Meet Cheshire’s own star bakers
PUBLISHED: 13:21 22 September 2020 | UPDATED: 13:21 22 September 2020
As the Great British Bake Off returns, Jade Wright looks at Cheshire’s own flour power
In the past few months, baking has become more popular than ever. Once flour returned to the shops, many novice bakers honed their skills. Now the nights are drawing in, and the Great British Bake Off is back on our screens, more of us are expected to try out making our own cakes, traybakes and bread. But what’s it like to turn a love of baking into a career?
Here are the stories behind some of Cheshire’s best bakers.
Bowl and Whisk
There’s not much that Rachel Norbury doesn’t know about the milk business. Growing up as the daughter of a Cheshire dairy farmer, and now married to another, she’s something of an expert when it comes to the white stuff.
When a placement during her time at Harper Adams University took her to Tesco head office, she trained in the dairy department. After graduation, she climbed the corporate ladder in food research and development, working for huge food retailers and brands, amongst them one of the biggest milk and cream producers. But after years of creating brands for big business, she wanted to build something closer to home.
“It’s something I’ve always known and loved, so I suppose when it came to starting a business of our own, it was always going to have a fair bit of milk in there,” she laughs.
It’s now three years since Rachel and her mum Janet Billington decided to turn their passion for home cooking into a business with hand-baked brownies, made with love and sent by post.
“We started off by getting both of our kitchens set up and approved for baking professionally, and refining our recipes to make sure they used the best ingredients,” says Rachel. “We used some family recipes and then added some twists.
“Obviously we wanted to make sure we used the best milk, chocolate and sugar, and we keep hens so we are never short of beautiful eggs.”
Janet adds: “There was a lot of tasting during development, and we had willing volunteers – both our husbands are up for milking at 5am. It’s hard work, so they take a bit of feeding. They gave us a lot of feedback, and even now they’re very good at eating anything left over.”
Working from their farmhouse kitchens in Siddington and Knutsford, Janet and Rachel produce an array of homemade brownies and traybakes, which are then delivered to the recipient beautifully gift wrapped and with a handwritten message.
“We have lovely customers,” laughs Rachel. “We thought at first it would just be ‘happy birthday’ or ‘thank you’, but we get lots sent on no special occasion at all, just as a hello or to cheer someone up. I love writing the messages because it’s a reminder every time how special that wish you’re sending someone is.”
The traditional favourites are always popular – deep indulgent triple chocolate, with its beautifully cracked crust, or rich and satisfying salted caramel.
“People have the ones they know and love, although we have a good range and change it with the seasons to make the most of local produce,” says Rachel.
Over the past few years the business has grown, and the mum and daughter team now makes beautiful wedding and celebration cakes, plus corporate gifts for local businesses. They also do afternoon teas, dessert tables for events, and savoury buffets.
They’re both dab hands in the kitchen – Rachel gained a distinction at Leiths Cookery School, and Janet – a keen cook and gardener – enjoys transforming her seasonal homegrown garden produce into delicious meals, pickles, and preserves.
As well as milk, baking runs in the family: Janet’s auntie Ann ran a popular bakery in Lancashire, and the recipes she used have been passed down through the family line.
There’s one more generation now too, with 10-month old Thomas also keeping Rachel busy.
“He’ll either be a farmer or a baker,” she laughs. “He’ll certainly grow up learning plenty about both.” bowlandwhisk.co.uk
The Wild Pear Bakehouse
Opening a shop can be tricky at any time, but a global pandemic is enough to test even the best business plans. But that hasn’t stopped the Wild Pear Bakehouse, which every weekend has socially-distanced queues stretching right round the block.
The vegan bakery in Hoylake opened this summer, specialising in sourdough and high-end pastries. It is a labour of love for partners Claire Booth and Josh Adams, both from New Brighton.
They’ve been selling through farmers’ markets since 2017, but the time came to find a permanent home.
“We started off making sourdough at home, a loaf at a time, and then it grew until Josh transformed the backroom in my mum’s house,” says Claire. “From there we got a small unit in Birkenhead and started doing the farmers’ markets. But we were selling as much as we could make, so we decided we needed our own base, and Hoylake is perfect, as it’s such a friendly place and Market Street is a great high street for independent businesses.”
Claire’s background in hospitality has been useful in setting up the new shop, which is adding an eat-in area soon. And Josh’s previous career in horticulture has fed his interest in growing the starters that make the sourdough alchemy happen.
Sourdough uses no ready-made yeast – it is made by the air around it. The starter is just a flour-and-water paste, magically picking up the spores of wild, airborne yeasts, which give sourdough its characteristic, slightly tangy taste.
This is the antithesis of the modern factory loaf. It has an elastic, stretchy crumb and a crisp, crunchy crust. Freshly baked and dabbed in good olive oil, and sprinkled with a few flakes of salt, it’s a delight. Unlike its industrial counterparts, it lasts a few days and it makes the best toast, bruschetta and, if there’s still any left, breadcrumbs and croutons.
“The response has been amazing,” says Claire. “Since we’ve opened we’ve had queues outside and we sell out every day we’re open.”
As well as the loaves, there are those perfect pastries, made by Josh.
“As a vegan bakery, we wanted to perfect the butter-free croissant, and after lots of trial and error we did it,” he explains. “Most people say they genuinely can’t tell the difference, but it’s much healthier and obviously better for the environment.”
There’s another key element – coffee – and there Josh has a personal connection. His great grandfather was the ‘Adams’ in Merseyside coffee giants, Adams & Russell, a long-established brand.
“I’ve always loved coffee and my family has always been interested in it, so one of the important elements about setting up our own place was that we sold really good coffee,” he says.
“The feedback generally is excellent, and we get people coming back time and again because they say our bread is the only one that doesn’t make them feel bloated or give them stomach aches. Not using yeast means it’s lower GI and more satisfying, so a little bit goes a long way.”
Ceri Newton thought that when she sold her tea shop two years ago she’d be hanging up her pinny, but after agreeing to make some of her award-winning cakes for cafés across the region, she’s now back baking six days a week.
After travelling around the world for work, Ceri, originally from Neston, settled back in Wirral, opening Gorge’Us in Bebington and then in Spital. But after 12 years she opted for a quieter pace, baking for friends’ tea shops from her beautiful home kitchen in Port Sunlight.
“I thought I might do it as a bit of a hobby but I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” she says. “It’s grown and grown. I’m up at 5am baking and I don’t finish until 6pm. I don’t like to say no to anyone, and they are all great places, so I’m very lucky.
“I had a few weeks off during lockdown, but as soon as places started doing takeaways, the orders were back again.”
She now supplies her trademark beautifully light cakes and scones to Claremont Farm cafe in Bebington, Davenport’s Tea Rooms in Northwich, Hannah’s in West Kirby, Flissy’s Coffee Shop in Thurstaston, Liberty Belle in Birkenhead, and Lingham’s and Wylde, both in Heswall. As well as the traditional options, she also makes many of them gluten-free or vegan.
“I can honestly say I’ve never tired of baking,” she says. “I’m fortunate too, in that most of the places I bake for give me a pretty free hand in what I make, so I get to be a bit creative, as well as always doing the favourites – lemon, carrot, coffee and walnut and, of course, Victoria sponge.” It was the Victoria sponge that scooped Ceri top prize twice at the North West Fine Food Awards, and which forms the basis for all of Ceri’s wonderfully light cakes. It’s a recipe and a method that has taken decades to perfect.
“It’s the classic, and when I’m trying out a new recipe, I always start with that and then add in different flavours,” she says. “Some bakers make loads of different styles of cakes, but for me, it’s all about the air in the cake, and the height, so that’s the one I always go back to.
“What I offer is really simple – no cupcakes, no doughnuts, no fondant or frosting, just very traditional cakes and scones made completely by hand in my kitchen. I do the shopping, I made the cakes and I deliver it myself, so I can make sure the quality control is always there. The best bit of my job is dropping off a cake in the morning, and then getting a call in the afternoon to say it’s sold out. Cakes make people smile, even the ones baking them.” u