FAMILIAR FIGURE: Baker Alison Sayer, whose cakes and biscuits prove a popular buy at markets in the dale. Right, a selection of her cakes
FAMILIAR FIGURE: Baker Alison Sayer, whose cakes and biscuits prove a popular buy at markets in the dale. Right, a selection of her cakes

Alison’s Country Pantry stall is a familiar sight at the local agricultural shows, where there are always plenty of customers for Alison Sayer’s traditional cakes and biscuits. Reporter Wendy Short went along to her on-farm bakery, to pick up some tips and hear about how the business got started.

ALISON’S Country Pantry was borne out of Alison Sayer’s love of baking, which she inherited from her mother, Maria Stokeld.

Alison can clearly remember all sorts of cakes and biscuits being made in the old-fashioned range, which she describes as “temperamental”.

Alison admits she never mastered the art of achieving consistent results in the range. She much prefers the oven in her commercial unit in the converted livestock building, which is just a few steps away from the main house at Grassholme Farm, in Lunedale, where she has lived all her life.

Nevertheless, Alison continues to use many of the recipes handed down by her mother and her grandmother, along with those taken from a Teesdale cookery book that was published many years ago. It was produced to raise funds for the local Methodist church and contains a variety of recipes contributed by its members.

An old Be-Ro flour cookery book, which has long since gone out of print, is also a source of reliable “old favourites,” she adds.

The family farm overlooks Grassholme reservoir and before the catering business took off, Alison would offer morning coffee and afternoon tea to the many walkers who travelled along the footpath which takes them through the 86-acre holding.

The private catering business evolved naturally, due to demand from friends and family, with Alison’s Country Pantry offering traditional-style food for a range of events, including weddings, birthday parties and funerals.

Alison, who trained as a baker after leaving school, also supplies cakes to local outlets and cooks for three of Teesdale’s lunch clubs, as well as attending Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale farmers’ markets, with her tasty treats.

Among the most popular of her lines is her grandmother’s recipe for a rich fruit cake, with lemon meringue pie and chocolate and sandwich cakes also selling by the many dozen.

In addition, she bakes a range of biscuits – ginger is the flavour which tends to sell best, she says.

Unlike some keen bakers, Alison measures out all of the ingredients that she uses.

“I have forgotten to add the raising agent on occasion, with disastrous consequences,” she admits.

“Therefore, I always try to make sure all of the ingredients are checked off as a priority and I also concentrate hard, to get the exact weights.

“The price of ingredients has gone up significantly over the past few years, especially butter, and nuts and preserved fruits like currants and sultanas have also become much more expensive.

“Cakes which sink in the middle are usually the result of over-beating, when the butter and sugar are being combined, or when the cakes have been taken out of the oven too soon. People often say that it is difficult to judge when biscuits are ready, because they only crisp up once they have cooled. Timing comes with experience and I can tell when they are done by their colour.”

Alison now lives at Grassholme Farm with her husband, Richard, who works part-time as a stockman at Darlington Farmers’ Auction Mart.

Daughter Rachael is still at home and helps out with the catering business when she is not working as a hairdresser.

Another daughter, Emma Ford, is an upholsterer and cabinet maker with Anthony Nixon Furniture, in Barnard Castle.

Meanwhile, their third daughter, Anne-Marie, is a milk recorder and lives with her partner, Richard, and their baby son, Thomas, on a farm near Carlisle.

“There has been renewed interest in baking and the Great British Bake Off has encouraged people to make their own cakes and biscuits,” says Alison.

“I think that home baking always tastes better than mass-produced products and in this part of the world, the traditional types of cake and biscuit are still in high demand.

“I normally have three baking days each week and I still enjoy it, although it can be slightly stressful when there is a lot to do and I am under pressure. ”

Grassholme Farm

SHEEP from the Mule flock, which go to a Charollais or Beltex cross tup, are sold as stores. The farm also supports a small herd of British Blue and British Limousin cross suckler cows, which go to a British Blonde bull. Their progeny is also sold on the store market.

Richard Sayer, whose family farmed at West Gates Farm, in Gilmonby, reports that Darlington Farmers Auction Mart is expected to be operating at its new, out-of-town site at Humbleton Farm, just off the A68, in time for the Christmas livestock sales in 2019.

If the construction goes according to plan, it may also host the autumn Mule breeding ewe sales.

“I can remember when cattle from Ireland used to come into Darlington mart having travelled by train,” says Richard. “It was very convenient, with the train station just next door, and they used to be unloaded into an adjacent field, which has now been used for building.

“Many of today’s farmers have trailers that are 14ft long and the wagons are even longer than that, so it no longer makes sense to transport livestock through the busy town centre. We are all looking forward to settling in to the new location.”

Alison Sayer’s Chocolate Brownie Recipe

4oz (115g) plain chocolate

4oz (115g) butter

Three eggs

7oz (200g) sugar

Half a teaspoon of vanilla essence

Pinch of salt

5oz (140g) plain flour

6oz (170g) chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/180 C/Gas mark four.

Line a 13x9 inch tin with greaseproof paper and grease.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a bowl set above a pan of warm water. Beat together the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt and stir in the chocolate mixture. Sift the flour, fold in and add the chocolate chip.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and bake until just set, for about 30 minutes. Do not over-bake; the brownies should be slightly moist inside.