Sweet-toothed North Wales couple revive the oldest biscuit in Britain

A sweet-toothed couple have revived the oldest biscuit in Britain that dates back to the 13th century.

James Shepherd and his wife, Natasha, have set up a company to make the historic Aberffraw Biscuit which was first baked in the Anglesey village of the same name 800 years ago.

The tasty scallop-shaped biscuit will be launched at the new products section of Hamper Llangollen, the 16th Llangollen food and drink festival on October 19-20, which is now officially one of the UK’s top 10 food festivals.

The couple have taken the basic ancient shortbread recipe and use only premium Welsh ingredients to produce a very moreish biscuit in a variety of flavours.

James, originally from Llandudno, and Natasha, a Welsh-speaker from Trefriw, met at Leicester University, married 10 years ago and have two children Rowan, seven, and Jasmine, five, both pupils at Ysgol Bro Aled in Llansannan.

While Natasha continues to work part-time for a governmental agency, James – whose background is in journalism – is developing Aberffraw Biscuit Company and is co-founder of Yoller, a web design and digital marketing agency.

“We were watching the Great British Bake Off last October and they had a feature about the Aberffraw biscuit.

“We started chatting about it 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, never mind the fact it was supposed to be Britain’s oldest biscuit,” said James.

“The first thing I did was to buy the domain names for the website and then did some research to build an informational website and start developing a business plan.”

An enthusiastic home cook and amateur baker, James makes the biscuits and even designs the packaging.

Along the way he has received plenty of expert help. “I was introduced to the founder of Patchwork Pate, Margaret Carter from Ruthin, who does brilliant work mentoring young entrepreneurs.

“Then I was introduced to Roberet Price at the rural development agency Cadwyn Clwyd and he put me in touch Coleg Menai’s food technology centre at Llangefni and now I’m looking at rural business support grants.”

 “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 Calon Wen organic butter and Bacheldre Mill stoneground organic unbleached flour.

“The biscuit has a great marketing story. When you think about it all the gift shops and tourist shops in North Wales all seem to sell Scottish shortbread and I would just like to get them out and the Aberffraw in.”

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.

The Aberffraw biscuit also appeared in the famous Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery in 1892.

“Aberffraw Biscuit Co is all about resurrecting a piece of great history… the oldest biscuit recipe in Britain. We want to rekindle this gem of Welsh heritage and bring it to wider attention for people of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities to enjoy,” said James.

The flavours produced are chocolate, lemon, orange, traditional and vanilla.

James worked for the Rhyl and Prestatyn Visitor, North Wales Weekly News, and the Flintshire Chronicle where he was news editor and finally at the group’s Chester headquarters as its digital editor.

He left journalism in 2011 to work for kitchenware group Meyer at Bromborough where he headed up their e.commerce division. He is still retained by the group in that capacity on a freelance contract.

Cadwyn Clwyd’s contribution to Hamper Llangollen comes via the Rural Development Fund for Wales 2007-2013, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) and the Welsh Government.

Robert Price said: “One of the main aims of the festival is to provide a show window for our wonderful array of food producers.

“This year we have decided to have a special section devoted to new products like the Aberffraw Biscuit so that we can showcase what they have to offer.

“We were thrilled to be named as one of the top 10 festivals in the UK and this year’s event is looking as if it is going to be one of the best ever.

“The location of the Pavilion is absolutely  spectacular – I can’t imagine that any other food festival in the UK has a more beautiful setting.”

Check out Aberffraw biscuits at www.aberffrawbiscuits.com and Hamper Llangollen at www.llangollenfoodfestival.com

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