In my youth, cupcakes were stodgy sponge roundels topped with a thick sugar disc. They were usually flavoured as 'lemon' or 'chocolate' or whatever, but this seemed based more on colour than taste. As a special treat some had sugar paper transfers of Magic Roundabout characters (or something similar) on top. We'd buy them in mass-produced packs, never from the local bakery. At home we made fairy cakes with a thin squirt of icing, plus perhaps hundreds and thousands or small silver balls as decoration. But we never had the artisan sponge creations known as cupcakes today, baked by budding Nigellas in bespoke ovens, finished off with ostentatious swirls of piped sugar.
Cupcakes have acquired a mystical value, at least in certain circles, as a much desired luxury commodity. Heaven knows why, they're only sponge cake and icing, but people seem willing to fork out vastly more than the cost of the ingredients for a few bites of surreptitious sweetness. Once or twice, every now and then, lovely. But it's hard to understand how an entire industry has grown up to flog posh confectionery to consenting adults with money to burn.
Leaping onto this bandwagon are London Cupcake Tours, a private outfit with a mission to show you London's finest sugar trifles. Nobody's thought to offer this before - a cupcake guide for those who don't know where to start, or a unique treat for those who do. Five bakeries have signed up for the tour, ranging from Primrose Hill to Covent Garden, which sounds like a pleasant trip across the capital in itself. You get to sample the wares in each, perhaps compare and contrast, and all for just £34.50.
Hang on, £34.50, that's quite a lot of cash. Let's see what LCT provide you with for that money. Five cupcake vouchers to exchange, one in every location. Some branded cardboard boxes to keep your cupcake purchases in, although they might rattle around a bit unless well wrapped. A cupcake guide, which looks like a folded piece of A4 card, although it's hard to be certain from the photo. An Oyster card holder with the pink logo of London Cupcake Tours stamped on it. A pink case, and a tote bag to slip it into. And that's your lot. The tour itself had better be good.
Except, oh, this isn't a proper tour. The organisers aren't going to turn up and lead you across London telling tales of baking success as they go. All they've done is provide a list of five bakeries and instructions on how to get there, in your own time, maybe not even on the same day. These are self-guided tours, with your travel costs extra, which isn't at all what's suggested by the company's name.
And when you do arrive at the shop counter, your prize at each location is a single cupcake. You won't even end up with a half dozen by the end of it, you'll be one short. The average London cupcake costs £2.50, my research suggests, which means the shop value of your tour collection is only £12.50. While you're tramping the streets dangling your new pink bag, the organisers are sitting at home counting their profit.
OK, it's a business, and we all need to make a living in these turbulent and austere times. And wandering round the capital sampling the occasional midget sponge might indeed be your idea of a good time. But London Cupcake Tours appears to be exceptionally poor value for money - just a few bits of paper and some vouchers in a bag, and barely a tour at all. If you genuinely wanted to spend £34.50 on cupcakes it wouldn't be difficult to Google the name of some bakeries and go buy lots more than five. Indeed, if you're mug enough to send me £20 I'll email you the address of a Lola's, a Bea's or a Hummingbird, and you'll still have enough left over for more vanilla swirls than LCT are offering. And if you find any flat yellow cupcakes with Ermintrude, Zebedee or Dougal stamped on top, do please let me know.