That Old Chestnut Cakes
It is a warm July afternoon and I am at a festival in Leeds, where, in a marquee two people are selling splendid looking cake. My wife and I each buy a slice, and it is only then that I pick up a business card from the stall holders: ‘That Old Chestnut’, it reads, ‘100% vegan’. Having already paid my money I take a bite, fearing the worst. Vegan cake? Two words that were never meant to go together: as jarring as ‘kidney strudel’. I expect a taste of road-sweepings and sawdust. Instead I feel a rich, dark, biscuit-like gingery sensation. My wife has a large slice of chocolate orange cake which both looks and tastes heavenly. Surely this is not how vegan cake should be?
Flash forward a month, and I am now sat opposite Elly Robinson and Chris Kubiszewski in a café talking about veganism, principles and cake. Elly and Chris are college friends who set up ‘That Old Chestnut’ whilst at University in 2008. It was originally an idea associated with their art course: to explore man’s relationship with animals and food. They created a vegan picnic at a student festival and invited people to sample what they had brought along. Very little food was left at the end.
I ask whether it was this that gave Chris and Elly the idea of turning vegan cake-making into a business, or whether it was something more complex. Chris replies “I have always loved puddings and cakes and sweet stuff.” He and Elly quickly recognised that the commercially available vegan products were both expensive and sub-standard with limited choice, and they thought they could offer consumers a far better choice.
They researched vegan cake recipes online and in cookery books, adapted the instructions and started experimenting. “We learned how ingredients work and what they do in a mixture,” explains Elly. “Eggs add moisture and help cakes rise, but so do other things. We use vegetable oils, bananas, margarine or treacle.” The orange chocolate cake I had tried in July was so light and moist that I was surprised no eggs had been added. For this cake, the substitute ingredients were orange juice and just a little vegetable oil.
When I ask for recipes so I try to recreate That Old Chestnut’s flavours at home, Chris and Elly just grin. “We keep them behind three feet of steel,” Chris tells me. It is a fair point: as a relatively new business producing unusual cakes of real quality, they have to protect their intellectual property. “Maybe when we are bigger we will put out a cook book, but not just yet.”
That Old Chestnut is still experimenting with its products. They already have quite a range, of both the predictable and the unexpected. You would expect carrot cake and lemon drizzle cake, certainly, but in addition to those flavours there is also mocha cake, a couple of tiffins (which I can recommend from personal experience) and the exotic lime and coconut bundt cake.
Elly and Chris have recently extended their range to ‘raw bars’, slabs of dried fruit, seeds and nuts that successfully balance a healthy taste with one that is sweet and enjoyable. I try a small portion of the ‘almost raw cocoa bar’ and then the raw ginger bar, and look pleadingly at the cranberry version until I am encouraged to try that too. Elly explains that her brother is an active cyclist and they wanted to create something that gives a burst of energy and protein, whilst still tasting wonderful. One advantage, shared with the tiffins, these raw bars have over the traditional cakes is that they can be posted. They are compact and solid enough that it would be difficult for a careless postman to cause tragedy during delivery.
The nature of the business is such that the cakes have to be hand delivered. Two mornings a week are dedicated to this, and only within the confines of West Yorkshire. Many of That Old Chestnut’s customers are cafés local to Leeds, though there are several individual buyers too. Originally Chris and Elly took their cakes to farmers’ markets, but found that there were not enough selling days for this to be satisfactory. They decided to take free samples around cafés and coffee bars that they knew, and on their first day gained three regular orders. Now That Old Chestnut’s cakes are on the menu at sixteen different places, all independent retailers. The fact that these cakes are vegan is a big seller. Their stockists are mostly not vegetarian outlets, but do have vegetarian and vegan customers. Elly and Chris have capitalised on their unique selling point: supplying a wide range of quality vegan cakes at an affordable price.
It is clear that the business is driven by its principles and at 26 years of age Elly and Chris have youth’s idealism in spades. That their cakes are vegan is only one aspect of their ethical stance. Both their buyers and suppliers are independent businesses, and this is a conscious choice. That Old Chestnut gets most of its raw ingredients from Lembas, an independent specialist wholesaler in vegetarian foods, and its chocolate is from Kinnertons in Norfolk. Fruit, nuts and seeds are bought at local market stalls and both Chris and Elly are passionate about supporting local business. Elly is particularly critical of supermarkets for destroying the livelihoods of high-street food sellers, and making ruthless demands of their suppliers for the sake of profit. You will not be seeing That Old Chestnut’s products in your local branch of Tesco at any time soon.
If That Old Chestnut is not going to sell to chain stores, what are their future plans? Currently they are limited by thei size of their kitchens. All their cakes are made at either Chris or Elly’s houses – they had to be registered and visited by their respective councils’ Environmental Health Department before they could proceed. This means that they do not have the space or equipment to expand much beyond their current business. Each has a part time job, helping to pay the rent, but it is apparent that both would like to turn That Old Chestnut into a full time profession. As it is, they struggle to find enough hours to produce the amount they do. “We are teetering on the edge of making it all bigger,” Elly tells me. They are looking for a commercial kitchen and potentially a shop front, where they could sell directly to the public, but this is likely to require independent backing together with a leap of faith.
At the end of our meeting, and after trying another few samples, I ask what Elly and Chris enjoy most about doing what they do. “Getting a positive reaction from people who wouldn’t normally consider a vegan cake,” is Elly’s answer, which reflects the reason I am there. Chris is more prosaic. “Eating the leftovers”. These are two people who believe in what they do, and with good reason. Vegan cake in their hands is an unlikely winner.