Cast your mind back to Edinburgh this time last year. It’s 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Freshers’ week was effectively cancelled, and you are now spending endless days stuck inside your flat enjoying mouldy fruits (if they were ever ripe to begin with) of online learning. 10am and listening to that week’s lecturer monotonously recite a lecture transcript about some sub- sub-topic or other? Thank you, next.
In such strange and depressing times, we clung to any and every kind of pre- pandemic normalcy thrown our way. The long-awaited return of The Great British Bake Off was no exception. Would we get to see the famous ‘Hollywood Handshake’, or an infamous soggy bottom? A stray smile or two from Mr Hollywood, perhaps? At week two, it is usually too soon for the former.
Not, however, for the lattermost, as Edinburgh’s own Peter Sawkins can attest to. Named star baker in week one, his own showstopper a year ago was such a success, Prue’s ‘delicious’ remark was almost smothered by its biscuity goodness.
Back in August, Peter agreed to have a conversation with me about all things baking, from when his love of it first began, to how he feels one year after winning Bake-Off. Within a few minutes of talking, it became clear that Peter, having begun baking with his mum when he was a small child before taking it up as an actual hobby at age twelve, was a well-established biscuit veteran by the time he came up against Prue and Paul.
“I started baking more intricate things when I was thirteen at Christmas time. I had a day in the house, I think my parents were out at work, but we had just broken up from school. And I made a gingerbread house. I remember my mum coming back and going, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty cool thing that he’s made from scratch, he really is into this whole baking malarkey’.”
Flash forward to seven years later, and Peter’s “baking malarkey” has catapulted him to national stardom. Yes, the last eighteen months have seen considerable upheaval to every person’s life. After his stunning Bake-Off victory, with a book due to be released on October 7th and his popularity spanning the country, no one feels this more than Peter.
“It is a very bizarre thing,” he laughs. “Until Christmastime, it would happen a lot that people would recognise me. My flatmates found it hilarious when we would be walking through the street and people would point from across the road!”
Thankfully, the hysteria from the ten million-watched final has died down somewhat, enough for Peter to concentrate on his next step: releasing his debut book, Peter Bakes. Far from being a planned project, the rapidity with which Peter Bakes came together has surprised even the author himself.
“After Bake-Off, I considered the prospect of writing a book, but my timeline was definitely a few years down the line. I think I even said [in] a Sunday Times article [that I wasn’t] going to be writing a book anytime soon. And then, about a month later, I had this book deal!”
However, despite the prestige of being a Bake-Off winner, Peter is reluctant to be seen as an absolute authority on baking. For him, it was important that Peter Bakes be more about sharing what he has personally learnt and loved about baking, rather than a finite guide on the ‘right’ way to bake.
“I was concerned about writing from a point of authority when I was an amateur baker. But I was able to frame how I was writing this book, so that what I’m doing is just sharing what I love to bake and how I love to bake.”
More than anything, Peter emphasises, it was important for his book to be accessible; whether you are a kid just starting to practice “simple bakes” or an “intense hobbyist”, as he calls himself.
Notably, the majority of Peter’s recipes for his book were finalised during the third or fourth (or one hundred and thirty fourth? I’ve lost count at this point) lockdown, so he had to get creative with how he got rid of any excess baked goods. Enter an entire community of Edinburgh students more than willing to volunteer as unwitting test subjects, through the form of baking box giveaways via Peter’s Instagram!
“At the time, I wasn’t really allowed to say that they were from the book. Hopefully they did enjoy them – they seemed to go down quite well!” Rest assured, Peter, they went down a treat (pun absolutely intended) and we’ll be even happier if you can promise we get to taste-test the sequel as well.
Having spent the majority of the interview discussing book deals (and feeding the Edinburgh University population at large) it is easy to forget that Peter is still a student- just a year older than myself- in his final year of studying Accounting and Finance. This, he says, has been a “really nice anchor” in the midst of his new celebrity status.
Although of course, like all students, Covid-19 has been a considerable blow to his univeristy experience.
“I absolutely love my degree. This year, I haven’t enjoyed it as much because I love in-person lectures and in-person tutorials, where you’re having discussions and you can ask questions, and you sort of feed off the energy of other people in the room. But there was never a question of me thinking about dropping out [of university] after Bake-Off.”
Having had much of his everyday in-person exchanges curtailed due to the pandemic (as have we all), it’s perhaps not surprising that he views being recognised by fellow students as positive interactions rather than unwelcome intrusions. He admits to enjoying the usual smile and hello that comes along with being recongised around campus, asserting that it is rarely a daunting experience. Indeed, with restrictions being considerably more relaxed compared to what they were last year, for freshers just arriving in Edinburgh, Peter strongly recommends positive social interaction through joining a society as the key to enjoying your university experience.
“I don’t think I know of a club that doesn’t have a really nice social scene around it! I think it is a really easy and natural way to make friends and just make the first year of university a lot happier.”
For Peter, who believes that a positive mentality can have the best effect on his baking, having his last year as ‘Pete the Edinburgh student’ be as happy as possible is surely the ultimate goal.