The Oscars of the food world

TASTY Victoria Townsend with her award-winning products.    Picture: Steve Reid (112635-882)
TASTY Victoria Townsend with her award-winning products. Picture: Steve Reid (112635-882)

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Mums Victoria Townsend and Jo Silsbury were always being asked by friends for batches of their home-baked cookies, brownies and gingerbread.

Their pals realised there was nothing quite like the taste of straight-from-the-oven treats made with fresh ingredients.

It was so much better than buying packaged products from the supermarket. But often the pressed-for-time friends were too busy to spend hours in the kitchen themselves.

And that gave amateur baker Victoria a business idea – supply cookie mixes made from fresh and natural ingredients and package them as gift ideas.

Victoria says: ‘We tried a few things being sold in the supermarkets and realised they just weren’t very nice and full of artificial flavourings and colourings.

‘So I suggested this to Jo. The idea wasn’t to turn it into a huge business, I said to her ‘do you want to make a bit of shoe money?’

Their ‘shoe money’ plan turned into Scarlet Bakes – a thriving little business that supplies layered cookie mixes in traditional jars to Selfridges in London and local farm shops.

And Victoria, 34, and Jo, 40, are now celebrating winning a gold star award in the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards.

The star for their oat and raisin cookie mix comes on top of gold star wins last year for their white chocolate and cranberry mix and their triple chocolate mix.

‘This is wonderful,’ says Victoria. ‘We had to try so many cookies to get the recipes just right and then we had to reduce everything to get the right quantities for the jars. It’s been a lot of hard work and this feels like a reward.’

Scarlet Bakes is among several Hampshire producers winning the national awards. Each year the Guild of Fine Foods gives stamps of approval to the best of British products with one, two and three-star awards, as well as trophies for the cream of the crop.

Sophie Boxall, of county food group Hampshire Fare, says the awards for Hampshire producers show that the county has plenty to offer food lovers.

‘These are prestigious national awards, they’re the Oscars of the food world, so it’s a great accolade,’ she explains. ‘And it’s great news because we really want people to recognise the county as a foodie hotspot.’

Hampshire Fare is encouraging people to vote for the county as Britain’s Top Food Spot for British Food Fortnight (September 17 – October 2). Details of how to vote are available on the website lovebritishfood.co.uk

Hampshire Fare provides a voice for local producers and encourages people to support their rural economy and reduce food miles by buying local, seasonal food.

And members of the organisation – whether restaurants, farms or other food producers – must demonstrate that they also source a certain level of ingredients from the area.

Victoria and Jo, who work from a converted garage in Fareham which they have called the ‘Cookie Shack’, say dealing with other local businesses is important.

‘Obviously we can’t source everything from this area. We use Belgian chocolate for a start because we want the quality and high cocoa levels,’ says Victoria. ‘But it’s much better if you can. I look forward to the visits from our flour man every Tuesday. He turns up, covered from head to toe with flour, really keen to talk about it. So we find out all we want to know about what we are buying.’

Similarly, they enjoy getting out to farmer’s markets and food fairs so they can interact with their customers, tell them all about their products, and sell fully baked cookies and brownies too.

But one of the best things about the job for Victoria is being able to work from home and spend more time with her children – Alice, six, and Rose, three.

Victoria had a demanding career in London, working as a visual manager for a retail company, but now she works just up the road at neighbour Jo’s house.

Life is still hectic as business is really picking up. Jo and Victoria recently won grant funding from Winchester & East Hants Local Action group and have used it for a van and coffee machine to take to markets and fairs.

But having more time for her children is important. ‘That was one of the ideas behind this. It’s simple – all you need to do is add an egg and butter – so it’s good for people who are busy and perhaps not confident about baking. But I hope it encourages adults and children to get in the kitchen together and do a few things.’

The only mystery remains how she manages to stays slim.

‘Running,’ laughs Victoria.

‘And we like to get out in the community so we let a lot of people in this area do the tasting.’

Inspired by Gingerbread Cottage

It all started when Kate Poole decided the outhouse in the garden of her new home looked like a gingerbread cottage.

That inspired her to take her love of baking to a new level and now she is running a thriving little business and reaping the rewards.

Kate can boast Fortnum & Mason among her clients and has just received a gold star for her honey bears biscuits from the Guild of Fine Food in the Great Taste Awards.

She’s thrilled with the accolade but what she has achieved this year pales in comparison to last year’s big wins.

Kate was awarded the coveted three-gold-star stamp of approval in 2010’s Great Taste Awards for two of her products – Hampshire malt biscuits and Hampshire ploughman’s biscuits.

And she also won the trophy for best performance from a first time entrant.

She says: ‘It means a lot because it’s on a national level. And what’s really nice about these awards is that small local producers can compete with really big producers on a level playing field. You’re judged blind, nobody can see the packaging. So it’s excellent for the little businesses producing really good quality products.’

Now Kate is taking the Little Rose Bakery, based at her ‘gingerbread cottage’ in Bishop’s Waltham, forward with plenty of new ideas and even a recipe book.

Winners

The Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards give three-star, two-star and one-star accolades to the cream of more than 7,000 entrants.

Three-star golds were awarded to Laverstoke Park Farm at Overton for both its buffalo jerky and buffalo milk vanilla ice cream and to Two Hoots near Wokingham for its Barkham Blue cheese.

Two-star gold award-winning products include salted caramel ice cream and natural frozen ice cream (Jude’s Ice Cream, nr Winchester), smoked buffalo dry sausages and buffalo milk rum ‘n’ raisin icecream (Laverstoke Park Farm), White Hart and Woodfalls with Fenugreek cheeses (Loosehanger Cheeses, Redlynch), Stoney Cross and Old Winchester cheeses (Lyburn Farmhouse Cheesemakers, Landford), English peppermint tea (Summerdown Farms, Basingstoke) and strawberry jam (Hampshire Jam & Chutney Company, Winchester).  

One-star gold-winning products included faggots (Chalcroft Farm Shop, nr Southampton), organic lager, buffalo meatballs and buffalo milk chocolate ice cream (Laverstoke Park Farm), honey bears biscuits (Little Rose Bakery, Bishop’s Waltham), sweet and spicy nuts, passion fruit and orange cake, and almond and pistachio cake (Caracoli, Alresford), Limoncello truffles, rum and blackcurrant chocolates, and ginger truffles (My Chocolate Bar, Andover), chocolate chunk biscotti (Nisi’s, Lymington), oat and raisin cookie mix (Scarlet Bakes, nr Fareham), chocolate peppermint creams and chocolate mint thins (Summerdown Farms) and Loddon Blewe cheese (Two Hoots).