Baker James Shepherd stumbled across the story of Aberffraw biscuits by accident, but has turned the ancient treat into a recipe for success by supplying hotels, national grocers and now international customers, writes Maria McGeoghan.
There is no finer aroma in the world than the whiff of cooling shortbread. And, for James Shepherd, it’s also the smell of success – thanks to a chance encounter one night when he was watching TV. Born and brought up in North Wales, James always considered himself a decent home cook, and he and his wife Natasha enjoyed watching the nation’s favourite food show, The Great British Bake Off. During an episode in October 2012, one of presenters Mel and Sue’s short information films on the history of food grabbed his attention.
The film mentioned that the oldest biscuit in Britain was called the “Aberffraw biscuit” – or sometimes the “Aberffraw cake” or “Teisen Berffro” – and was said to originate from 13th-century Anglesey. Shaped like a scallop shell, legend has it that a Welsh king was holding court in Aberffraw and while his wife was walking on the beach she spotted a pretty scallop shell and asked for a cake to be baked in the same form. The Aberffraw biscuit was born.
“Me and my wife turned to each other and said ‘That can’t be right’,” says Shepherd, 38, who spent ten years working as a journalist in North Wales before heading up e-commerce at a cookware company. “I’d never heard of them, but the film showed a woman in a mill in Anglesey making shell-shaped biscuits. “I suppose I spotted that it was a great story and I knew what the marketing potential would be. We started to look into it and I thought I might try and make a few.”
The father-of-two set about trying to replicate the ancient Aberffraw biscuit recipe with mixed results. “I’ve always been a keen cook and I do all the cooking at home,” he explains. “I’ve always enjoyed cooking for friends and family.
“I found a 19th-century recipe that called for loaf sugar, which I’d never heard of. I tried to replicate it but it just looked like sludge so I updated the recipe as best I could. There are just three ingredients – flour, butter and sugar – and I created a special stamp to make it look like a shell.”
Shepherd was still working full-time and honing his recipe for the biscuits in his own kitchen at the weekend. Then, in May 2013, he was happy with his product and the couple decided to launch their biscuits at the Llangollen Food Festival.
The revival of the ancient Aberffraw biscuit was, as Shepherd foresaw, a good story and was covered in the Daily Post, on Radio Wales and in the Sunday Times, before The Great British Bake Off reappeared to play another hand in their success. “I got a call from The One Show,” recalls Shepherd with a grin. “They had seen the story and wanted me to send some biscuits up so Paul Hollywood could taste them. I had to tell my boss I had to leave work and dash home and make some biscuits. He wasn’t very happy.”
Biscuits baked and despatched, Shepherd once again found himself on the same sofa with his wife waiting for a verdict on his efforts from the most famous baker in the country. “We just held our breath,” he says. “Then when he tasted one he said that it was a nice biscuit with good flavour. Phew. Yes, it was a big risk and we breathed a sigh of relief.
“That was my first commercial sale because I had to invoice the BBC. If he hadn’t liked them then it could have been the first and the last. Come to think of it, I don’t think they ever paid that couple of quid.”
That high-risk gamble paid off almost immediately when the Imperial Hotel in Llandudno got in touch to ask Shepherd to supply his biscuits and it is still a customer now. Shepherd had been working his notice and reducing his hours at the cookware company so that he had time to set about designing the logo and packaging for his biscuits.
“I’d sat in traffic on the A55 for two-and-a-half years commuting to the Wirral and that was enough,” he says. “We have never thought about moving. We love the space and the clean air of North Wales.
“I never thought I would set up my own business, but I love being my own boss, being able to drop the kids at school and having time to think about what I do next.
“I was never one of those people who knew what I wanted to do. I remember a physiotherapist came to school to talk about their career and I thought I might give it a try.”
He spent a year studying at Cardiff University before realising that it wasn’t for him and then tried engineering at Leicester where he met his future wife – also from North Wales – on his first night out in the city. Engineering wasn’t for him either and, after a spell on the Hotpoint production line putting screws into washing machines, he spotted an advert for an apprentice journalist.
“They took a real punt on me, but I was smitten by journalism and spent the next ten years loving it,” he says. “There was a lot of sitting in Abergele Town Council listening to them debating park benches, but I also interviewed both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.”
As he made those first steps towards setting up his business, he is full of praise for the business mentor assigned to him by the Welsh Assembly to help him grow and succeed. “It was fantastic,” Shepherd says. “I’d had no exposure to the food trade and I’d never run a business. The mentor told me to simplify the products and get a nice box done. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t taken his advice.”
With a clam shell logo, the classy-looking box holds nine biscuits and retails at £4. “It’s not an everyday biscuit,” Shepherd explains. “But it seems to suit everyone with its Welsh tradition, and tourists coming to Wales seem to like it.”
He outgrew his home kitchen and found a bakery unit in Llanrwst to work from and has now bought the unit next door to give the growing business some extra space. The smell of rows and rows of cooling shortbread is delightful, and Paul Hollywood was right: it’s a lovely, buttery biscuit.
In 2015, Shepherd launched biscuits flavoured with chocolate, lemon and ‘Bara Brith’ – a Welsh fruit loaf – and he is now looking at developing a gingerbread recipe. Earlier that same year, he did a deal to supply Marks & Spencer, which was launching a series of 25 artisan products from around the UK to be sold in 180 stores.
“It was fantastic news and we celebrated when we got the deal,” says Shepherd. “Then the order came in to do six pallets of biscuits in six weeks so I took on two staff to help me.”
That same year, Shepherd was named Welsh food and drink entrepreneur of the year and the Aberffraw Biscuit Company won the ambient food manufacturer of the year prize in the Food Awards Wales. Its traditional shortbread also won a 2015 Great Taste Award.
Shepherd has just completed a deal with the Co-operative to stock his biscuits in 60 stores and is looking at launching a new range – Shepherd’s Welsh Biscuits – with a major retailer. He’s also producing individual biscuit packets for hotels, has completed a “tiny” deal in the United States and is proud to be on the shelves in Kuwait after signing a contract with high-end stockist Dean & DeLuca.
With a total of four employees, turnover at the Aberffraw Biscuit Company has gone from £70,000 to £113,000, with further growth forecast. Shepherd is interested in talking to investors to look at funding a flow wrapping machine for the individual packets of biscuits for hotels, which have proved to be very successful.
When we meet on a beautiful sunny morning in Llanrwst, the only cloud on his horizon is the price of butter, which has doubled since the Brexit vote last June. “The 25-kilo block price is crippling,” admits Shepherd.
“It would be cheaper to go in to supermarkets and buy the small packets, but I use too much. All the experts seem to be saying that the price will come down again and it can’t come soon enough.”
Shepherd doesn’t hold back when it comes to sharing his secrets for running a successful business. “Always follow your gut instinct,” he says. “Whenever I haven’t done that I always get bitten.
“Be super organised – I suppose I always have. I used to be the only journalist in the office with a neat desk. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
And does he still like eating shortbread now that he lives and breathes it? “I have one biscuit a day – just to make sure it’s right,” he grins.