Sugar & Spice
More of a buyer than a baker? Don't fret! Aoife Carrigy has sought out Ireland's purveyors of gourmet delights to help keep your Christmas sweet.
Foods of Athenry
Christmas is a busy time at the Lawless household outside Athenry, Co Galway. “Our five grown-up kids revert back to their 10-year-old-selves with loads of presents and board games and so on,” says Siobhan Lawless, who runs the ‘free-from’ baking business, Foods of Athenry, with her husband Paul and two of their daughters, Grainne and Meadhbh. “It is a big day in our home; celebrating getting back together and taking the time to be thankful for the blessings in our lives over the past year — and for having survived another Christmas marathon!”
That “marathon” is run in what was once the milking parlour of the Lawless dairy farm, but is now a dedicated gluten-free bakery. In 2004, the prospect of an uncertain future in agriculture, combined with health problems endured by their young children, convinced the couple to invest their collective futures in “a bakery business in which there was no room for any artificial food additives”.
Their now-primary focus of gluten-free baking is achieved with a mix of maize, rice, potato, tapioca and buckwheat flours in place of wheat-based flour. Many of their products are also dairy-free, egg-free or fully vegan — all in the name of inclusivity. Their homemade mincemeat is packed with 82pc dried fruits, nuts and freshly grated carrot for moisture and features in their fully vegan mince pies inside a gluten-free shortcrust pastry. While the plum puddings are made with Irish butter, their Christmas cakes are dairy-free. Their puddings are bound with breadcrumbs from their own yeast-free and gluten-free bread, and mixed with fruit soaked for extensive periods in generous quantities of cider and brandy to compensate for what can be a dry texture from gluten-free flours. “It is quite phenomenal just how much alcohol they soak up!”
Where to buy: SuperValu, Dunnes Stores, Gifted Craft Fair, foodsofathenry.ie
Shells Cafe and Little Shop
For Myles Lambert of Shells Cafe, Christmas in his adopted hometown of Strandhill, Co Sligo, is a little different to his childhood experience in Cape Town. “It’s all about family time there too, but there’s fake spray snow on the windows and tinsel everywhere. Christmas Day is all about big old lunches of cold-cut meats and lots of little salads and then, in the evening, the Christmas pudding and cake. The following day, you all go down to the beach.”
Myles met his Irish wife, Jane, while surfing in Cornwall and after several seasons travelling together, working winter ski resorts or open-fire cooking at safaris, they wanted to put down roots. Today they live in a little cottage with their two sons, Arlo (3) and Otis (four months old), and their cafe, in-house bakery and adjoining food shop is at the heart of the local beach culture of Strandhill.
Some of Myles’ South African traditions have become Strandhill tradition — like his Cape brandy pudding, now a firm local favourite as an alternative to traditional plum pudding. Developed in the Cape as a vehicle for their locally produced brandy, Myles describes it as “like a boozy sticky toffee pudding with lots of nutmeg and dates”, and it flies out the door, to be reheated with Shells’ brandy toffee sauce.
Also sold in-store and within Christmas hampers is their popular pudding-shaped chocolate biscuit cake. “We lace it with fruit and nuts to give it a festive edge and decorate it like a plum pudding,” Myles says, “so it looks great but lasts for a few weeks — perfect for when you get those surprise visitors around New Year’s.”
A particularly popular local tradition is Shells’ Christmas shopping night on December 5, when bubbles and canapés are served alongside samples of their Christmas baked treats and a chance to pre-order with discounts. “We also do a wreath-making workshop in the cafe that night, which is super fun and festive.”
Where to buy: Shells Cafe & Little Shop, Strandhill, shellscafe.com
The Hungry Crow
Also returning to the Dublin Christmas Flea Market this year is Niamh O’Reilly of The Hungry Crow, a sculptural-ceramicist turned artisan-chocolatier who specialises in ‘guilt-free’ treats. Created with an artist’s eye and a flavour-lover’s palate, Niamh uses the most nutrient-dense and ethically sourced ingredients she can find. The resulting products won the honour of being named Best Emerging Artisan Food Product at the Listowel Food Festival 2017.
The Hungry Crow’s beautifully packaged ‘12 dates of Christmas’ are just the thing for grown-up stocking fillers: Fair-trade medjool dates stuffed with handmade nut butters and dipped in 85pc single origin chocolate. Niamh sources her couverture chocolate from Ghana, opting for the lowest sugar content chocolate she can find. The nut butters she makes herself using whole nuts that have been activated (pre-soaked to maximise their available nutrients), experimenting with flavour pairings like cashew and rose water. All but the tahini-and-honey-filled dates are vegan-friendly and she eschews refined sugar for coconut blossom sugar, maple sugar or xylitol (a low-GI natural sweetener derived from birch bark).
Her range also features ‘After Nines’, a riff on a certain peppermint cream chocolate treat but made with cashew cream fermented with a probiotic powder and flavoured with peppermint oil. “I love the challenge of making chocolates and sweet things that aren’t full of refined sugar, dairy or grains, but that taste just as good as their doppelgängers.”
Where to buy: dublinchristmasflea.ie (December 13–16), local food stores in Cork and Waterford and markets at Kinsale (Wednesday), Clonakilty (Friday), Skibbereen
“I have a bit of a love for times that I never lived through,” says Nicole Dunphy of Pandora Bell. The daughter of an antique dealer, Nicole has channelled her love of “the
intricacy and beauty of craftsmanship” into the most gloriously nostalgic line of sweet treats. Think giant candy canes for dressing a festive dining table, to be broken up and shared amongst all the family — or stocking-sized candy canes and Christmas tree lollipops, crafted by
hand and featuring natural colourings and flavourings.
Nicole uses traditional processes to make her hard candy. Both the lollipops and candy canes start life as cooked sugar to which natural colours and flavours are added. “I am very proud of the rich colours we have achieved without any artificial boost,” she says of the Christmas tree lollipops, which are red with a tiny white stripe for the cranberry lollipop and deep green for the apple. Her candy cane is flavoured with “warm and wintery vanilla” instead of the usual peppermint, and come in a 40g size that is marginally bigger than most supermarket versions, which Nicole felt “never looked quite as magic as the ones in the movies”.
Once flavoured and coloured, the candy is allowed to cool a little until it can be rolled out by hand like a snake, cut into shorter pieces and fashioned into Christmas tree or lollipop shapes before being attached to their wooden sticks, wrapped, labelled and boxed up for shipping. “Food was at its purest before industrialisation, and this goes quite particularly for sweets,” she says. “The old traditional recipes and methods are still the best that we have. They’re the purest and therefore the healthiest.”
Where to buy? Widely available at Avoca, Brown Thomas, Fallon & Byrne. pandorabell.com
The Cake Cafe
If you move fast, you might just nab one of several dozen limited edition gingerbread houses created each year by Hermione, resident baker at The Cake Cafe. Owner Ray O’Neill makes sure to pre-book one in for his own nieces and nephews. “Some regular customers have them personalised with their kids’ names,” he says, “or even their dog in the garden.” But if you’re too late for the full house, this Dublin institution also does a roaring trade in gingerbread men and women, candy cane in hand and donning Santa hats, and in iced butter cookies in all sorts of festive shapes, from bells to trees. “People like to order stocking-shaped cookies customised with their grandchildren’s names, or with little holes for hanging on trees.”
Founded by former owner Michelle Darmody, The Cake Cafe turned 12 years old this year, so its beloved gingerbread and butter cookie traditions were well-established by the time Ray joined the team in 2010. (A previous life in online advertising had fallen to the wayside when, on a sales call near Shanagarry, Co Cork, one day, Ray popped into Ballymaloe Cookery School on a whim. “The next thing I knew I had enrolled in their three-month course and handed in my two-weeks notice.”) Ray joined The Cake Cafe as a chef, moved up to a managerial role and bought the business two years ago.
The gingerbread house isn’t the only tradition of which he is now guardian. “Our Christmas baking classes in December are really popular as a festive get-together for groups of friends — they’re a fun way to get together with mulled wine to get the chats going.” They also sell Cake Cafe gift boxes with vouchers for 2019 baking classes, a copy of their cookbook and some of the coolest tea towels in town.
Where to buy: See thecakecafe.ie
When Charlotte Leonard Kane of Scéal Bakery describes the plum pudding recipe that she and her partner Shane Palmer use as “very traditional”, it’s no false claim. “It dates from 1902, and has been handed down to me through the family.” As might be expected, it features lots of traditional winter spices and currants, raisins, sultanas, cherries and mixed peel. “But we have changed it up to lighten it,” she continues, “so we use our sourdough breadcrumbs and Irish butter instead of suet, and loads of citrus zest and juice to brighten it a little bit.”
Charlotte grew up in a Harold’s Cross household of keen home cooks and bakers. Equally influential were “three big apple trees in the back garden; out of necessity, we became creative about how to use them”. The months before Christmas were a busy time: “making mince meat and Christmas puddings, chutneys, jellies, apple butters — everything and anything to use and preserve those apples”.
Shane and Charlotte met on day one of their BA in culinary arts at DIT. Having travelled together after graduation to train in two of San Francisco’s top bakeries, they returned to Dublin to set up Scéal Bakery in 2017. They began selling their baked goods as a side-line at their bric-and-brac stall at the then-monthly Dublin Flea Market. Soon their sourdough breads and creative pastries had garnered something of a cult following, one that has followed them to Stoneybatter’s weekly Penders Yard market and to stockists The Fumbally, Proper Order and The Hopsack.
But to get your hands on one of those plum puddings, you’ll have to head down to the Dublin Christmas Flea Market in the Point Square, where they will be exclusively available alongside homemade jars of Scéal sea salt and vanilla brandy butter, Irish whiskey mince meat and winter-spiced apple jelly (featuring Harold's Cross apples). They’ll also be selling mince pies encased in their own from-scratch puff pastry and topped with almond frangipane, based on another much-loved family recipe — though good luck making it home with any of those uneaten.
Where to buy: dublinchristmasflea.ie (December 6–9 & 13–16). scealbakery.com