Meet the army of bakers creating showstoppers, Yorkshire style

Christmas figures hand made from sugar paste and marzipan wait to be placed on Christmas cakes at Botham's of Whitby. PIC: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media
Christmas figures hand made from sugar paste and marzipan wait to be placed on Christmas cakes at Botham's of Whitby. PIC: Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Media
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It began on a Whitby market stall and 150 years on Jeannie Swales goes behind the scenes at Botham’s and meets the small army of bakers creating showstoppers, Yorkshire style.

It’s 6.30am on a bitingly cold, hail and rain-swept morning, and some of the staff at Whitby’s famous Botham’s bakery have already been at work for three hours. Some of them are busy with the everyday goods that are – forgive the pun – Botham’s bread and butter: bracks and tea breads, pork pies and quiches, and “signature” items such as the famous lemon bun (a Whitby shibboleth – locals turn it inside out to sandwich the lemon icing in the middle) and chocolate japs.

Others in the warren of workshops behind the gleaming Skinner Street shop are hard at work preparing for one of the busiest periods of the year – Christmas.

Directors and brothers Nick and Jonathan Botham will be spending the next few hours creating a batch of stollen – the German fruited bread with a hidden heart of almond paste that’s become so popular at Christmas in this country over the last few years.

Stollen is the brothers’ “thing”, a task they’ve undertaken ever since it was introduced to the Botham’s repertoire a few years ago by their sister and fellow director Liz Roberts, who came back from a couple of years living in Germany with, laughs Jonathan, “fancy continental ideas”.

Between them they turn out 800 to 1,000 each Christmas, 120 or so at a time and each one made by hand, including the central pillar of almond paste (not marzipan, they’re keen to stress – that’s made with almonds which have been boiled, rather than the ground raw nuts which, with icing sugar and caster sugar, are the ingredients for almond paste).

A few of the most basic processes are automated – they use a giant-size version of a kitchen mixer for the dough, loading it with 20lb (they work in a dizzying mixture of imperial and metric measurements) of strong white flour from Bradshaw’s of Driffield, and a similar quantity of mixed sultanas, currants and mixed peel.

Also in the mix are ground cinnamon and cardamom, and here’s where the hand-made aspect is taken to new extremes – Jonathan hasn’t been able to find a source of ready-ground cardamom that he’s happy with, so spent the previous evening scraping seeds from pods and grinding them himself – it took him 45 minutes to produce the required four ounces.

Once mixed, the dough is measured – another very basic piece of machinery weighs a slab and cuts it into individual pieces of equal weight which are then rolled into balls by the two bakers, two at a time, one in the left hand, one in the right. Years of experience means that they can pick up the two balls of dough and tell straight away if there’s even a gram or two difference.

After around 90 minutes proving, the balls of dough are flattened and wrapped around the sausages of almond paste, which were made the previous day and left to dry overnight. Then it’s into the huge ovens for around 40 minutes before being brushed with butter – partly for looks, partly for flavour. “Margarine would do the same job cosmetically, but it just wouldn’t taste as good,” says Nick. The final touch is a festive snowdrift of icing sugar.

Elsewhere in the bakery, sister Liz is busy with Christmas cakes. Here, the figures become staggering – Botham’s turns out only a few hundred of its largest size of cake, but numbers for the smallest, which is popular for mail order, can run to 15,000. They’ve been sent as far afield as the US and Australia.

Each cake is made by hand by the team of bakers, and the decorations are designed by Liz, who also leads the team dressing them. This year’s selection includes a seagull cake based on a tea towel designed for the bakery by local artist Anita Marshall, and a range from the very traditional (the holly and the ivy), through chic Scandinavian-style minimalism to, on the bigger cakes, a range of figures including Father Christmases, penguins and polar bears, all made from scratch by Liz using sugar paste and marzipan (yes, marzipan this time).

These feature some delightful details: a row of seated Santas, for instance, are all holding lettered scrolls – look very closely and you’ll see that some say “naughty” and others “nice”. “Yes, they started out quite simple, but every year I add more and more,” says Liz, ruefully. “I just can’t help myself.”

What’s truly remarkable about Botham’s is that it’s been in the same family now for over 150 years. Directors Nick, Jonathan and Liz, plus sister Sarah – away at the Chatsworth House Christmas market on the day of our visit – are all great-grandchildren of the original baker herself, Elizabeth Botham. Sarah’s husband Mike and daughter Lois complete the team of directors – and Lois’s two sisters Kay and Anita also work in the business.

Elizabeth was a formidable woman, to say the least, her achievements as both businesswoman and mother extraordinary. Born at Brandesburton, near Beverley, she went into service at the age of 13 at Wykeham, near Scarborough – Jonathan, the family historian, thinks most likely at Wykeham Abbey. There she met John, a widowed farmer with four children already.

They married, and she took on his children, then had 10 more of her own with him. By the 1860s, Elizabeth was already using her talents to supplement the family income by selling baked goods at local markets – a handed-down family memory sees her walking across the fields weighed down by baskets, a ragged train of children streaming behind her.

But the 1860s was to bring to British cattle farming a tragedy that paralleled the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 – the now-eradicated rinderpest, or cattle plague, swept the country, devastating farms including John Botham’s. “As a very old lady who remembered him once told my mother, he was a ‘brokken man’ after that,” says Jonathan.

The family moved to Whitby, from where John worked as a farm manager at Hutton Mulgrave, then as a farm labourer at Sleights before finally dying in 1880, just a year after the birth of his youngest son Arthur, grandfather to the current batch of Botham’s directors.

But with 14 children to support, the redoubtable Elizabeth had already grabbed the reins of the family’s future.

During the 1870s, she had become a familiar figure at Whitby market, with a green handcart fitted with shelves displaying goods baked at her Grove Street home. Soon she bought premises on Raglan Terrace, then moved the whole enterprise to Skinner Street, where she ran a shop and alehouse. By the turn of the century, the shop had expanded along the street and included the Inglenook Café – and Elizabeth had bought Stakesby Manor and its surrounding farm, plus an additional shop on Baxtergate. The current family still own and run the bakeries at Skinner Street and Baxtergate, plus three others, on Whitby’s Enterprise Way, and at Sleights and Pickering.

Elizabeth died in 1904, and the business was taken over by her eldest child, Jack, and her youngest, Arthur. By the late 1940s, it was being run by Arthur’s sons Billy, Sydney and Neville, father of Jonathan, Nick, Liz and Sarah.

“I think at one point my parents thought they might have to sell the business,” says Jonathan. “But then we all sort of drifted into it.”

Over 150 years since Elizabeth Botham started selling bread and cakes from a basket, and her company is thriving, and very much part of a Whitby Christmas. It’s now 10.30am, and the finished stollen are cooling on racks. Those who started at 3.30am are getting ready to leave the cosy bakery and head home through the awful weather. The shop and tearoom above it have only just started their day.