Sandro Farmhouse: I never met my father – baking was my therapy after his death

As a child, I was obsessed with baking.

In fact, I used to lick the chocolate batter off the spoon while I was in the kitchen making cakes with my mum.

Who knew that Angolan-born kid would become runner-up on The Great British Bake Off 2022? My mother probably didn’t, after our humble beginnings.

Sadly, I haven’t got many of my own memories of back home, but Mum often shares stories of me waking up the whole neighbourhood in the city of Luanda in Angola by walking down the street with cans of Coca Cola attached to a string, making a whole lot of noise as each neighbour attached more cans.

Angola is a beautiful country but it didn’t have opportunities for education and a bright future some 31 years ago.

So my 23-year-old mother, Sandra, took my seven-year-old sister and I – at just two years old – to the UK. She risked it all for our future and I am so grateful that she did.

We settled in London and Mum learnt English from scratch while working as a cleaner – job opportunities for immigrants were very limited – when my sister and I were in school. We also welcomed my little brother to the family in 2002, 10 years after arriving in the UK.

Growing up, I had the luxury of having Angola at home and London on my doorstep – full of opportunities and diversity.

As a young boy in London with a single parent who mainly spoke Portuguese, I ended up bilingual. Having to speak Portuguese at home and English to everyone else was sometimes difficult, but now a vital skill. Nowadays, I speak fluent Portuguese and am currently learning French.

I always felt slightly different from my English friends in school because – although my mum did her best – we weren’t as fortunate as the other kids.

At the age of 18, I blagged my way into a job in a college as a support assistant working with autistic young adults in class and in the community, teaching them life skills to help them live independently.

I had no idea that this was my ‘calling’ but very soon after starting, I became passionate about supporting this community as much as possible. I worked with autistic people for 10 years before becoming a ‘manny’ (a male nanny) for three years.

I used to bake and cook with my mother throughout my childhood but it was actually the death of my father when I was 21 when it became more than that.

I’d never met my dad and I was due to fly to Angola in December to meet him, when he passed away in November. I felt like something had been taken away from me, and baking was the only way I found to help deal with the loss.

For me, baking became a form of art, and art is a type of therapy – which in turn, baking became for me. Having to focus on the ingredients and the recipe, being creative and making something beautiful helped me express myself. From then, baking became my saving grace. 

I started baking cakes for friends and family, then took a shot at running a small bespoke cake business between 2014 and 2015.

I was fortunate enough to bake for some amazing UK stars, including members from Little Mix, Stormzy and Adebayo Akinfenwa. But I realised that I preferred to bake for the joy rather than money.

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Then in 2020, the pandemic hit and I became anxious about the situation the whole world was dealing with, feeling extremely sad and sensitive to the constant bad news.

Baking had helped me before so I decided to use it as a form of therapy again. I also wanted to open it up to other people – like the people with autism I used to work with – who were feeling the same anxiousness.

So myself and around 10 other people joined a weekly Zoom to bake together. We made lemons loafs, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cakes – it didn’t really matter. I just wanted us to have a good time and use it as a much-needed distraction from the crisis.

In the group, we had a young autistic girl who enjoyed baking and looked like she really benefited from the activity. It made me think of how many autistic people and their families that were suffering with mental health and a lack of support during lockdown.

That’s when I created ‘Baking on the Spectrum’, a platform for autistic children and adults to come together, learn to bake, bond and engage from the comfort of their home. What was once a rapid Covid-19 relief activity has become a community interest company (CIC) – working with over 100 families in East London.

I became so hooked on the benefits of baking that I decided to apply for The Great British Bake Off because my friend pushed me to do it. Sadly, I didn’t get it, but on my third attempt in November 2021, I was finally accepted.

I’ll never forget the day in March 2022 that I got the call to say I’d be part of the Great British Bake Off. That memory is literally my happy place, it always brings a smile to my face.

When I hung up the phone, I just couldn’t believe it was happening. In fact, the whole experience was so surreal, it was only when I got to the finals that it finally felt real.

The actual filming was a dream. I’m not a morning person at all but I was so happy to jump out of bed for each new day. The production team were amazing, as were the other bakers and the judges, and made each part of the process super easy.

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My Angolan heritage came through with my savoury bakes and actually sometimes with my sweet bakes – from tangy flavours of chorizo and BBQ to sweet caramel dulce de leche and banana. I tried to incorporate these as much as possible, while also showing an ode to the UK, too.

I didn’t even care if I won, I was just so proud of myself for getting that far. I know it’s corny but it was a real dream come true.

Keeping the secret that I baked in the famous tent was probably harder than actually competing. Waiting for the show to come out and watching it back was super nerve-wrecking, but I got used to seeing myself on TV.

Thankfully, I was well received by viewers – it didn’t hurt to be looked at as the hottie of the Bake Off tent either! – and got so much support from so many amazing people. Engaging with my fans makes me wish I could meet all of them. I love running into supporters on the street even now.

Life has been amazing since the show. The support and love I have received from so many people has been unreal – I am so grateful.

I have had so many opportunities come my way, including working with brands like Google and Asda, even filming segments for Lorraine. I would love to stay in front of the cameras, as well as continue my work with ‘Baking on the Spectrum’.

I’d do Bake Off 10 times over, but I’m ready to put my baking gloves away for the moment and maybe try something new. 

If any of the Strictly Come Dancing crew are reading, I’d be happy to dig my dancing shoes out (wink wink).

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