In this interview from a past issue of Women Together, Great British Bake Off stalwart Norman Calder shares his memories of the SWI from his childhood and reveals how the lessons he learned from its members have stood the test of time...
The wonderful world of homemade food makes up a big part of Norman Calder’s fondest childhood memories. With his mother a stalwart of the SWRI in his native Banffshire, Norman enjoyed nothing more than sampling the glorious treats his mother produced for ladies gatherings, arousing a curiosity to experiment for himself.
Norman, a retired merchant navy radio officer from Portknockie on the Moray coast, appeared in series five of TV’s Great British Bake Off in 2014 and his down-to-earth nature made him a firm viewers’ favourite. But his earliest foray into the world of baking world came courtesy of an old SWRI cook book.
Norman said: “The SWRI or ‘The Rural’ was a part of my life from my earliest years. My Mam was secretary of the Seafield (Portknockie) branch of the SWRI for most of her life. She was an expert cook and baker, everything was home-made, including our clothes.
“We had a fairly large house and most of the Rural committee meetings and rehearsals for plays took place in our large lounge. Myself and my wee brother Robert always looked forward to these gatherings as our Mam would bake some cakes and make sandwiches for the group and we'd get to devour the leftovers.
“The only cookery book in our kitchen was the 1953 edition of the SWRI cookery book (brown cover and no pictures) and it was our introduction to the baking world. At least I think it was the 1953 edition but that may be a few years out. Myself and my wee brother started off with the recipe for tablet, when Mam was out, and worked our way through biscuits, scones and especially pancakes which we'd scoff with lots of syrup. Looking back I think we were a bit of a handful.
“The Rural Christmas Party was always the best one and we always got a good Santa Prize - Mam used to buy them! I was very proud to have been invited to talk to the Seafield branch of the SWI, I have tried to imagine my Mam's reaction if she'd known I'd spoken to the Rural!”
Asked to share some baking tips and recipes with readers, Norman modestly suggested that it would be more appropriate for SWI members to supply him with sound advice and winning recipes. He’s sure that everyone could learn something from the skills, knowledge and expertise found within the organisation.
“I have only the one talent and it's certainly not baking, there must be a thousand bakers within the SWI who could have baked better than yours truly. My talent lay in managing to convince or ‘con’ Love Productions into thinking that I was the right one for the job.
“The only baking advice I give is regarding measurements. Measure everything exactly. Throw away your analogue scales and invest in a good quality digital scale, these can measure down to fractions of a gram and can go a long way toward helping one achieve consistent results.
“We could all learn a lot these days from the principles and activities of the SWI. I have spoken to a few SWI groups and feel that most of them are more knowledgeable on the baking front than myself. However most of them are too modest to suggest the same. Unfortunately too many people these days have been brought up on what I call ding-ding’ food – reheating meals in microwaves.
“The only criticism I have regarding the SWI, at least the groups I have spoken to, is the absence of "young blood". Something needs to be done to get the next generation involved.”
After slowing down and easing into retirement, competing in Great British Bake Off gave Norman a whole new lease of life and was an experience that threw up many new and challenges, as well as helping him overcome nerves of speaking in public.
He explained: “The GBBO helped me discard my retirement suit and enter a younger, busier environment and meet lots of people again. The first day in the 'tent' started at 6.20am and had us returning to the hotel at 9pm, quite a shock for everyone but that's showbiz.
“The most enjoyable part was getting to know a whole bunch of fresh faces – I met people who had never heard any of my jokes before, and this was coupled with an intense feeling of rejuvenation. The only drawback was that once it all finished, I missed the experience and the new chums I’d made. On the positive side, all 12 of us from Series Five of the GBBO still keep in regular contact.
“Since appearing on the GBBO I have been invited to talk to many different groups and organisations. This has been very enjoyable and has increased my self-confidence a thousand-fold. I would never have had the courage to talk to large groups before as I am basically a very shy person, but have overcome my shyness now and look forward to giving talks. So far I have addressed groups of from 12 to 500+ but can never work to a script, so each time is different and off the cuff.
“I started to work again and did seasonal work at Dallas Dhu Historic Distillery. Iris, my better half, won’t let me work any more than two days a week. I underwent a triple cardiac bypass ten years ago but so far it hasn't hampered me at all. I have made it to the three score years and ten mark, so I'm very happy with that.”
Norman remains an avid fan of the Bake Off but misses the familiar faces of Mel, Sue and Mary since the series moved to Channel 4.
“I sincerely hope that GBBO continues to be a success. It has been instrumental in helping to get the nation baking again. I have only one reservation about the latest episodes - they are getting too good. I feel that one needs to watch the programme feeling that you could at least do as well as the contestants, if not exceed their skills.”
Aside from his part-time job and appearances, Norman has published a short book available on Kindle and is still baking his own bread and his favourite bake – pies now and again.
Has been able to get back to his hobby of slab pottery over the winter, and has his own kiln in his shed, where he also makes his own beer and practices a musical instrument.
“Every man should have a shed - I keep my clarinet there but just for my own amusement. Any spare time I have is usually spent on long walks with my best friend, Lucy our Miniature Schnauzer.”