Northern Ireland is known for its love affair with all things sweet. After all, we’re the proud home to the tasty traybake — those sticky sweet delicious concoctions (that funnily enough don’t often require the use of an oven) that have been a staple favourite for decades served with a cup of tea.
emark on how delicious a fifteen (a mixture of crushed digestive, marshmallows and cherries combined with condensed milk and finished with desiccated coconut) is to someone outside of our lovely land and chances are it will be result in a perplexed look.
Now though, we’ve elevated our love of baked goods into a going-out experience and the proof is the pudding. Well, in the dozens and dozens of dessert bars popping up faster than a kernel of popcorn across Northern Ireland — from Lisburn, Banbridge and Magherfelt and beyond — all keen to tap into our devotion to sweet treats by exclusively serving just desserts.
The trend for desserts-only dining started in the United States, before hopping over the Atlantic to London, where the first venue devoted wholly to what traditionally had been the third course opened in 2016 — the Cafe Royal hotel in Regent Street.
Just recently in the English capital city, renowned French pastry chef Cédric Grolet unveiled his seven courses of cake for an eye-watering £135 at hot spot luxe cafe, The Berkley.
So it was only a matter of time when savvy foodies within the hospitality industry on this side of the Irish Sea would spot an opportunity to offer a sit-in experience devoted to sweet things.
After all, people in Northern Ireland spend the largest proportion out of all the UK regions on their favourite sweets and snacks each week — 23% more compared to England, Scotland and Wales, according to latest official figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
But it appears Northern Ireland appears to want its sugar fix in a more casual setting than the fine dining spots in London — so far at least.
And with the cupcake fad long gone bust, doughnuts appear to have filled the ‘hole’ left by becoming the number one choice for sugar addicts.
From Taboo to Black Box as well as Guilt Trip — a doughnut chain established by ex-Ulster Rugby players Darren Cave and Calum Black which opened its ninth outlet on south Belfast’s trendy Lisburn Road, fitting in perfectly with the BT11’s independent retailer vibe — Northern Ireland has certainly overindulged in the round dough treat.
But tastes don’t stop there. Also on the Lisburn Road is Brew & Bake, a favourite sweet treat dining destination for locals in the know since it opened in September 2018.
In less than four years, the spot has amassed nearly 13,000 followers on Instagram, with fans scrolling at the end of each week to find out what its ‘weekend bake’ or ‘weekend roll’ will be — a Caramac cake with layers of golden sponge with matching frosting? Or a chocolate fudge brownie with chocolate cream frosting and fudge pieces combined in a tempting sweet roll? The answer from customers is simply, “Both please!”
Brew & Bake is the brainchild of owner Danielle Wong who had dreamed of opening her own cafe for a long time before coffee culture heralded the emergence of independent coffee houses and tea spots.
“I went traveling to Australia and South East Asia where I visited many cafes and my love for coffee, brunch and bakes grew,” she says.
“After moving back to Belfast and working in a few cafes I finally took the plunge and decided to open my own. I have always loved baking so baking everything in house was going to be a key part of the business.
“I also wanted to offer something different and decided to focus on tea — we have over 20 loose-leaf teas — and so Brew and Bake was born,” she says. Danielle believes people in Northern Ireland have a particular affinity for sugary treats, something which is — and excuse the pun — ‘baked’ into our day-to-day lives.
“I am addicted to sweet treats, bakes, cakes and sugar! I think it’s the culture. We grew up having a biscuit with your cuppa, cream buns from the bakery, dessert after dinner and treats in between.
“It’s such a big part of our lives, when you meet up with friends and family treats are involved. There’s always someone that brings treats into work. Treats when you’ve had a tough day, when you need a little something… There’s just always a reason to have a sweet treat.”
And there’s no signs of it changing anytime soon, stresses the business owner.
“We have seen those trends in the sales of our baked goods. We get orders for all occasions: birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, christenings.
“We have customers come in every weekend for their box of bakes. It’s a habit that has become routine. People in Northern Ireland love a sweet treat.”
Brew & Bake last summer saw that first-hand, when a long queue gathered outside before it opened its door when it unveiled its strawberry cream cruffins — a hybrid between an American-style muffin and a croissant on its social media platforms. Such was the demand, orders were limited to two per person.
“It was crazy. I knew I loved cruffins, and I was excited, but I didn’t expect everyone else to go mad for them,
“There was a huge demand for our cruffins. We had a queue before we opened and for most of the day,” recalls Danielle.
“Our social media post on the cruffin definitely got people drooling.
“The cross section showing layers of pastry and the jam filling oozing out was beautiful. Cruffins are a relatively new thing in Belfast with only a few places doing them. Many people haven’t heard of them or tried them so I think it created a bit of interest.”
She says the emerging trend of desserts-only venues is “fantastic”, and adds: “It’s great to have a place to go that is dedicated in creating the most dreamy, decadent and delicious dessert.
“I think being able to go out and have an entire experience based on dessert is exciting and such a treat!
“There is clearly a demand for desserts and sweet treats. We have seen sales of bakes and cakes really grow. Many customers come in purely for the treats. Customers love seeing what the weekend bake and weekend roll will be. Many pre-order treats for the weekend to ensure they get their fix.
“Social media and baking programmes such as Bake Off have really sparked a love of baked treats.
“The lockdowns had people baking and appreciating the skill behind it and also created a bunch of bakers. The industry is growing! There is always room for dessert.”
Clearly a sentiment shared by many, given that just a couple doors away there’s Sticky Fingers, a late-night dessert spot which bills itself as a venue that creates “word-class desserts using locally-sourced ingredients”.
Its nearly 50 Google reviews giving it an overall score of 4.8 out of five suggests its clientele agrees with their stomachs.
Food writer John Mulgrew has noticed the emergence in sweet-based spots in recent years, but he admits, it’s not his acquired taste.
“I don’t really have a traditional sweet tooth — for me, it’s all about the savoury,” he remarks.
“But there are times when the sweet, done well, can rise above and emerge as the star of an evening — our top pastry chefs get up to, from the team at OX, to Blank and Deanes, can dazzle and amaze. For me, when ordering a pudding, it has to be something which seems so alien to the abilities of a home cook like me.
“Here, there’s a growing interest in the casual, but ‘artisan’, when it comes to sweet things — from good ice cream shops, to cupcakes and doughnuts.”
He singles out doughnuts in particular as having influenced the food scene.
“Some of my friends have a severe addition to the raft of the ‘gourmet’ varieties — leaving with boxes heaving with a myriad of flavour combinations, turned doughnut — from lemon meringue, to raspberry ruffle and candied bacon,” adds John.
“You only have to look at the burgeoning prevalence of higher end spots on our high streets to see just how popular they are.
“But while there’s certainly a time and a place for them, give me an old fashioned gravy ring any day.”
Old-fashioned with a twist, however, is what west Belfast sweet treat cafe Nellie Jay’s is all about. Named in honour of the first cow to fly in an airplane to fly across the US state of Missouri in 1930, the dessert spot is a homage to the traditional 1950s ice-cream parlour (often to be found in parts of Belfast but also in sea-side places like Newcastle, Portrush and Bangor) but with modern touches.
Briege McDermott, manager of Nellie Jay’s, says it’s the venue’s ability to conjure up nostalgia — tapping into fond memories of old-school ice-cream parlour — that is part of the dessert spot’s winning appeal.
“People are fascinated by the whole decor of the place; it brings a lot of the parents back to their childhood.
“Lots of grandparents come in and say it they love it. It’s like a 1950s diner,” she explains.
“There’s also a fascination with the array of dessert choices we have on offer. From the minute when you walk through the door, you have the pick n mix, the slush puppies and we have 18 flavours of gelato, you have your whippy ice cream, you have your waffles.”
The list goes on: “You have brownie trays, cookie dough, cookie trays cookie sandwiches — a full counter filled with cakes, buns and traybakes and cheesecake, trifles, banoffee, lemon meringue.”
Briege continues: “The options for milkshakes are endless.
“Waffles are the most popular choice at the minute — they’re massive waffles, with all the sauces and toppings but people love a sundae with the big, tall glass with the sauces with the whippy ice cream on top and a flake and a wafer.”
Lockdown created a demand for those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth with dessert deliveries to homes, and it’s a trend that has continued, only now people can now turn it into a weekly trip out, reveals Briege.
“Darren who owns Nellie Jay’s was thinking outside the box and wanted to something different. He noticed that families want to spend more time together as a family, and this about giving them somewhere different, more child-led.
“It definitely a gap in the market for it and Nellie-Jay’s is definitely part of filling that. In the next few months we’re planning on opening more.”
Now typically she notices families of different generations coming into Nellie Jay’s.
“When it was mid-term we had lots of grandparents coming in and saying that it’s so nice here,” she says,
“And they’ll have a piece of cake and a coffee. I love seeing customers coming back. I always remember the faces. People are always surprised when I remember their faces, but I do.”
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/life/weekend/northern-ireland-and-its-traybakes-having-our-cake-and-eating-it-41410951.html Northern Ireland and its traybakes: Having our cake and eating it