liked her but Nadia was their favourite – Flora made a decision to grab hold of the opportunities that were presenting themselves. By the time the show had finished airing she was about to study Maths and Art History as joint honours at St Andrews, which was the only university that would allow such a strange combination. Fully embracing the chance she has been presented with, she has deferred for a year to launch her first cook book – Gatherings.
“Around about episode five or six I started to receive emails from agents and publishers. We met six and I decided to go with Heather mainly because I liked her and she herself is an ex-publisher. She’s hysterical actually – very funny! It was a very bizarre thing to choose and our relationship is actually very intimate. I speak to her most days.
I had a few emails from publishers and Heather and I sat down and brainstormed ideas for the book at which point she went back out to them with our proposal. The offers came in and we made a decision.”
Her book is a mixture of cooking and baking and is focused around eating with friends – hence the title Gatherings. I wonder aloud at how much input Flora had in this.
“It was exactly what I wanted to do. I’m really passionate about food and eating well and I hate the new age of eating clean and juicing anything green. There’s nothing wrong with eating healthy but all of the new, young, cook book authors coming out now are from the Ella stable of low calorie and low fat. I hate that – it’s so irresponsible to be constantly telling young women they should be skinny and drinking juice and have a thigh gap.
I’ve been calling my current weight gain my Book Baby and I’m proud of it! Since Bake Off I’ve done recipes for National Theatre, for Graham’s Dairy – that’s where I was today actually, shooting recipe videos – and I’ve delivered a cake to Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode live on Wittertainment. That was crazy - I tweeted that I was huge fan and then we had a bit of banter and suddenly I’m sitting waiting to chat to them thinking ‘Why am I here. With cake?’”
She is animated and chatty, those wonderful facial expressions punctuating her sentences with a real zest. I love that sort of gung-ho spirit; that act-now-think-later is very in keeping with much of my own happy life and I am particularly fond of it in younger women, enthused by that youthful confidence that keeps those of us in middle age feeling very much alive.
I ask her if she’s always been confident. Is it natural for her to be so ballsy?
“No. Not at all. I don’t think I’m confident, I think I’m just a bit naive! The closest I’ve got to this sort of thing before was dancing in the Birnam Institute Christmas Show in my tutu. I’m actually quite a nervous person, I tend to worry. I’ve been middle aged since I was about 12. The bizarre thing is my mum is very confident but she would never do anything like this. I’ve been asked to do demos and stuff with my mum and she’s a flat no!”
Her video recipes for Graham’s dairy have been as much a result of her old babysitting jobs as they have the Great British Bake Off and she was delighted to be asked in as their new ambassador. They will release Flora YouTube clips every fortnight over summer with ideas for using their locally produced dairy products – we’re back to the real recipes, real taste again. She has been into her wee cousin’s nursery, making truffles with two to four year olds who, she tells me, added the extra ingredient of snot.
I am struck by how straight-forward and unaffected by the hype this young woman is. The snotty toddlers and years of babysitting given as much weight within her story as the ambassador roles and taking cake to Simon Mayo. There is no messing, no secret agenda, no selfie taking, hair brushing or lippie reapplying. She is just about as far removed from the horrors of modern day social media as you can get, and yet she is working and living closer to it than the majority of her peers.
She may claim to be nervous but actually she has that lovely, inner confidence that comes with big belly laughs, plenty of nonsense and the ability to say no to another book designed to keep her friends thin. She is quite literally the girl next door – it’s just that as we speak her poster is staring down at us from the wall!
“OH I KNOW! I am SO nervous. Imagine standing up in front of all the people you know. I only really agreed because Anne Lindsay is interviewing me and she is just amazing. She has so many stories – you should do her, she’d be great – from working in Paris with haute couture to political journalism. She’s my neighbour and I used to do her holiday cottage changeover for her so when she asked me to get involved for the charity I said yes right away.
Well, actually doing it at Birnam Institute will be fun. I’ve spent so much of my life here. Dance lessons, watching films, meeting friends for coffee, doing yoga with Sue. I’ve taken a lot from this place so it’s nice to give something back.
In January when I was writing the book I’d come down and spend hours on their wifi. Ours is rubbish at the farm and they just let me sit all day and never said a word. So, yes, lots of reasons to be involved.”
The book in question is the aforementioned, Gatherings, and it will be released in January 2017. It has been written, the edits are complete and in just a few week’s time they will rent Eastwood House on the River Tay to shoot the photographs with her real friends and family. It is all authentically Flora and the only thing that will be faked is the seasons it describes.
“We plan to light a bonfire and pour mulled wine in order to pretend it’s November. It’s going to be so much fun.”
She has been writing weekly recipes for the Scotsman she drops in, and doing some specials for the Sunday Post. This year is to be a ‘seven wedding cake summer’ and she also has a cake to bake for the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Amongst all of this she feels she really must fit in a blog as she’s been neglecting it for the past three months.
This rollercoaster world Flora Shedden is now part of is one that goes against her carefully laid out nature. She likes a plan does Flora, but she has had to learn to be more impulsive, to roll with the offers and be happy that they will continue to come for the near future.
“Heather keeps me right – I may have said no to more if it had been up to me alone. I do enjoy it but it’s very bizarre. All my friends are at uni and considering what they might be doing for summer and I’m doing invoices and emails. It all seems very grown up.
I don’t really know what will happen next; there is part of me that knows a move to London would make sense but I really don’t want to go and spend all that money renting a flat – it costs loads to live there! I like it here, I like my community - I don’t have to worry about going for a walk in my pyjamas because it’s only the farmer who’ll see me and he’s seen me like that a hundred times before!”
She is laughing, she has survived the madness of being the youngest person on Bake Off 2015. She has written a cook book but still loves mothing more than a cold roast dinner – cold roast potatoes from the fridge the next day are a particular favourite. As is bread, which she bakes all the time. And brownies. And she does love a salad with peas from the pod.
She has grown from girl-next-door to girl-next-door-with-book-deal-and-poster-up-in-local-arts-centre and, in my feminist’s opinion, this is an excellent example of what a young, female role should look like. You would like her. A lot. As much as a trolley full of custard creams and Strawberry Wimbledon Cake.