Flora Shedden is most definitely a winter person. “Snow is my ideal weather and frosty mornings make me giddy with excitement,” says the bakery owner and cookbook writer. “It’s probably because I’m a sappy Scot who can’t cope when it’s too hot.”
But it was in the heat of the Bake Off tent where Flora’s career in food was forged. Fans of the show will remember her as the star baker whose showstopping creations demonstrated expertise well beyond her 19 years. Now, she’s a 28-year-old with two books and two businesses under her belt. Flora set up ARAN (Gaelic for bread) - a tiny but beloved bakery in the Perthshire village of Dunkeld - in 2016. This was followed by LÒN (Gaelic for provisions), a store selling artisanal food and homeware in 2020. Last year, she also took on the new role of mother. Her son Ivo was born on Christmas Eve 2022.
“Being a mum has made me so nostalgic about food,” Flora says. “It’s funny, cooking him the things I used to eat when I was wee - like cheesy omelettes and egg in a cup, which my granny used to make for me. I’m enjoying the trip down memory lane and it’s exciting to see food through his eyes, even if half of it ends up on the floor.”
Flora comes from a long line of food lovers. “My mum, both grandmothers, aunties and cousins were - and are - all excellent cooks,” she says. “Every family occasion revolves around food. Ivo’s first day was Christmas and we had a huge feast, followed by another one at Hogmanay.” As a teenager, Flora helped her mum, a caterer, prepare for weddings and events. But cooking was always her hobby, not a career plan. So, she packed up her cake tins and went off to Edinburgh to study architecture, with visions of becoming the next Zaha Hadid. The reality was somewhat different. “I was really bad at being a teenager,” she recalls. “I spent more time at the farmers’ market than at the library or pub.” Dejected, she took a year out, “moping about in the kitchen and cooking obscene quantities of food”.
It was Flora’s sister who persuaded her to apply for Bake Off (which she did reluctantly and a little tipsy, four hours before the deadline). “Had I known how many people would watch, I’d never have done it,” says Flora, who prefers to be behind the camera than in front of it. “But it opened up a world of food I never knew existed,” she says. Since appearing on the show in 2015, Flora has veered away from the limelight, focussing on food writing, styling and photography instead. Her attitude to food has also changed enormously since her time in the tent. “Ten years ago, complicated was all the rage, so during Bake Off, I always went over the top, throwing as many ingredients as possible into each thing I made. I remember once making a cheesecake tower and thinking, ‘when is anybody actually going to have a tower of cheesecake?’ That's really impractical’,” she laughs.
Today, Flora is a staunch fan of “common-sense food and proper seasonal recipes”, favouring simple cooking that allows each ingredient to shine. During the winter months, she gravitates towards “comforting combinations of butter, cheese and potatoes.” The chard and potato gratin featured in her second cookbook, Supper, is a perennial classic - as is her pear, chestnut and bay leaf cake (see the recipe below). “The bay-infused butter feels festive and provides a savoury aromatic flavour, contrasting with the sweetness of the pears,” she says. “Plus, it doesn’t require a lot of work - everything just gets mixed up and poured into a tray.”
While simplicity has its place, winter in the bakery calls for a little more exertion. This year’s showstoppers include orange and cranberry panettone (tied up with a festive bow), whisky and orange mince pies and golden Christmas cakes, full of fruit and stem ginger - all which sell out practically as soon as they leave the oven. There are also chewy ginger cookies, orange amaretti and potato dauphinois danishes. This year, ARAN is also supplying TOAST’s Christmas Hampers with its salted caramels and fig and chocolate biscotti.
Though Flora now boasts a team of 12, many of the recipes are conjured up in her small flat, which sits above the bakery on Dunkeld’s high street. She and her partner James bought it as a derelict 200-year-old building seven years ago, after just six months together, painstakingly restoring it into a home and (albeit very small) community hub. “Dunkeld is a close-knit community,” she says. “I grew up here, so I know most of our customers, and their coffee orders, well. I've loved how much everyone has embraced the bakery.” After the Christmas rush, ARAN will close the day before Christmas Eve and the couple usually host a big party in their flat, followed by a well-deserved break for all the team until mid-January.
During this time, Flora relishes the opportunity to hunker down at home, knitting sweaters, pottering in the kitchen and going on crisp walks. This year, however, there’s a lot more on her to-do list. She and James recently bought a 150-year-old two up two down farmhouse “two fields away” from her parents’ place. It’s been stripped right back to the stone and is currently a building site, but Flora is delighted to be putting her architectural prowess to good use. “It’s been my dream forever,” she says. “We've got a garden and lots of space for Ivo to run around in. I'm excited that he’ll have a similar childhood to mine, with crisp winter walks and summertime swims in the river.”
Flora hopes that the house will play host to much merriment, centred around good food. On cold nights, she’ll light candles, pull out her best glassware and invite loved ones for something hearty to eat (“in the deep darkness of winter, the last thing you want to do is chew your way through a solo salad”). Flora believes that, as much as possible, suppertime should be a celebration. “Food for me is an excuse to gather people together,” she muses. “It isn’t just about eating. It’s all the things that come with that process: passing the bread, sharing stories and lots of laughter. Cooking is the rewarding route you take to get there.”
Pear, Chestnut and Bay Leaf Cake
Not all festive baking has to have kilos of dried fruit, which I love but can be quite heavy. Made with chestnuts and bay-infused butter, this dark and nutty cake makes a great alternative to Christmas cake (although it’s delicious at any time of year).
4 bay leaves
150g dark brown sugar
100g cooked chestnuts
Vanilla bean paste
200g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb
1 tsp baking powder
Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
- Preheat the oven to 160C FAN.
- Grease and line a 20cm square tin.
- Heat the butter with the bay leaves until simmering then remove from the heat. Pour 200g of the melted butter into a bowl and whisk in the sugar until smooth.
- Roughly chop the chestnuts and add to the butter mix with a little vanilla bean paste. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Last, gently whisk in the flour and raising agents until just combined, being careful not to overmix. Pour into the prepared tin.
- Core and finely slice the pears and arrange in fans over the top of the batter. Brush the pears with the remaining 25g butter and nestle the bay leaves in amongst the fruit so they don't burn.
- Scatter generously with demerara sugar and bake for 40 minutes or until cooked through.
- Allow to cool in the tin for at least half an hour before removing.
- Dust with icing sugar and serve with creme fraiche.
Interview by Sarah Barrat.
Photography by Sarah Ferguson.
Flora wears our Check Organic Crinkle Poplin Shirt Dress and bakes using our Square Enamel Oven Dish. The ARAN bakery salted caramels and fig and chocolate biscotti are included in our Christmas Hamper.