She’s the schoolgirl who wowed the nation juggling exams with egg whites on The Great British Bake Off – and now she’s joining the Waitrose Weekend team. Martha Collison will be serving up her own stunning recipes for Waitrose, as well as sharing top tips from the kitchen and offering an insight into her life outside that famous tent. We caught up with her, and here's what she had to say:
You’re a former Waitrose partner…
I am yes. I’m very loyal to my Sunningdale branch! I used to work on a Saturday afternoon and a Wednesday evening, normally on the cheese counter – cheese and ham. I used to love it. I used to try all the different cheeses. I had a great time. They gave me a lot of time off during Bake Off, which was really nice of them, and then I went back briefly afterwards. But it was very different going back to a customer-facing role when everyone knows who you are. It was a bit more challenging. They moved me to the patisserie counter and every single customer who recognised me, without fail, would say ‘Did you make these cakes?’ Then I got busy with other things, and it was time to leave. But I’m still there every other day buying my ingredients, so they don’t miss me!
Let’s talk Bake Off. Were you nervous meeting the other contestants, being so much younger than the rest of them?
I was really nervous at the start because we didn’t find out who else was going to be on it until the night before filming the first episode. I met them all in the hotel lobby, and I looked around at all these people who were over 30, and I just didn’t know what I was going to talk to them about. I was nervous that they were all looking at me like I was some child. Nancy asked me straight out if I was 10, and then when anyone else came up to us, she’d say, ‘This is Martha, and she’s about 10.’ Because the gap was so big, I was a bit daunted about baking with people who’d been baking for years and years. But after a couple of weeks into it, I’d done some good bakes, I’d proved myself worthy to be there, and then I just relaxed and loved every minute of it.
You now call them your ‘baking family’…
Yes. Because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone we were doing the Bake Off while we were filming it, they were the only people I could talk to about it. And we became so close, because there are only 12 people in the world who shared that experience. It’s so intense, because you spend the whole weekend and the night before together, 16-hour days. You get really close, because they’re the only people you can trust. We still meet up. We had a lovely Christmas do in Covent Garden. Whenever we get together now, we’ve all done so many things that catching up is so much fun. Everyone wanted to buy me a drink, because every night we’d come back from the Bake Off and a lot of them would have a glass of wine or a beer to relax after a very stressful day, and I couldn’t have one because I was too young. So as soon as I turned 18 they were like, ‘Right, we’re all going to buy you a cocktail!’
Is it true you fainted at one point?
I felt really dizzy during week six. In the tent, you get really hot. And it was
the 20-layer cake challenge, so you had to make loads of layers, and the ovens are opening all the time. And I have really low blood pressure, so I just started to feel really dizzy and like I was going to faint, so they took me outside the tent and made me lie down for a bit. I was out of the tent for about 40 minutes, but they didn’t include it in the programme at all.
What was your take on #bingate?
I think people just forget that it’s an edited programme. That day was so chaotic, people were just running around, and they didn’t have that much footage, so I think they just had to use what they had, and it made Diana look really horrible. But she didn’t mean to, it was 30 seconds [out of the freezer]. Everyone’s ice cream had been out for ages because there was no space in any freezers, and they all looked quite atrocious by the end of it. It was a really sad day, actually. None of us enjoyed that one very much. And it was sad that it upset Diana – people were horrible online about her. It’s just ice cream!
We saw you getting a bit tearful in one show. Is it genuinely an emotional experience?
When you’re there on the location, it’s the only thing in the world that matters. They take away your phone and no one else knows where you are and you’re with these people in this tent, and it does feel like it’s the only thing in your world at that moment. And when everyone else does really well and you don’t do so well, something happens and… I never thought I’d be one of those people who cries. I thought, I’ll be really strong and I just won’t do it. But you just can’t help it – you’re just overcome with emotion because you’re so tired and you’ve worked so hard for that one thing. It’s a bit embarrassing, but you do cry. I think pretty much everyone cried at some point.
But you were very composed when you were actually voted off…
When I got voted off I was fine, because I was so amazed to have got to the quarter-final. I felt so lucky to have got that far – I thought I’d go out in week three or four. When I looked at the dates they sent us and two of them were over school days, I said to school, ‘I’ll be back for those, because it’s episode seven.’ And then I had to email them and say I actually wasn’t going to be able to come to school, because I was still in the show.
Your public response was generally positive, wasn’t it?
Yes, I was really lucky. Obviously you get some people who don’t like you, and sometimes you can’t help reading it because it just flashes up. But I didn’t seek it out – I didn’t read comments on news articles and stuff. Some stuff you’d see and wish you hadn’t read. But a lot of mine was really positive, and whenever I went out people would stop me and tell me I’d done really well. There aren’t many nicer things than people just stopping you and complimenting you in the street.
Was Bake Off a life-changing experience?
It has completely turned my life upside-down. I do things every day that 18-year-olds don’t do, and it’s just so exciting.
Your school has let you go part-time [Martha is taking her A-Levels over three years] and you’re doing a lot of work with the Tearfund charity, including a trip to Cambodia this month. Tell us about that.
I’m going to Cambodia to investigate child trafficking. And it’s linked to baking because they’ve got a safe house on the border between Cambodia and Thailand where they teach the girls that have been rescued different skills, so they can get employment and don’t have to go back to that kind of lifestyle. Baking is one of the things they’re teaching them, so I’m going to go help out with that.
And you’re going to be baking with the Archbishop of Canterbury. How did that come about?
All these emails, they come in and it just makes me laugh every time. An innocent email comes in and says, ‘Would you like to come to Birmingham and bake with the Archbishop of Canterbury in front of 500 people?’. I go to church, so I think it’s a link with my faith. And just a bit of fun – he wants to learn some skills! I’m teaching him to make a dessert that they can use in
the homeless shelters of Birmingham.
Do you cook as well as bake?
I do. I cook dinner for my family. We all like cooking, so we take it in turns. I started off doing cooking – I learned to cook at school and I entered some school competitions, and I just loved it. But I decided I preferred baking because it’s a bit more magical: I love how you can put something in the oven and it comes out looking completely different. And everyone loves baking – you can’t really take a roast chicken to someone else’s house, but you can take a Victoria sandwich.
Of all your baking triumphs, what would be your signature dish?
I love to just bake different things. I get quite bored if I have to bake the same things over and over again. But I always go to a good chocolate cake recipe, or nice hot cinnamon buns for breakfast – that’s my family’s favourite.
Who baked your 18th birthday cake?
It was just after my appearance on Extra Slice, so I used the cake they gave me. They gave me a cake as a leaving present, and I reused it on my 18th birthday – otherwise I would have been baking my own birthday cake, and that would have been quite sad!
How would you sum up the last 12 months?
I can’t even describe my last 12 months. It’s just been so unexpected, and so exciting. Every day I just wake up and I think, I can’t believe this is my life now! It’s everything I would have dreamed might happen when I’d been to university, established a career and worked my way up to this point. To be given all this at this age… I don’t know what my future holds, but I’m so lucky.