Finishing work smelling of vanilla beans and buttercream. Weary feet. Icing sugar on my shoes. What an amazing time I’ve had over the past 2 weeks doing work experience at the seriously delicious Violet Bakery in Hackney.
Tucked along the charming Wilton Way in residential Hackney, I’d visited the cafe once before but never particularly consciously. It was only during Ballymaloe when Darina repeatedly mentioned Claire’s name and we cooked some of her wonderfully flavoured sweet treats that the clogs turned and I came to realise Violet was a place I was really interested in.
Claire shares a lot of the same philosophies about cooking as the Ballymaloe ethos. Her Violet recipes are all about organic, natural food that is interfered with as little as possible. Notes of sugar, salt, spice and sour are added to enhance natural flavours, rather than create artificial ones. Colours come from natural fruit and plant extracts. Food is seasonal. It is joyful food that brings smiles to people’s faces.
So I was totally stoked when Violet said they’d be happy to take me on for a 2 week stage on my arrival back to London. Exciting!
Violet’s food is mainly sweet treats; cakes, loaves, cupcakes and cookies but also features a short menu of savoury items; scones, daily quiches, avocado on sourdough, salads and delicious toasted cheese sandwiches made with mozzarella or comte or cheddar. (I learnt the difference that rubbing a clove of garlic onto a freshly toasted cheese sandwich makes. Try it. Another level of deliciousness I tell you)
The kitchen is compact and cosy but open and as cliched as it sounds, it feels like the heart of the cafe. On walking in, customers see the chefs at work; taking freshly baked cakes out of the ovens, dipping arms into the flour and sugar barrels under the bench, weighing out and mixing ingredients into doughs, batters or icings. It’s inclusive, inviting and welcoming.
And the two weeks has just been such a pleasure. I’ve done and learnt so much; about baking and cooking, but also about service and organisation and planning and customer interaction. About timings and quantities and measures. It’s definitely the first time I’ve cooked from recipes which started with 2kg of butter…
Starting at 8am in the mornings I was usually one of 3 chefs in the kitchen. In the morning I was responsible for the mise en place and making of all the savoury menu items when they were ordered and then assisted in prep and baking of sweet things; e.g. making cake batters, making and scooping cookie dough, mixing icing etc. The Violet team were all so welcoming and helpful, not minding my inevitable “where does this go?” to “how do I do this part?” and “is this what it’s meant to look like?” questions. It’s not easy having someone totally new in such an intimate space and I was really appreciative of how welcome I was made to feel. I worked pretty hard (hence the achey feet) and felt slow on the first few days but gradually felt my knowledge and confidence building. It was so nice in my final days to feel like I was thinking a step ahead and able to make more and better decisions myself.
I loved watching with such ease Sophie and Izaak iced those beautiful layered cakes and perfectly piped cupcakes. I loved learning about how the individual aspects of each creation are broken down into jobs on different days; on one day I’d be mixing a cake batter and roasting rhubarb, the next day making the icing and baking the cakes, the next day the cakes would be iced and put in the shop. Everything is carefully planned and thought through, attention paid to every detail from the making to the presentation.
The beautiful quality of the ingredients used shines through. From the organic flours and sugars, to the Neil’s Yard Cheeses to the Almalfi lemons. Claire’s food looks so beautiful and tastes equally if not more so. And in a world full of pretty but often disappointingly tasteless cakes (especially cupcakes in my opinion!) this is totally impressive.
Most people that know me know when it comes to cake I’m all about the cake and less about the icing. In fact, if I could get away with having no icing and just (more) cake I would. But Violet’s buttercream icings are converting me. They are picture perfect pretty pastels but not only aesthetically, becasue they also smell and taste super delicious. I made strawberry icing, from fresh French strawberries that I pureed first then mixed into the buttercream turning it a beautiful shade of pink. It smelt light and fresh, like strawberries and ice-cream on a summers day. Similar to a mango one, reminiscent of fresh mangos eaten on a tropical beach. How amazing is it to be able to capture those fragrances and pop them onto a beautiful wee cup cake? No wonder the cafe is buzzing with happy customers. This is food that gives little moments of joy.
Although Claire is on maternity leave at the moment I did chat with her in the cafe a couple of times and at the end of my time there it was so lovely to be given a personally signed copy of her latest seriously-beautiful-in-every-sense book.
What an amazing experience! Thank you to all the Violet Team for looking after me so well, especially Sophie and Izaak who kept me right and all the front of house staff for the playlists and delicious coffees.
I’m super excited about my next two weeks of work experience at Ottolenghi but I really hope to keep in touch with this great team. And from everything I’ve seen and learnt I hope I can take a little of the Violet magic with me along my journey.