LONDON — On a humid late spring evening, women from across north London descended upon a Victorian pub in the eclectic neighborhood of Camden for a secret meeting. Each slipped inside cradling a package under one arm. They weren’t there for a pint, though. They’d come for cake and to share the keys to its creation.
Long home to edgy worlds of music and art, urban Britain can now claim one more underground scene: baking. The Clandestine Cake Club, a hush-hush society for baking enthusiasts, has become wildly popular here. Since its inaugural meeting in 2010, the CCC has grown from one chapter to more than 185 across the British Isles and beyond, from Abergavenny to Wythenshawe and York.
Members have congregated in castles and canal barges to share their passion for cakes (no cupcakes or pies allowed), with one firm rule: The location is top-secret until shortly before the event — an attempt to add a little spice to the sometimes pedestrian occupation of home baking.
The success of the CCC, and other British cooking clubs like it, reflects the increasing appetite for the culinary arts here. In the past year alone, 9 million more Britons have started baking, according to research by Mintel.
This British baking renaissance is being fueled, in part, by the recession. Renewed interest caused the industry to grow by 59 percent between 2007 and 2012 to reach $2.57 billion, Mintel reported. Home baking was one of the few sectors to experience growth during the financial crisis — in products from cake decorations to sugar. Even though consumers are spending less on groceries, the Office for National Statistics reported that British household spending on flour has steadily increased since 2008, jumping by 24 percent since 2010.
“Pressures on consumers’ real incomes combined with rising food inflation have encouraged more adults to go back to basics and bake from scratch as a means of economizing,” says Emma Clifford, senior food analyst at Mintel.
At the same time, Clifford says, popular cooking shows have raised the profile of home baking.
“I love baking and obsessively watch gluttonous shows on telly,” Clare Ellis, 36, a publicist and newcomer to Camden’s cake club, said.
“It’s nice to meet people under the pretext of a common interest. I’m here with a bunch of strangers eating cake . . . and it’s lovely.”
Ellis, a young mother with a blond pixie cut and colorful tattoos, found herself at the CCC meeting after reading about the club online. Arriving late to the Grafton pub, she found the rest of Camden’s CCC members crowded around a wooden table covered in lime-flavored angel food, flourless chocolate torte, piña colada sponge and pineapple upside-down cake. She placed her Elvis-inspired “Blue Hawaii” creation — a tropical chocolate pineapple cake with Italian meringue frosting — among the other confectionery. With that, the first slice was cut, and the event began.
Lynn Hill, the founder of the CCC, is not what one might expect as the creator of a trendy, alternative cake club. At age 62, Hill says, she has finally found her calling.
“The idea for the Clandestine Cake Club stemmed from the secret afternoon teas I was holding in my home in Leeds as part of the underground supper-club movement. I loved the idea of people being together, sitting around a table, enjoying a conversation with a common link of food,” Hill said. “I remember saying to myself if I get about half a dozen cake clubs in the U.K., then I’ll be happy.”
The success of Hill’s cake club, which now has 9,000 members in countries as far afield as New Zealand, India and the United States, has been beyond her wildest imaginations (Hill even published “The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook” in February). But it closely matches the baking frenzy that has been escalating since 2010 when “The Great British Bake Off,” an amateur baking competition, premiered on British television.
“This is totally new to me, and I’ve been in the business a long time,” “Bake Off” judge Mary Berry said. “It’s lovely to see other people getting as much pleasure from baking as I do.”
Although Berry, known lovingly as the Queen of the Victoria Sponge, attributes most of the excitement to her program’s success, she concedes that it also has a lot to do with Britain becoming more of a stay-at-home nation.
“The recession has meant that there are many more people at home. If someone is out of work, baking is a wonderful way of filling their time, and it’s something that can be shared by all of the family.”
Some Brits are turning the popular pastime into a full-time career, transforming their kitchens into baking businesses.
When 31-year-old Chris Holmes, a.k.a. Mr. Cake, of Cambridge, decided to quit his job as an airport immigration officer and start a cake company, he penned his letter of resignation in icing. In a sign of the times — and the universal appreciation for poetic justice — a photo of Holmes’s resignation cake swiftly went viral.
For Holmes, who is also a CCC member, baking is a much-needed escape.
“It’s a refreshing break from technology to get into the kitchen,” Holmes says. “Baking puts people back in touch with real ingredients and physical processes, giving them a tangible end product that makes a direct appeal to their senses of taste, touch, smell and sight.”
This relationship between smell and baking was the subject of Alan Hirsch’s olfactory-evoked nostalgia study. Hirsch, neurologist and founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, found that baking was among the smells most likely to induce positive feelings.
“We found that the number-one odor that made people nostalgic for their childhood was baked goods,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch said he attributes the resurgence of baking to our desire to alleviate anxiety.
“People want to feel stability during times of economic unrest. You could say it’s really the ultimate comfort food, by inducing people to feel safe and secure,” he said.