A taste of Dorset — Honeybuns
Pamela de Figueiredo visits a north Dorset success story
Published in December ’09
Emma Goss-Custard began her career in catering with a sandwich round in Oxford. By 1998 she was building Honeybuns’ reputation by baking home-made cakes in a tiny domestic kitchen and delivering them to delicatessens on her bicycle. She came to Dorset in 2001, armed with her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, to make a name for herself as the producer of a range of unique hand-made cakes and biscuits. These continue to collect an array of prestigious awards not only for their taste, quality and use of carefully selected natural ingredients but also for the ethical focus and the low environmental impact involved in their production.
As the business expanded, so did the need for space and today it is tucked away in the outbuildings of a farm at Holwell, near Sherborne. Honeybuns has caused surprise in some quarters by flourishing where others have struggled during a challenging period of economic uncertainty. Emma says that her aim for Honeybuns is to stand out from the crowd by focussing on taste and quality, hand-crafting something and getting it right, and sourcing local ingredients, all to create a product that is different.
‘Dorset is an utterly beautiful place to be and I feel very much at the hub of an incredible world-class food scene, working with the finest suppliers,’ she says. Using Dorset’s rich bounty of honey, free-range eggs, butter, curds and jams, blended in a mix of Mediterranean fruit and nuts, Belgian chocolate, brown and muscovado sugar, lime and orange zests, calvados and stem ginger to name just a few of the ingredients, Honeybuns markets a selection of seventeen products that can be found in Sainsburys, John Lewis, Morrisons and Waitrose all over the country. The cakes are exported to Ireland and Germany and are sold in a variety of outlets in the south-west as well as at food fairs and festivals from Chatsworth to Glastonbury. This year they collected the Glastonbury Green Trader Silver award.
Farmer’s daughter and bakery manager Charlotte Smith-Drake, one of the twenty or so local people who work at the bakery, explains that the flapjacks, cookies, layered shortbreads, brownies and cakes have a very broad appeal. ‘We want to expand the mail order side and are keen to promote our range of gifts, the gift cake tins and non-food items such as the hessian shopping bags and honey-based lip balm, and offer a gift wrapping service. We don’t use cardboard, and the packaging and tins can all be re-used and recycled,’ she says. While the business is looking towards expansion and increased efficiency in production, ‘we will never become a factory,’ insists Charlotte. ‘Our cakes are made by hand and we will never lose this magic.’
Many of the products are free of gluten, dairy or refined white sugar, to give consumers the control of exactly what they are eating and of what goes into the family lunch-box. In place at the bakery are stringent tests, precise colour and batch coding along with clear labelling, to help anyone with food intolerances or on special diets. The polenta, the home-roasted ground almonds, the olive oil, honey and natural fruit sweeteners which replace conventional ingredients actually contribute to the light texture and rich taste of the finished product. The bakery operates ‘gluten-free days’, when it uses different parts of the bakery so that the making of gluten-free and regular cakes is kept completely separate. It is this consistency and attention to every last detail that makes Honeybuns the success that it is. ‘We make inclusive treats for everyone to enjoy. Being gluten-free is an added bonus,’ says Emma, explaining that they are currently investigating the needs of the diabetic market.
Honeybuns contain no added preservatives and are frozen before they leave the bakery. The products are delivered frozen to the wholesalers, who in turn deliver them frozen to retailers, who can then defrost a few pieces at a time so that the cakes can be enjoyed at their best. Each piece is wrapped separately in bio-degradable film and each contains a different personalised message from Emma. The Heathcliff Brownie, gluten-free dark chocolate with orange, reads: ‘There is no rushing here at Honeybuns. We bake in the slow, old-fashioned way using a magnificent vintage deck oven. There is a gentle top and bottom heat with none of the harshness of fan assisted anything’, while the Milk Chocolate Brownie with its dash of espresso coffee, the one that television’s celebrity chef Lesley Waters considers to be ‘the best brownie on the market’, carries the reminder: ‘This cake is an indulgent treat. If you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight.’
As an ethical food producer, Honeybuns recycles everything possible, the ingredients are rigorously checked for sustainability as well as quality, and transport is kept to a minimum with even the imported dried fruits and nuts being shipped in to avoid collecting air miles. Around the farm buildings trees and stretches of hedgerow that had been ploughed up have been replaced to encourage wildlife.
By gently adapting, re-using and recycling everything from stable doors to floorboards, the former pig sties now house the office, while the Bee Shack café must be the most eco-friendly café ever, taking shape from discarded ancient sofas and a diverse collection of cast-off furniture that has been simply painted in Honeybun colours and covered by an eclectic mix of rugs and fabrics. The café opens on the first Saturday of every month between March and December for customers to enjoy the Dorset version of tapas. With hot drinks and big plates of samples, there’s a chance to stock up and try out new products such as the BumbleO. This is a savoury retail and catering tray bake, Honeybuns’ innovative Mediterranean take on the Welsh rarebit – made from the finest Dorset cheese, of course.