BY OLIVIA CAMERON- The year 2020 was something to look forward to, whether that was because it meant a sudden twist into an unknown future or the long-awaited invention of the hoverboard. Instead, we’ve spent the year reluctant to dine out, piecing puzzles together on Saturday nights and reminiscing about the past. Yet, local resident Suzanne Birch has found that nostalgia and a little sugar can spark a celebration when under quarantine.
Birch, CEO of Campbell Birch International USA and UK, acquired the hobby of creating sugar flower arrangements on cakes in Winkfield Place, Berkshire, England, where she attended finishing school and learned the art in the Constance Spry School of Cordon Bleu Cookery and Flower Arranging.
“Many years ago in England, wealthy people would send their daughters off to finishing school, where they would teach a girl how to manage the home and host cocktail parties. They educated them on what their life would be like if they married a diplomat,” said Birch. “Since I was newly married to an army officer, I started to work in the business industry while I attended summer courses held at the school. Since I was the only one who showed up to a Christmas cake-making class, the tutor asked me what I would like to do, and she would give me eight weeks of personal coaching. She showed me her work creating sugar craft flowers for wedding cakes. And so, my career in sugar craft began, and my six years of summer training under her personal guidance developed.” From there, Birch was invested in the skill. “I was never going to be a professional, but I learned from the best.”
From then on, Birch began to make wedding cakes here and there for relatives and close friends. For years, she would go on to make just a few cakes upon request as her hobby. Lately, her art has brought on a new meaning for celebrations that can’t be had.
“In these awful times when we can’t host large parties, this is something that can make an anniversary very special, either celebrating alone or with just a very few friends,” said Birch. “During this lockdown, wives have asked for cakes for their husbands’ birthdays, even topped with yellow flowers. I have had such a lovely response to my cakes since we’ve all had to minimize celebration dinner parties and dining out since March. It’s lovely to have a wedding bouquet back on an anniversary cake, and that it’s a lasting souvenir, and it’s a great focal point on Facebook pages!”
Birch has relished the enthusiasm she receives from a job well done. “It’s also been a delightful surprise to find that our male friends enjoy the sugar flowers. This isn’t just a lady’s thing,” she said.
Birch relocated from Connecticut to Florida just last year but has always allotted time to her hobby. To assemble her sugar flower creations, she puts weeks of effort into her projects.
When creating a sugar flower, Birch starts with a stem, a piece of wire that will serve as the foundation. She draws up a bowl of icing and uses egg whites to act as the glue. Birch makes the stamen and prepares to make the petals.
The petals are formed with petal paste and a dash of patience. She’ll roll a piece with a miniature rolling pin until it is thin but supple. Birch then curves it in the palm of her hand and curls or nicks the edges for a natural touch. Each petal has to dry in a certain shape before being carefully built onto the stamen to form the bud. The layers dry overnight before being dusted with color. The stem is then wrapped in a sticky crepe paper and the leaves are glossed.
“All blooms remain life-size. People get to have their wedding bouquets back, which they can save for years, in a dry box with tissue paper or a glass case.”
The process may take days at a time even before the sugar flowers are laid on a brandy-infused fruit cake, but the outcome is astonishing. Altogether, the process may take her between 60 and 80 hours.
“The difference between a professional and an amateur is not the quality of the finished product, but that the professional is in the craft to make a living and therefore processes the work swiftly, professionally and delivers on a tight schedule,” said Birch.
She knows that a few cakes will brighten up the celebrations of her loved ones through the end of the year.
“The joy these cakes have brought during this lockdown has been even greater than I expected, which makes it worth every minute spent,” she said.