With all its production tucked into a tiny Lakeland cottage, Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is a Cumbrian institution, but only two people know the recipe, and every pack is handmade by one man. Joanne Hunter, joint owner with her husband Andrew, tells us (almost) all.
You don’t need to be a global fizzy drinks manufacturer to hold a trademarked secret recipe. Like Coca Cola and KFC, the recipe for Sarah Nelson’s Grasmere Gingerbread is a complete secret. But that’s where the similarities stop. Handmade in a tiny cottage next to the churchyard, this gingerbread causes queues of people in Grasmere village in high summer that extend onto and along the road. So, other than the recipe, what’s the secret of Grasmere’s success? And why have they held on to a cottage industry model of production? We asked owner Joanne Hunter to tell the story.
What makes Grasmere Gingerbread so unique?
The gingerbread itself is a cross between a biscuit and a cake – it’s crispy, chewy, and crumbly, which makes it very very moreish. Once you start you can’t stop! Everyone likes it a slightly different way – I like it slightly warmed and soft. My husband prefers it a day after its been made when the spices are more mature. It’s like bread in that it has to be eaten fresh. It’s a Victorian recipe so there are no additives or preservatives. And of course, it’s been made to the same secret recipe, on the same site, in Church Cottage, for 156 years.
Can you describe the cottage where you make the Gingerbread?
The front area, which would have been Sarah’s front room, is the shop, through the back where her bedroom would have been is the mixing room and the oven is behind a screen in the space where she would have had her range. It’s a very condensed area, where everyone has to be aware of their own physical space. We’ve got two members of staff who’ve been with us for 24 years, but when we take anyone new on, we have to ask ourselves how well they’ll fit into the team, including physically!
Have you never thought of moving production out of the cottage?
It’s the whole package that makes the gingerbread special – we’re talking about a product that’s been made the same way for 156 years in the same place. I used to have my office in a lean-to on the side of the cottage which was originally built to store dead bodies before burial! We’ve since moved the offices and staff room over the road to a barn now, but the production is still in the cottage as it always has been. We’ve had offers from all the main names to upscale production and sell in supermarkets, but we’ve turned them all down. You have to bring yourself back to reality, to think about Sarah, her life and what she created. It would be too easy to exploit something this old, and then to spoil it. If you take away the elements of where and how it’s made you spoil it. We’re only a blip in its history and the custodians of it for now.
And what is the history?
Sarah Nelson worked taking in the washing for Lady Farquhar and making cakes for her at Dale Lodge in Grasmere. In 1850 she moved into Gate Cottage, next to the churchyard, and Lady Farquhar’s French chef encouraged her to make gingerbread there. Drawn by Wordsworth’s poetry there were already tourists to the area, and as people passed by they saw her selling Helvellyn cakes, aerated water and Gingerbread. Her reputation grew, she trademarked her recipe and locked it away in the vault of the local bank. After she died in 1904 her great niece inherited the business. She sold it to Daisy Hotson who later went into partnership with my great uncle and aunt, Jack and Mary Wilson. It’s been in our family ever since. My husband Andrew and I took it over from my parents in 2000.
What do you think is the gingerbread’s appeal?
All the senses are fulfilled by it. First there’s the feel of the building, the fact that it’s old and cramped, then the smell of the baking wafts across the street – it’s very intoxicating and always gets my tastebuds going. When you’re queuing in the shop, you can hear the guys talking in the bakery. We get a lot of blind people visiting because of all the physical aspects of buying the gingerbread where we make it.
So go on, tell us how it’s made…
I don’t actually know the recipe! There’s only two people alive who do – my father, and Andrew my husband, who makes it. I have never made it. The actual mixing is a very physical job, done by hand, so it’s historically generally been men who’ve known the full ingredients and methodology. Andrew was shown how to mix it by my father, so he’s not seen the written recipe either. I could go down to the bank and have a look, but all you really need to know is that, as my son says, ‘it’s ginger, and it’s bread’.
THE SECRET’S IN THE EATING:
- Eat a piece straight with a cup of percolated coffee or hot chocolate.
- Save the crumbs and sprinkle them on ice cream.
- Use it in crumble topping, tiramisu or the base of a cheesecake.
- Eat it at Christmas with mulled wine, and the rest of the year round with whisky.
- Try it with a very fine goats cheese.
Read the piece as it appeared on flavourfirst.org here