The history behind the world famous Grasmere gingerbread
PUBLISHED: 09:07 05 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:21 27 April 2016
Lancashire Life visits this lovely Lakeland community for a party celebrating 160 years of success. Roger Borrell reports
On a crisp winter morning in Grasmere, a simple wreath was laid by a gravestone and, for once, it had nothing to do with the churchyard’s most famous residents, the Wordsworths.
This arrangement of white roses, daisies and pine greenery was in memory of a grand old lady who toiled just yards away from St Oswald’s Church creating something which also helped to put Grasmere on the international map.
Sarah Nelson was no poet but a follower of the culinary arts. She invented the famous Grasmere gingerbread and the wreath was placed their by one of her descendants, Joanne Hunter, to mark the 160th anniversary of the business.
From an early age, Sarah’s life was blighted by backbreaking work and family tragedy but her delicious recipe - part biscuit, part cake - has put a smile on faces across the world.
Hollywood stars Renee Zellweger and Nicole Kidman have been spotted in the shop and Tom Cruise came back for a second helping.
Director Joanne is the third generation to work in the business and she started young, standing on a box serving American tourists with gingerbread in those distinctive blue paper wrappers.
It is still baked and sold from the tiny Church Cottage, which began as the village school in the 1600s before becoming Sarah Nelson’s home. The recipe – under lock and key in a bank – is unchanged as is the cooking process and even some of the original utensils are still in use.
If ever there was a heritage food business, this is it. But in an age when everything is done online, how does a company like Sarah Nelson keep up?
Joanne’s husband and fellow director Andrew Hunter says: ‘Combining an old fashioned business with the latest technological advances is not easy because our priority is keeping the product authentic.’
Before the global recession, demand often threatened to outstrip production. When the financial crisis hit, it meant sales levelled out but now they are booming again.
Since Joanne and Andrew took charge the staffing has increases from three to 14 and any venture capitalist backed by a team of accountants would have moved production to a ‘production unit’ on an industrial estate.
‘We could have been millionaires and sold out but that’s not what the business is about We want growth but it has to be done in the right way,’ says Joanne. ‘We are just custodians with a short space of time to look after it.’
Andrew and Joanne Hunter in the shop with their children
Wendy Steele and Nigel Prickett at Grasmere Gingerbread Shop
Sarah Nelson's grave
Gingerbread baker, Ron Mewis and assistant, Fay Dawkins at Sarah Nelson's Grasmere Gingerbread shop
Grasmere Gingerbread's Andrew and Joanne Hunter host a 160th birthday celebration at The Wordsworth Hotel
Andrew adds: ‘As far as we are concerned the gingerbread will always be made here in the traditional way.
‘It would be foolish to make changes to this business because that would take away the authenticity. It would kill it. It’s unique – the secret recipe, the packaging, the taste and the people we work with. They all make it special.’
However, we shouldn’t run away with the idea that the company is totally immune to change. For instance, they’ve just launched a new website (www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk) that will allow customers around the world to order their products on line. Not only that, but it uses the format of a pop-up book to tell the Sarah Nelson story. It’s cutting edge stuff.
They are also working to protect their business by applying for international trade marks. If Sarah would have been baffled by the website she certainly would have approved of the trade mark.
‘This was something that Sarah did – she registered the blue logo and her packaging said if it didn’t have the trade mark it wasn’t authentic,’ said Joanne.
Andrew added: ‘It can be a funny feeling when it’s 6am when you are getting the ovens going. You feel Sarah is watching what we are doing.
‘It’s remarkable to think that in those 160 years there have been many wars, rebellions, abdications and we have gone through it all continuing to make our gingerbread.’
It’s not just gingerbread that has a worldwide following. In just over a year, Richard and Angela Barker have attracted customers from Dubai and Delaware eager to try their handmade chocolates.
What’s more, the couple, who run the Chocolate Cottage in the Old Coach House in Stock Lane, recently picked up a national award for best new business from the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs.
After many years teaching, they decided to take a new direction and completed a series of courses to become qualified chocolatiers.
‘We’ve been overwhelmed by demand,’ said Angela. ‘We’ve had many occasions when someone has come in and bought a few, eaten them walking down the street and come back to buy a box.’
Richard added: ‘We only buy the finest Belgian chocolate and they are then hand made on the premises. We are also using local landmarks to name our chocolates so you can come in for Helvellyn Hazelnut, Crummock Caramel or Buttermere Banoffee’