An enterprising couple are supplying one of the world’s most famous stores and prestigious outlets in Singapore and Kuwait after reviving Britain’s oldest biscuit.
Four years ago James Shepherd and his wife Natasha, from Llansannan, in Conwy, re-created the historic Aberffraw Biscuit which dates back to the 13th century.
They won plaudits from lovers of fine food when they officially launched it at Llangollen Food Festival in 2013.
Since then the premium shortbread, made from only the finest butter, flour and sugar, has become a firm favourite across the UK.
Among the places you can now buy the mouth-watering biscuit is the flagship Selfridges store in London’s Oxford Street.
To say a big thank you for helping to power the biscuit’s amazing rise to popularity the couple’s are returning to the festival which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
The event, which has been named as one of the Top 10 food festivals in the UK by the Daily Telegraph and Independent newspapers. will be staged at the iconic Llangollen Pavilion on October 14 and 15.
James, originally from Llandudno, and Natasha, a Welsh-speaker from Trefriw, met at Leicester University, married 14 years ago and have two children Rowan, 11, who is a pupil at Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy in Llanrwst, and nine-year-old Jasmine who attends Ysgol Bro Cernyw in Llangernyw.
The couple were watching the Great British Bake Off in 2012 when a feature about the Aberffraw biscuit, which was first baked in the Anglesey village of the same name 800 years ago, caught their eye.
Taking the same basic recipe from ancient times, they set up a company to start baking and marketing the biscuits.
The following autumn the tasty scallop-shaped treat was showcased for the first time in the new products section of Llangollen Food Festival.
After a couple of years Natasha left her part-time job with a governmental agency to join former journalist James as a co-director of the growing business which has gone from strength to strength.
Recalling how it all began, James said: “We started chatting about hearing about the original Aberffraw Biscuit on Bake-Off and realised that despite the fact we were both from North Wales and lived here all our lives, we had never even heard of it, despite the fact it was supposed to be Britain’s oldest biscuit.
“After working out our business plan we set up production at a unit in Llanrwst with me making the biscuits and even designing the packaging.
“From the start we wanted everything to be as authentic as possible, from the unique stamp for the scallop shape of the biscuit to the ingredients which include only top quality British products.
“Over the past four years the business has just grown. In fact, the scale of it now gets a bit staggering at times and I sometimes have to pinch myself as a reminder that it’s all really happening.
“We make the biscuits in four different flavours – traditional, chocolate, lemon and bara brith – and they’re all very popular.
“Apart from outlets across the UK, we’ve been selling 500 packets at a time to Dean & Deluca, an up-market chain of stores for their Kuwait branch and Gourmet Grocery, a high-end deli in Singapore, has been taking a similar order.
“After doing a couple of tasting sessions with Selfridges they are now taking them for their flagship store in London’s Oxford Street. Apart from that we’re doing a good online trade through Amazon.”
To cope with the upsurge in sales James and Natasha now have two production units in Llanrwst and employ five staff to help them.
In the past few years the biscuits and the company have been showered with awards, including Ambient Food Manufacturer of the Year – The Food Awards Wales 2015 (Overall Winner), Great Taste Award 2015 (Traditional Aberffraw Biscuit), Great Taste Awards 2017 (Lemon Abberffraw Biscuit) and Food & Drink Entrepreneur of the Year – Entrepreneur Wales Awards 2015 (Overall Winner).
James, who worked for the Rhyl and Prestatyn Visitor, North Wales Weekly News, and the Flintshire Chronicle before leaving journalism, added: “Being at Hamper
Llangollen this year, especially as it’s the 20th anniversary, will be good because it’s where it all began for us.
“Apart from that, it will be great just to be part of the event and to thank them for all they did to help us get the business off the ground.
“Hamper Llangollen is a great festival in a fantastic location which attracts people who are really enthusiastic about good quality local produce.
“We can’t wait to meet the visitors and show them all our new developments.”
The Aberffraw biscuit (or sometimes Aberffraw cake) and is said to originate from 13th Century Anglesey.
Legend has it that a Welsh king was holding court in Aberffraw and his wife was walking on the beach there and, spotting a pretty scallop shell, asked for a cake to be baked in the same form.
A far more realistic source for the biscuit was the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
This pilgrimage to the church of St James in Galicia, north western Spain, began in about the 8th Century with pilgrims wearing badges on their hat in the shape of a scallop shell.
It’s for this reason Aberffraw biscuits are sometimes also called James cakes. Under the patronage of King Gruffudd ap Cynan (1075-1137) or his son and successor Owain Gwynedd (1137-70), a stone church was built at Aberffraw with Romanesque features similar to 12th Century churches on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
This building is the final link to the scallop shell of St James pilgrims and the small Welsh village of Aberffraw.
Llangollen Food Festival committee member Phil Davies said: “We’re delighted that James and Natasha will be helping us celebrate our 20th anniversary this year.
“We’re particularly proud that we played a role in the launch of their Aberffraw biscuits which have been so successful.
“As a festival, it is an important part of our mission to provide a shop window for a host of extremely talented indigenous food producers like James and Natasha.”
Check out Aberffraw biscuits at www.aberffrawbiscuits.com and Llangollen Food Festival at www.llangollenfoodfestival.com