International Women’s Day 2022 – My thank you to three women who inspired me to start my gluten free bakery business.
How Honeybuns bakery was born
I started Honeybuns gluten free bakery back in 1998. I had enjoyed working in a patisserie and bakery in Oxford to help fund myself whilst studying.
I was surprised by how comforting it felt to be in a busy café kitchen. Serving delicious food to appreciative customers and being part of the local community made me feel good. This sense of having found my calling counter balanced the sense of loneliness I experienced as a student away from home.
With my course at an end, I was truly panicked. There were a whole lot of job options that filled me with dread. Fortunately, my student house mates were incredibly tolerant of my idea to start my own bakery….in our tiny shared kitchen. Cakes and cookies were delivered courtesy of an old post office bike I bought on the Cowley Road, East Oxford.
Baking cakes that stood out from the ubiquitous, long shelf life and preservative laden offerings of the 1990s was of particular interest to me.
I also loved Italian baking and, specifically, their use of polenta, almonds and ground pistachios alongside wheat flour.
Apologies for any note of self absorption thus far. This introduction is to set the context for the amazing and inspirational women who supported me and enabled me to realise my dreams.
Introducing the first of my three inspirational women
My mum, who was affectionately known to us as Mogley or Mog for short, is inextricably associated in my memories to baking days, cake tins full to bursting with treats and my attempts to “help” her in the kitchen.
Born in the 1950s, mum was one of three children and from a relatively humble home. Her mum raised the children whilst her father worked as a telephone engineer.
Baking delicious cakes were my Granny’s speciality. Unusually for those times, she baked with ground almonds and other more exotic ingredients.
My mum inherited hand written (and butter smeared!) recipes from which she created bakes for my brothers and I. These recipes then formed the backbone of the current Honeybuns gluten free range of cakes. With some tweak-ments we managed to omit any gluten based flours and ingredients, thus making our treats suitable for coeliacs.
Looking back now, I can appreciate that mum sacrificed any aspirations of a career to create a warm and loving environment for us. She was the first of her family to go to university (to read biology). She told us how much she loved her work in a laboratory when she was a young woman. As with so many women of her generation, her workplace was less than accommodating once she became pregnant. Hence, when I reflect on growing up in an apparently cosy, idyllic home, I now realise there was a cost. Mum gave up her dreams to encourage us to follow ours. Her mantra to my brothers and I being, “you can do anything”.
How I owe the late, great Elizabeth David a big thank you
I found Sir Chris Patten’s documentary, In the Footsteps of Elizabeth David, utterly fascinating. Here was a lady, born in 1913, who defied the conventions of her time to travel to countries along the Mediterranean and Atlantic and to the Middle East. She was passionate about freshly cooked, simple food, wine as well as the numerous men in her life. I discovered the two part documentary after reading and rereading her seminal cookery books including,
“A Book of Mediterranean Food”
“Is there a Nutmeg in the House”, and
“French Country Cooking”.
Growing up in Grimsby where the North Sea wind could freeze marrow, her evocative prose transported me to her sun splashed kitchen table. I could see the earthen ware bowls of olives, lemons and rosemary and almost smell the garlic and hot oil in the pan. It’s often said she was responsible for bringing olive oil, garlic and decent wine to a war scarred and rationed post WW2 Britain.
She clearly loves ingredients and honest country cooking whilst despising any kind of food snobbery.
She had escaped the expectations of being a respectable kept wife and, out of financial necessity, had self started a pioneering career for herself as a cookery writer. Pretty amazing for a lady, who had been presented at court as a debutante and expected to marry well and conform quietly!
Sure, her recipes are somewhat free form. There is plenty of, “a pinch of this” and somewhat sketchy methodology; but this is what I love about her writing. She chats to you as she cooks rather than detailing a prescriptive recipe. She leaves room for you, the reader, to think a little for yourself. For me, she encourages the tweaking of recipes and the exploration of food and flavours. I admire her cooking as much as her non conformist attitude to life. She dared to plough her own furrow.
Check out our frittata recipe frittata recipe which owes a thank you to this great lady’s influence,
My ever supportive friend who ensured the future of Honeybuns
Honeybuns was born of necessity. I needed to support myself and knew I was close to unemployable. Anxiety left me unpredictable, and lacking in confidence. By doing something on my own, making cakes at home and then delivering by bicycle to cafes, delis and the like, I could manage my anxiety better. For instance, after an early morning start of baking and packaging cakes I could take a break and go for a walk in order to calm down again. I’m not sure back in the 1990s this would have been tolerated or understood by a standard employer! Again, I include this information as context to what follows next….
My first paid helper was a most wonderful human being called Rakel Rhodes. Rak is originally from Norway and married to the lovely Malcolm who she met in Bath. Rak was working as an au pair when we first met.
I loved both her and Malcolm from the get go. They were enormous fun and had the biggest of hearts. Rakel readily agreed to help me out with the baking which she did alongside her au pair work. She seemed to just “get” what I was trying to do. Being the empathetic, kind person that she is, I also think she read between the lines, and knew I was somewhat “all over the shop” emotionally.
Without Rak’s steadfast, total support I never would have been able to get the business to that critical point of “lift off” where the hard work and risk taking begins to make some kind of commercial sense.
One of my fondest memories was driving to work super early in the morning in an old Nissan Cherry, donated by Mal’s mum and dad. We used to detour via Caffe Nero for our lattes with extra shots before baking crazy amounts of cake to meet some nigh on impossible deadline.
One hairy moment was having to meet a deadline for Virgin rail. We secured a contract to supply cakes for Virgin rail – but had no packaging machine. After many phone calls driving around we found a second hand flow wrapper, delivered by friends in the wee small hours of the morning on the back of a lorry. It was too big to fit into our rented business unit. Stress levels rising, we removed the doors and some of the wall to get the beast of a machine inside. The damage was repaired and we managed to get this complicated piece of kit working just in time to supply the customer.
Throughout all of this Rakel was completely unflustered, despite baking for 14 hours straight. I say unflustered. I mean she never complained, but both of us would become delirious with lack of sleep and too much caffeine. It was the year 2000 and The League of Gentlemen was on the telly. This really tickled us and helped sustain us whenever we need to pull off an all- nighter to get a large cake order out on time.
We worked alongside another wonderful lady called Jan who would keep us entertained by turning up to work in fancy dress. We didn’t question why but I think Jan, an experienced packer of vegetables, could see we were under enormous pressure to make the business work. She understood the importance of having a laugh & lightening the mood.
Rakel supported our move to Dorset in 2002 and even came to live with us for a month to ensure orders were met in the moving transition period. Money was never her key motivation. Far from it. She and Mal were willing us to make a go of things.
Rak now bakes several times a week for this wonderful community centre in Kempton, Brighton.
Writing this I realise that behind so many businesses, brands, homes, schools……are amazing, supportive women who allow dreams to take off. These dreams then continue to take form and help inspire more women along the way.
Thanks darling Rak, my inspiration, I owe you so much.
Comment and share who the wonderful women in your life are. Thanks for reading!
– Emma Goss Custard
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