My artist friend, how could you see all this beauty waiting to be created from flour and sugar? When I ask her, she simply smiles. Is the beauty in the taste and smell? She answered with a Libyan idiom. “The eye eats first. We see the food and smell it, we like the table to be colourful so we decorate it with bread, salad, fruit and sweets.”
Making cakes is an art like any other, but this art is eaten; it has a smell and can be touched; it goes through many steps, from kneading to decoration. As with art, preparation demands special arrangements and special places.
Known for dates and baklava, in Libya cakes and biscuits are a new addition to the cuisine, but people are learning how to make them from cooking channels, the Internet and social media. As soon as some women become talented in the art, they start teaching others.
When a customer asks for a special design or colour, the price goes up. Designs differ according to the occasion, with costs depending on raw materials, tools and special techniques.
In what has become a competitive field, the most popular cake makers now have plenty of followers on social media, and advertising is based on this, as well as competitions. But how is success measured in this field? Is it necessary to run your own pastry shop, or is it enough to satisfy a small number of customers? Are these small businesses profitable?
In today’s Libya, volatile costs and delivery delays are to be expected. In Tripoli, for example, higher costs mean some products cost three times as much as elsewhere – while this doesn’t stop people ordering decorated and flavoured cakes for groups of thirty or more, especially for weddings, most cake makers have to be satisfied with a small number of orders, due to the high cost (and often shortage) of ingredients. Delayed payment is another frustration.
The delight in these cakes is what keeps people going. Take for example this Libyan woman who worked as an architect but had a passion for making cakes. She started from home, and is now one of the most famous cake makers in Tripoli and even Libya. In 2006 she changed her career and founded a small business selling cakes to family and friends. Using simple techniques and ingredients, she worked hard on decorating cakes with cream and marzipan, unavailable in Libya before 2011.
The turning point was when she started learning new techniques from YouTube and using them to make more beautifully designed cakes. After she added a Facebook profile in 2012, her reputation spread and she started to decorate cakes for different occasions and different age groups. Due to the shortage of currency in banks and the high price of raw materials, paying her costs is a big problem; however, she tries hard to keep going, importing what she needs from other countries.
Meringue and More is the name of her Facebook page, as well as one of her techniques. As well as demanding careful accuracy, the ingredients of a meringue might cost 30 Libyan dinar, and when the price of sugar and eggs spikes, as much as 50 dinar – about ten US dollars. Chocolate cakes cost less, but preparation takes six to eight hours, depending on special techniques, as well as time in the fridge, meaning the whole process can take two days.
We asked her about the quality of her ingredients. She likes to get them from Italy, because it has the best pastry shops; sometimes she buys from Egypt or Turkey instead, which is cheaper. The cakes, of course, get more expensive as the cost of ingredients rises. Some big shops use cheap raw materials, but small entrepreneurs like her aim for quality, and have a passion for unique designs – for the kind of customer who eats with the eye first.