Food: Chocolate slug? Skull? Severed finger? Read on. . .
Making a Hallowe’en cake for Mick Jagger’s daughter - in the shape of a bloodied human torso, complete with protruding bones - led Sarah Hardy to sculpt with chocolate. And so Saffron Walden’s The Edible Museum was born. . .
I never set out to make chocolates and have zero professional training. I am essentially a frustrated archaeologist/paleontologist/anatomist/entomologist who kept accidentally becoming an artist over and over again. I don’t have a depth of knowledge in any of those fields, just a scatty, roving curiosity. My chocolate work can play with all those subjects and I use my lifetime of sculpting to create without having any rules imposed by having been taught at a pastry school. Though I would love to go now. . .
I started repairing furniture and leather goods, went to art college, moved on to making props and waxwork figures for museums across Europe with a great artist in Switzerland, then did film sets. Once I had to give up my studio to accommodate having babies, I landed on sculpting with food, specifically cake, as the kitchen is where a mother of little kids spends a lot of time anyway. I get bored easily so every one of these different jobs got pushed to the limits of what I could do.
I have tried making the journey sound neat, but life just isn’t, is it? You start three things at once, think one has died off, but find it rears its head again later when you're doing something else - at least, that’s what I find.
Eventually, while working on a cake commission for Mick Jagger, I needed to make bones to pop out of a gory human torso cake. His daughter was having a full-on birthday/Hallowe’en party in Shoreditch and the cake was partly a human actor. As you cut open the cake with a knife, her eyes opened and she screamed.
I had already been working with chocolate a bit, but this job was where I worked out that all my history as a sculptor in different media led perfectly into making with chocolate. It is a great medium for someone who has so much experience working in wax and plaster, as in many ways it behaves similarly. If only I knew ANYTHING about the alchemy of tempering the damn stuff.
The main thing that really led to me launching my own chocolate collection, though, was moving from London to rural Essex. I lost all my affluent London PR clients in the world of food-art stunts, so came up with a way of being my own demonic, obsessive self from my back garden using the post office next door – e-commerce was the only logical answer.
It was so freeing to be able to make what I wanted and spend so much time on researching my own passions, like anatomy or palaeontology, and turning them into chocolate. Once I had hit on the concept of me being the curator of a museum where everything was made of chocolate - I pictured David Attenborough and Willy Wonka shacking up together - then it all seemed terribly logical and sensible.
I got my first wholesale order way before I had the space to make that much product – I was still working from my kitchen table and it was utterly ridiculous to make that much product in my kitchen.
Getting my studio built and the successful crowdfunding campaign to raise the money for that came within a few months of deciding ‘This is what I am going to do’; it made it all feel very real and legit and not just an idea.
Visiting Fortnum & Mason to see my toads, then zipping over to the Science Museum to launch my hearts and brains, being filmed by Channel 4 and 5? In the same week? That was a high!
Oh, and the night when I had to turn my phone off because I still had sales notifcations on and some post somewhere had gone viral and sales were through the roof – that was very much a high. I sold the same amount as the year before in the space of 24 hours.
Most of these highs were also terrifying, like going over rapids while trying to buckle up your helmet.
The job for the Diablo IV game launch was a super-high. I almost shrugged the job off when I was first asked because I didn’t believe it would actually happen, it was too perfect. Who ever gets asked to make eviscerated goblins, daemon heads, goblin weaponry, skulls in chocolate and have fun like that?
On the opening day, most of my chocolate sculptures had been delivered the day before and a whole team of set designers, prop makers, sign writers, actors - even wolves - were there. I walked in and my jaw dropped – it was essentially a solo show! I had not even thought about how amazing the work would look in such a perfect environment. We had been working until 2am for a week, so I was a little emotional by then.
The hearts are my bestsellers; always the hearts. Ironic really, as when I first thought of making them I described what I had in mind to various people to gauge how they would go down. They all said ‘Yuk, that’s gross’ and ‘You probably won’t sell many’. I was making the fossils at the time so it was a bit of a leap but it paid off. I guess I asked the wrong people!
And the slugs too: people hate them and love them so that makes them very on-brand. For Hallowe’en this year I am also launching a new product – the chocolate human skull as featured in the Diablo show. It's going to be a new favourite, I think.
The real reward of running The Edible Museum is being able to harmonise a disparate bunch of needs in one place. As a single parent, being able to work at home, in my choice of hours, often odd hours, and actually be here for the children is a massive reward for all of us.
On a personal level, I get to meet and work with antique collectors, entomologists, geeks and nerds in wonderful fields, which keeps my brain alive. I get challenged ALL the time and that’s rewarding too.
Oh, I miss having kids of the age that want you to go trick or treating with them and don’t think it's weird that you leap out screaming at their friends when they come over. Any adults in the Essex/Suffolk area who want to host a full-on Hallowe’en party with me, please get in touch as my mates all think Hallowe’en is for kids. . .
See and shop the collection at ediblemuseum.com and follow @theediblemuseum for updates.
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More by this authorAlice Ryan