Following the third series of The Great British Bake Off, Laura Rowe speaks to some of Wales’s top bakers. From artisan bread and brownie makers to bloggers and ex-pat patissiers, we’ve got it covered.
After moving from Oxfordshire to Wales at the age of six, and watching his parents make bread on a regular basis, Alex decided to train as a chef aged 17.
“I’ve always absolutely loved bread. My dad used to work a lot in London and he always brought back a challah loaf, which is a traditional Jewish bread,” explains Alex.
It was in his professional career, at Penrhos Court Hotel in Herefordshire, that he decided he wanted to set up his own bakery in Hay on Wye.
“What I love about being in Wales is the amazing produce around me. Just up the road from me is Primrose Farm which produces incredible soft fruits and herbs, close to where I live there are fields of wild garlic and I can pick ceps in the woods. Calon Wen is a small, local co-operative and their butter is amazing. It helps me produce better brioche thanks to its texture and interesting flavours.”
Alex’s breads – a range of sour doughs including his favourite “dark and white”, a seven-seed, spiced rye, and bara lawr and sesame rye – will soon be available online, where you can look for your local stockist and also book onto his breadmaking courses.
Frenchman Laurian Veaudou first decided he wanted to be a pastry chef when he tried coconut macaroons at the age of six. He left school at 14 to train at catering college before embarking on a two-year apprenticeship as a patissier, chocolatier, glacier and confiseur, then another year as an apprentice baker. It was after this that he came to Wales to watch the rugby world cup in 1999. Like so many others, he fell in love with the country and hasn’t left since, working in top hotels and restaurants including Celtic Manor Resort, St David’s Hotel & Spa and the famed Bully’s in Cardiff. His patisserie in the capital has now been open for two years.
“We have new customers every week and I am glad that I can bring something different to Cardiff and show that homemade food still exists. The British people, I think, are more daring with flavour, which is great for me as I can create new cakes on regular basis.
“The Welsh do a different type of baking than the French but it feels like in the last few years more and more people here are interested in making artisan bread and the level is really good, which is great. It’s a bit cheesy but passion and love of baking is on the top of the list when it comes to this industry – if you’ve got that everything feels so much easier to do!”
At the patisserie Laurian makes cheesecakes, mille feuille, Chantilly-filled choux buns, tarte aux pommes, Black Forest gâteau (as you’ve never seen it before) and more. He also makes wedding cakes. Just be sure to ask him about his own wedding cake: a “horn of plenty” with 500 profiteroles, which took 35 hours of work, and was finished a mere 45 minutes before the ceremony…
Of course, not all of our bakers have stayed put. Denise Carbone, originally from Llantwit Major, moved to America in her 20s to work as a nurse. In 2009, after her husband become redundant, the pair decided to start their own business making Welsh cakes in the US. I ask Denise what she loves about baking.
“I love to create a food that gives people joy and comfort. Although to be accurate we do not bake, as you know, Welsh cakes are griddled.”
So, what is the secret to a good Welsh cake, then? Denise herself does a range of flavours alongside the traditional, such as cranberry and orange, pumpkin, and cherry, white chocolate and blueberry.
“The key is having a good bakestone,” says Denise. The best bakestones are usually passed down through generations or to be found at the local car boot but you can also buy genuine steel plate bakestones here.
“The Welsh are good bakers because it is part of their heritage and tradition,” says Denise. But how have the Americans taken to one of our most famous Welsh delicacies?
“They are usually pleasantly surprised at the texture, one taste is usually all it takes and they’re hooked,” says Denise.
In this digital age baking and blogging come almost hand in hand. Indeed, forget falling trees and empty forests, the question we all need to ask ourselves is does a cake taste the same now if it’s not Instagrammed, pinned, retweeted or shared?
Carl Legge, based on the Llyn Peninsula, started his blog to “pay back all the good advice and information I’d received from other bloggers”.
“It’s a way of sharing my experiences and talking with people interested in food and sustainability. I want to inspire and encourage more people to cook and get to know fresh ingredients.”
Carl chronicles his family’s attempts at self sufficiency on their three-acre small holding and, of course, baking.
“I first started when I was very small making scones and rock cakes. When I left home in my teens I started baking at home and now my wife Debs and I always bake together. For me, it’s about creating tasty, good-looking food with simple ingredients: it’s alchemy and that’s fun.”
Carl actively seeks out local ingredients for his foodie blog and currently favours Welsh millers Anne and Andrew Parry at Felin Ganol Mill in Ceredigion and Llynnon Mill in Anglesey.
Carl advises any burgeoning bakers to take “scrupulous notes”.
“That way you can change variables one by one to improve what you bake and learn the craft. It also means that once you are happy with something you’ve made, you are able to reproduce it.”
“I’d thought and talked about it for years and I thought, why not give it a go? What have I got to lose?” explains Elisabeth, who grew up around her Irish and keen-baker mother – “she makes a mean soda bread” says Elisabeth. The One Mile Bakery was born and Elisabeth now spends her days delivering her homemade artisan breads, soups and preserves to Pontcanna, Llandaff and Canton in Cardiff.
“Bread and baking are for me comforting, timeless things – nothing is nicer than good bread and butter, except when you’ve baked the bread yourself and it’s still warm! Baking is just such a good de-stress: not just the kneading but also the fact it makes you slow down and realise that exceptional bread can’t be rushed. That’s a really good lesson for the rest of life, where we all rush about so madly.”
Elisabeth also hosts intimate classes from her Cardiff town house – I ask Elisabeth if baking is a male or female thing?
“I think the image of the homebaker is traditionally female, like my mum, but I think the baking bug grabs both men and women. Like cheffing, baking can be very, very long hours and tough graft, which maybe doesn’t suit family life so much, and maybe the baking culture hasn’t been welcoming to female apprentices. Yet I know loads of female bakers (I’m a bread angel, trained at Virtuous Bread in London) making a huge difference to their local communities and their lives by making and selling bread.”
Elisabeth’s top tip for the ultimate homemade bread is to use stoneground flour and to not flour your surface for kneading.
David Le Masurier did that thing we all dream of doing – throwing in the day job and setting up his own idyllic tea room.
“For the past decade I worked for a hotel company learning hospitality. My career was flourishing but my interest was waning. I grew up in Devon where many of our small tea rooms still thrive. I knew that the people of Cardiff deserved a great tea room in the city centre. I think that people have sought out comfort foods and different ways to spend their time and money during the recession. Baking fits really well with that as you can bake with your children at home and then share the spoils with friends all on a shoestring.”
David and his team bake everything fresh on site and, if you are one of the lucky chosen few, he will even give you a tour of the kitchen and share his secret recipes.
“There is an awesome baking tradition in Wales and I am very proud to be part of that.”
Ever thought about baking for your local community store? That’s exactly what full-time mum Kate Jenkins did to make some “pin money”. Now, five years later, she sells her famous brownies to more than 10,000 online customers, as well as baking thousands every week for her loyal fans across the UK. If that’s not enough to inspire you, I don’t know what is!
“The secret to my success is creating a quality product but most importantly looking after my customers. I have never been afraid to tell people about my business and my brownies and took every opportunity to promote them. This has lead to lots of features in newspapers and magazines as well as lots of celebrity endorsements.
“Make sure you have a product that people want!” advises Kate. “Family and friends can be great guinea pigs but it’s worthwhile getting some unbiased feedback. Secondly, keep it simple, don’t invest in industrial catering equipment or expensive websites, start slowly. And finally, look after each and every customer as you would like to be treated yourself. In these economic times people take care about where and who they spend their money with.”
As well as a food writing career, Kate presents for ITV’s Countrywise Kitchen.
“Being a presenter is great fun – doing what I love and being able to share my recipes and hopefully inspiring others to start cooking is what it’s all about, I genuinely want to show people that it’s not rocket science and anyone and everyone can make great tasting food for themselves.”