The revival of the Westmorland Pepper Cake
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A Kendal baker has revived an historic recipe that packs a punch. Sue Riley reports
A cake made popular when slavery was at its height is once again tantalising the tastebuds of people across the North West. For decades Westmorland Pepper Cake fell out of favour and became just a memory; recorded in a few old recipe books. That was until 2014 when the Slow Food Movement contacted Lisa Smith of Ginger Bakers near Kendal and asked for her help. They wanted her to recreate a Goosnargh biscuit.
‘They asked if I would be interested in relaunching this biscuit and I thought no, it’s Lancashire!’ admitted Lisa. ‘We follow the principles of the Slow Food Movement, artisan made, craft and skill, and I had seen Westmorland Pepper Cake in a recipe book which I thought would work.
‘I researched it and it wasn’t being made anywhere.’
The founders of the Slow Food Movement in Italy accepted the cake on to their ‘forgotten food programme’ and agreed to help Lisa bring it back on to people’s plates.
‘I found slightly varying recipes from the 19th century,” said Lisa, who did her research in Kendal Library close to where she lives with her husband and two children – both have red hair, hence the name Ginger Bakers. Her first attempts were too biscuit like so she changed the ratios of pepper, clove and ginger – the spices were originally traded for wool with the West Indies and brought to England through various slaving ports, including Whitehaven – to make it a much moister fruit cake. She recommends the cake, which has the rich sweetness of black treacle with the sharpness of crushed black pepper, be served with cheese.
‘We loved it and after four to five months of development in 2014 we launched it and it is now on sale at Tebay services and Low Sizergh Barn among other outlets,’ said Lisa. ‘It sells well locally and holidaymakers love it.’
Lisa founded her business 11 years ago by baking cakes at home and selling them at farmers’ markets. She now has a team making 1,000 cakes a week (most are gluten free) and supplies Booths and Co-op supermarkets. Her ethos remains the same, to create great quality cakes by hand. ‘We have never veered from what our principles were,’ she said.
She also likes to use local ingredients whenever possible – damsons from the Lyth Valley and beer from Hawkshead Brewery are included in some of their bestselling cakes which have attracted several Great Taste Awards. They launch new varieties every spring and autumn and this month Winter Spiced Brownie and Ginger and Whisky Fruit Cake go on sale.
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‘I imagine the pepper cake will be in our range forever now,’ she said, alongside other bestsellers including Raspberry and Almond Blondie.
Lisa, brought up in Cheshire in a household where her mother and grandmother baked, never had ambitions to set up a cake business. After taking a degree in industrial design she went to work in Hong Kong.
‘It dawned on me that it was all about the money and it did not feel quite right,’ she said. So she returned to the UK, took a postgraduate course in art psychotherapy and went on to work in art therapy.
When she moved to Kendal with her husband there were fewer jobs in her field and she baked in her spare time. Word spread and she went on to set up the gluten free kitchen at Lucy Cooks in Staveley and started selling her cakes at farmers’ markets.
‘It was jolly hard work,’ said Lisa. ‘The food market has exploded since, but at the time cakes were more farmhouse cakes and I wanted to present something more creative looking.
‘I created all my own packaging and the business took off. I survived on four hours’ sleep for many years; it’s probably the same story for many businesses. It’s so labour intensive. When I had my daughter Nancy in 2007 the day I came out of hospital I was back baking!’
In 2015 both her home and business at Dockray Hall were affected by the Kendal floods. Fellow bakers, Lovingly Artisan, offered her their kitchens until they could find other premises. She believes if it were not for owner, Aidan, Ginger Bakers may not have stayed in business.
Fast forward 18 months and Ginger Bakers is thriving again with a purpose-built premises at Plumgarths Farm Shop site near Kendal. they now have seven staff and they have just taken on their first apprentice.
Their new headquarters is more than double the size of their previous one but Lisa insists every cake is still handmade. And she is adamant that even though they have to taste cakes every day, it’s still work.
‘We have this big presence now with the new building and I can’t overestimate the difference it has made,’ said Lisa. ‘Our cakes are no different but people can see us and they take us more seriously.
‘Here it’s a job, although I love to try other people’s cake. I’m really envious of places that sell one-offs, really creative cakes that sell within a day. Places like Chesters at Skelwith Bridge and Homeground Coffee in Windermere, which are some of my favourites, get to put rose petals on a cake and I am envious.’
Her business may be bigger than she ever expected, but she hasn’t forgotten its beginnings. One of the cakes, a Chocolate Nancy, is named after her daughter but is a very similar recipe to one her grandma, Ella, used to make for her. A mix of oats, pistachio, cranberry, sultanas and chocolate it sounds delicious. But what else would you expect?