I’ve only seen the sort of creations that are made at Bloom Café in impossibly expensive glossy magazines and the Hollywood version of the Willy Wonka story. I had imagined that such things of sugary beauty did not exist in real life.
Multicoloured rows of dainty cupcakes are lined up in Bloom’s brightly lit cabinets and closer inspection reveals their intricate designs. A beautifully painted frangipani flower balances atop a swirl of yellow icing, a delicate orchid stands out on its chocolate platform and a tiny blue bird perches on a pillow of cream.
The cards that describe each of these confections suggest that they taste as good as they look; chocolate sacher torte with hazelnut ganache, lemon cake with strawberry cream cheese and passionfruit friand with raspberry cream.
In the name of research I was obliged to perform a taste test in order to confirm the deliciousness of the cakes and am happy to report that they are indeed sublime.
Ruth Larwill and her husband, Murray, established Bloom two years ago and so far have trained 37 young, vulnerable Cambodian women in the art of baking and cake decoration.
In those two short years, their social enterprise has gone from a tiny start up, to the city’s premier supplier of fine cakes, even producing creations for members of the royal family and Cambodian pop superstars.
“Bloom’s queens of confectionary” may be clever with cupcakes, but they’re not afraid of greater challenges too – both in terms of size and extravagance.
The women recently put the finishing touches to a lavish wedding cake dripping with Swarovski crystals, and back in 2010, they created Cambodia’s biggest wedding cake for the International Food Fair in Phnom Penh (at a towering 2.2 metres, they did an impressive job).
Creating such wonders is no easy task in Phnom Penh’s hot and humid climate. Ruth explains that when they first started out, they had to invent their own icing recipes to make sure their sugar flowers didn’t droop in the hot weather.
Unlike lots of cakes that are available in the city, Bloom doesn’t use any artificial preservatives and everything is homemade.
The women who are taught at Bloom’s training centre are rigorously schooled in all aspects of baking and decorating, and they follow a strict programme that must be completed before graduation.
However they’re also encouraged to be as imaginative and creative as possible and at ‘Monday Madness’ sessions, they brainstorm all their best ideas for new recipes and designs.
They’re designing more and more and also thinking critically about what will sell well to customers in the café.
The women who painstakingly recreate in icing the finest details of an exquisite flower are undoubtedly artists and Ruth believes that as their confidence grows, their ideas and ambitions do too.
Ruth also suggests that the skills on display at Bloom reflect the recent progress of the creative arts in Cambodia as a whole, after years during which the Khmer Rouge destroyed such decadence.
“I feel we’re at the tip of an exciting era when people are beginning to express themselves more through art,” she says.
It’s certainly the case that Bloom is producing the sort of inventive and intricate cupcakes that are not available elsewhere in the region and on the day that I visit, a cupcake maker from the US is visiting to see how things are done in Phnom Penh.
Bloom doesn’t serve ‘real food’, it focuses on cupcake excellence, but that shouldn’t prevent anyone from popping in at any time of day. Who says you can’t have cupcakes for lunch?
Plus, Ruth says that she’s using sugar for good, and who wouldn’t want to support that?
To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org