I have a new friend living in my house. Herman is undemanding company and an inexpensive guest. His appetite is small: I have to feed him only once every few days, and in between times he sits quietly in a corner, minding his own business, underneath a tea-towel. Then in about a week he will reward my hospitality by letting me eat him.
No, I haven’t turned cannibal. It’s just that Herman is actually the starting point for a cake. Like the old-fashioned ginger beer plant, he is a yeast-based mixture that you top up occasionally with nutrients (sugar, milk, flour) to keep the ferment going. Meanwhile the mixture quietly bubbles and thickens, an innocuous quicksand. Little by little, it grows to the point where you have little no option, unless you are exceptionally greedy, but to subdivide it and pass a few portions on to friends, not forgetting to include a sheet of instructions as to how to care for him. The instructions I received included a request to talk to Herman. What’s the best subject for a discussion with a cake mix? For once, the price of eggs does not seem a clichéd topic of conversation.
My own personal Herman was given to me by a kind colleague a few days ago, and next week I will be passing his offspring on to my friends and family. Giving Herman his evening stir-up tonight, I wondered about his pedigree. How far has he travelled since the very first Herman mixture was produced? Are there grains of flour within his depths that come from the other end of the country or is he a true Gloucestershire lad? Has he metamorphosed like Doctor Who, leaving only a homeopathic trace of the first ingredients within his murky depths? Or is he a thoroughbred, original genes still largely intact? Looking to his future, where might my Herman’s descendants end up? With a bit of forethought and planning, we could engineer a Herman for every home in the country, infiltrating the homes of the rich and famous, even putting a Herman on the Queen’s breakfast table. If you’d like your own personal Herman, well, you know where to come.