Cartmel sticky toffee pudding celebrate 25 years
11:08 07 October 2015
A Lake District food institution, beloved by many, marks a milestone this month. Mike Glover reports
It is possibly one of the most successful food stories of all time. Cartmel, north of the Sands, already has a disproportionate number of iconic attractions for a village of just 400 residents - one of the largest and historically most important village churches in Cartmel Priory, Britain’s best restaurant in Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume and the country’s prettiest racecourse. But mention the word Cartmel and the first reaction is likely to be: “That’s where the sticky toffee pudding comes from”.
There have been sticky toffee puddings before, notably at Ullswater’s Sharrow Bay and Windermere’s Miller Howe hotels. But now the one they all try to emulate is Cartmel’s variety. This month, the pudding that took over the world is celebrating 25 years. To coincide there will be a series of give-away events on October 31st.
The pudding was developed by Howard and Jean Johns, who first came to Cartmel in 1971 to run the King’s Arms in the square. They moved up the road to run the At Home restaurant in nearby Grange before moving back to take over a struggling Cartmel Village Shop in 1989. Howard was the postmaster and Jean started making food for the self-catering market.
‘It was before the days of ready-to-eat meals and we made good food for the camping, caravan and cottage customers who came to the Lakes,’ said Jean. ‘It went really well, but what went best of all were the sticky toffee puddings.
‘We didn’t invent sticky toffee puddings but we found a way for them to be taken away.’
And, as you would expect, the recipe they developed tasted delicious. They made just 25 a week to start with. They now make a million a year and they are sold all over the globe. The puddings were so successful it took over the shop and their lives. Jean would work through the night sometimes to satisfy customer orders in the run up to Christmas and they had to stop making other things to make room in the shop for the puddings, just to keep up with demand.
Howard gave up the post office to become full-time transport manager. He often drove 300 miles a day in his old Volvo with samples and deliveries, mainly to independent stores. In winter when the number of visitors declined, they started piggy-backing on the distribution network of Woodalls of Waberthwaite, of Cumberland sausage fame.
Soon the likes of Booths, Selfridges, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason stocked the puddings, made from ingredients such as cane sugar, sticky dates, free-range eggs, fresh local cream and butter.
The Johns had to move out of the shop to make way for production and then they built kitchens in the grounds of the house to which they moved. Finally they bought the old youth club in Flookburgh for storage and got planning permission to build kitchens next to it. With 70 gallons of cream, 300 kilos of butter and 250 kilos of eggs used every day, it is no wonder they needed the space - 20 people are employed there.
The Johns’ daughter Sarah has been involved since the start and she and her husband David still run the shop, with a cafe upstairs and a roaring business in freshly baked delicatessen type food.
Sarah’s daughter Elizabeth is studying hospitality at Kendal College, but helps out in the shop at weekends and holidays. Her 14-year-old brother Fred has been known to stack shelves. So, the third generation has joined this family enterprise.
And now Jean and Howard’s son Simon has returned from a successful catering career in America to take over the reins of the sticky toffee pudding company. The 48-year-old studied catering at Kendal College before his career took him to London, across the Atlantic to Canada, through the States to Los Angeles and on to Hawaii.
He has been selling the ubiquitous dessert in the USA since the turn of the millennium after setting up his own company in Santa Monica. Although he has found it a slightly more difficult sell than back here, partly due to the climate and partly the American definition of the word pudding.
He said: ‘When people see the word pudding in America they immediately think of Jello, similar to blancmange, and usually of the chocolate variety.’
When the Cartmel manager Charlotte Sharphouse decided to spend more time at her Old Hall Farm at Bouth, the Johns were going to sell the pudding company as they were ready to retire. But instead Simon came home to run it.
He is keen to increase efficiency in the production process as well as increase exports, with the near and Far East prominent in his plans. The company is also expanding its product range with ginger, chocolate and banana puddings, apple crumble and festive sticky figgy pudding. Then there is lemon drizzle cake.
‘We have recently launched a new addition to the range which has a listing at Waitrose,’ said Simon. ‘We’ve called it Scrumptious Rhubarb and Sticky Ginger Pudding. It’s all about working with ingredients and flavours that complement each other, for example, the tartness of the rhubarb compote alongside the warming hit of ginger, drizzled with a smooth caramel sauce.’
Delicious as that sounds, 90 per cent of sales are still of the sticky toffee pudding variety. Celebrity fans include Nigella Lawson, Madonna, Elton John, David Hockney, Rick Stein, Ade Edmonson and George Bush Senior.
Jean and Howard Johns are well aware of the impact sticky toffee pudding has had on their lives.
As they relax in the garden of their magnificent farmhouse with views across the Cartmel Valley, it must seem a long journey since they slaved over a second-hand oven in the back of a post office through the night. And their proudest moment? The fact they have never sold out.