tct12: noisette bakehouseBack
“I want to create things that aren’t just sweet, but have something more” – Sarah Mather, Noisette Bakehouse
Baking is easy. “Everybody can bake,” says Sarah Mather, of Noisette Bakehouse and the Madeleine Express Citroen. “There are only so many ways you can make a Victoria Sponge – it’s flour, sugar and butter in equal quantities, whip it together with some jam and that’s it.”
So far so easy, and so boring. And a long, long way from what Sarah’s baking is about.
“You can get cupcakes everywhere, and Victoria sponge and lemon drizzle and they’re all quite similar. Whereas I wanted to experiment with flavour and technique and baking from around the world, especially Europe. I want to create things that aren’t just sweet, but have something more.”
If you pick up something from the Noisette stall or the Madeleine van at a food event, or find some of Sarah’s baking at a Leeds coffee shop or Outlaws Yacht Club’s Noonshine Cafe, and you expect a tooth-rotting hit of pure sugar, you’ll be disappointed. But then you’ll try the gin loaf or the whiskey cake, and that cloud will disappear in a haze of flavour.
“Not everything has to be fondant and icing and butter cream and sugar. You can use flowers, herbs, foliage, and give it a more natural feel. I like to use a lot of savoury elements, and flavours that you probably wouldn’t associate with cakes or sweet things. Growing up I never had an overly sweet tooth, so it seems strange to be baking now, but it toes a line with a different palate. I don’t make many sugary sweet things, so it’s a bit more intriguing.
“The gin loaf is my take on everybody else’s sticky lemon drizzle cake, and I made some ruby fizz tarts – I make a lot of fruit curds, everybody knows a lemon curd but you can make a curd out of any fruit. I made a curd out of blackcurrants last year when they were in season, and paired that with some rose champagne, and it adds another dynamic element.
“I do like to throw a bit of alcohol in there – growing up my favourite things were mince pies and really rich fruit cakes, and Old Jamaica chocolate bars, I loved them; and when nobody wanted the black liquorice sweets I would eat those. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a full Mars bar because I just find it too sweet and there’s too much there.
“I try to find the balance between interesting flavours, interesting combinations and ideas and interesting presentation as well – that’s my offering to the sweet game.”
Sarah invokes an older world of baking in her recipes, following traditions beyond Victorian teatimes and 1950s cupcake styles. “Madeleine Express is named after the French cake, the madeleine, which has cultural significance from Marcel Proust writing about tasting a madeleine and it bringing back so many memories of food and family. For me that’s what growing up with food and baking has always been about – there is a tradition to it.
“Everybody around the world has there own variation – right now it’s Easter, and we have hot cross buns, but all around the world there is some different kind of bread that is traditional at this time of year, and it’s nice to explore that and explore all the different flavours that are used in their traditions. I’m marrying someone who is half Polish so I have a lot of influence on my baking from Eastern Europe; likewise American baking heritage is brilliant, that’s a real melting pot from Eastern Europe as well, and Jewish heritage – there’s so much to explore.”
As well as heritage and tradition, geography is involved too. “We’re in the rhubarb triangle so I make rhubarb and quince jam every year. It’s all from Yorkshire so I can have that all year round, and add Middle Eastern flavours in there – I used a mahlab, which is a cherry that’s ground up and has a really intense marzipan and almond flavour and that’s great with something so northern and British as quince and rhubarb.
“It’s funny – I have a friend in Rome who really wants to cook with rhubarb but she can’t get it in the markets in Rome. You can forget how something so normal here is so exotic and special, and it’s nice to celebrate that, and make the most of what we’ve got.”
Yorkshire’s well supplied for fruit-picking, local honey, herb gardens and local entrepreneurs that make finding ingredients to bake with more exciting than a trip to the supermarket for flour and eggs. “I like to go out on voyages, and once I went to look for some apples and plums and pears on some common land near my house but couldn’t find any. But on the drive back there were some young lads about nine years old selling fruit from the trees in their garden, so I stopped and said I wanted to buy it all and take it home to make it into jam.
“I particularly wanted pears but they’d run out and they felt really bad, they wanted to give me extra apples! They were just doing it for pocket money and had been sitting there all day with nobody coming to buy their apples until I came and they got rid of the whole lot. It was so good and they were saying they wanted to run their own business one day, and this is where you start!
“I’ve always run my own businesses and never had a ‘real’ job, so to see that in them so young was great, especially when jobs are so scarce. I remember as a kid get petals off the flowers in the garden and put it in a bucket of water and make perfume to sell – it’s that creativity and ingenuity that should be encouraged, and I think baking is a great way of encouraging that.”
As part of the Noonshine Cafe every Friday at Outlaws, with The Grub & Grog Shop, Leeds Bread Co-op and North Star Coffee, Sarah’s found the support needed to help an independent business thrive and improve.
“I could have either opened premises in my tiny village and wait for people to come to me, or I could be a bit more adventurous and go out and get involved in events with like minded people. And to me that seemed a lot more interesting.
“I get a lot out of just selling to the individual, I love standing with the stall talking to people, and working well with people like Dan and Jim and with the guys from North Star and the Leeds Bread Co-op, because we’re all just independents and we need to club together, help each other out, and creatively inspire each other. Noonshine has been a really good part in that, it helps us all develop and carry on.
“What Dan and Jim do with Noonshine is really good – people will always want food, bread, good coffee to drink and something sweet to eat. And if we build it on good values and good ethics and good food then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t keep going.
“Why can’t we aspire? Food is food – a lot of people glamourise it, but food is food and everyone needs to eat, and why can’t we be making fantastic food that is better than what’s served in Michelin starred restaurants?”
Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 12