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Charlotte, queen of the dessert
11:53am Tuesday 25th September 2012 in Features
RUTH CAMPBELL meets the Damien Hirst of the patisserie world.
EVER since Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont opened his first Bettys tearooms in Harrogate in 1919, the town has been renowned for its fine patisserie. But now, nearly 100 years after the fashionable spa town was first introduced to Frederick’s mouthwatering specialities, an innovative female pastry chef is whipping up a storm in the world of fondant fancies, vanilla slices and lemon tarts.
Charlotte Marrifield is every bit as creative, passionate and dedicated to her craft as young Frederick was 93 years ago. But whereas Frederick was from the classical, traditional school, Charlotte is more like the Damien Hirst of the dessert world. In fact, she has even made a wedding cake in the form of Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull.
The talented 35 year old, who has worked with the likes of Gary Rhodes and cooked for both Gordon Ramsay and Albert Roux, is originally from Derbyshire but chose to set up her first Boutique Patisserie in the quintessentially English town that loves its afternoon tea.
Her Sugar Therapy cafe and bakery couldn’t be more different to Bettys. Situated on Station Parade, it is brightly-coloured, open-plan and modern, and customers can watch her create her modern, edgy confections from scratch in the large, stainless steel kitchen, also known as the “performance area”.
Acclaimed cake-maker Charlotte worked at Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels before being head-hunted by a number of top supermarkets, including Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, to produce their premium range desserts.
Her hot chocolate fudge pudding and tiramisu gateaux were two of the first desserts featured in Marks & Spencer’s mouthwatering TV food adverts. And her award-winning chocolate and sea-salted caramel bombe starred alongside Jamie Oliver in one of Sainsbury’s TV adverts.
While continuing to develop products for two major supermarkets, as well as for companies such as Harrods and Irish chocolatier Lily O’Brien’s, Charlotte opened Sugar Therapy two years ago.
It was only a matter of months before the Sunday Times Style magazine voted Sugar Therapy “top afternoon tea” after the Ritz and the Dorchester in London and The Daily Telegraph described it as a “must-visit” destination.
“It has been in the planning for ten years, it is what I always wanted to do,” says Charlotte. “We did the demographics. There is a real foodie culture here, people appreciate quality. And I offer things you can’t get anywhere else.”
As well as sweet treats, Charlotte offers a selection of fine champagnes.
“It’s a place people can come for a treat, in a relaxed environment,” she says. “We have hen parties and baby showers as well as regular customers. It’s mainly women, though, men tend to buy cakes to take away.”
Left to her own devices, Charlotte loves to deconstruct and then reconstruct modern English classics with her own distinctive, quirky style. And there is usually a twist.
Her take on apple crumble is a work of art, made to look like a 3D Pink Lady apple, with crumble on the bottom and apple mousse on the top. Her lemon meringue has a warm liquid lemon bottom with crunchy meringue ice-cream.
“I just love the buzz and excitement of creating something new,” she says. “The quirkiness appeals to people’s curiosity. They want a familiar flavour but they also want a bit of drama, a touch of theatre.”
Charlotte’s unique wedding cakes – “people come to me when they want something different” – can cost up to £900, but are much in demand. Some of them are hand-painted, featuring ornate cherubs and rosebuds. More outlandish creations include a five-foot, four-tier Las Vegas showgirl cake, complete with ostrich feathers and dripping with Swarovski crystals.
But Charlotte’s cakes don’t just look good, they taste delicious too. With their mix of textures and balanced, complementary flavours, none of them is sickly sweet. She sources the best chocolate from a long-standing contact, a Tanzanian grower called Hector, who puts the unique flavour down to the quality of tamarind trees in the area.
Charlotte believes in using natural, quality ingredients, buying as much as she can from local farms and organic greengrocers. “I started to experiment on my own when I was about 13 and used to drive my parents mad, making them invite people round for dinner so I could cook them three-course meals.”
Aged just 16, she was thrust into the deep end at a five-star hotel in Devon while on work experience from catering college when the pastry chef walked out.
“The head chef left me with some books and told me to come up with five different things for the sweet trolley.”
She realised she had cracked it when her desserts ended up being more popular than the head chef’s.
Charlotte went on to work in the Garrick Club in London and also with the then up-and-coming young Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes.
“He was excellent to work for, just starting to become famous and very nurturing to younger members of staff.”
Full of energy and ideas, Charlotte has been up, as she is most days, baking since 6am.
She usually finishes around 7pm, but will sometimes still be in the kitchen until 3am if she has a special order.
Luckily, husband Kevin, a planning manager for Morrison’s supermarket, is happy to help out with the washing-up.
Her next big plan is to open in the evenings, as a dessert-only restaurant, inspired by Espai Sucre, a restaurant she loves in Barcelona.
“There is a trend for restaurants doing five courses of special desserts. It’s small portions, a real treat, very popular in Europe.”
It sounds like Heaven...
•Charlotte runs masterclasses in French patisserie and group cupcake decorating classes.
•For more information, visit sugartherapy.co.uk
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