I cycle down Arbour Hill at 11am on a Tuesday morning, taking an abrupt turn down an unassuming lane to the right. Here, at the bottom of a slight hill, is the Work & Welders building, the year-round home to the Lilliput Trading Co. and the location of Stoneybatter’s annual Christmas Market.
Inside, the ground floor is busy, hive-like — all boxes, buckets, whirring machines and half-loaded delivery trucks. The three people orchestrating this finely tuned chaos glance at me with confused half-smiles as I skirt past, and gesture upstairs, where Kate Packwood of Wildflour Bakery is visible through a large and warmly lit glass pane.
I don’t know what I expected, exactly, but if I’d hoped to encounter Willy-Wonka-like levels of sugary magic, I’d come to the wrong place. The Wildflour kitchen is a single, neat room, minimalist in design and rather chilly.
Packwood, her hair tucked efficiently under a red cap, greets me in short sleeves. Two assistants flutter purposefully between sinks and mixers. Packwood herself is leaning over a large stainless-steel island in the center of the kitchen, writing figures into a splayed book.
“I’m just working out my orders for the day,” she says, smiling ruefully. “How much batter I need to prepare.”
Squeezed next to a warm dish-washing unit, I sit watching and waiting, my hair pulled back as a health-and-safety precaution.
Everything in this kitchen is shiny, clean and organized, a collage of white paint and metal juxtaposed against a teal floor and a teal set of rolling shelves from IKEA. Neon pink and blue spatulas lean from a metal container pinned to the wall, and most ingredients are hidden away, invisible.
Sprinkled about the space are clues to what goes on here: an industrial-sized tub of oil, two bottles of cognac, a net bag of oranges. I feel like a detective scouting the scene of an alleged crime: that is, I’m on alert for evidence, physical or olfactory.
I sniff the air, but I can’t smell cake. Nor do I see cake anywhere.
In fact, my presence in this bakery, right now, seems preposterous: like many in Dublin, I’m addicted to Packwood’s creations, though coming upon them laid out in their delectable rows at Lilliput Stores on Arbour Hill has always suggested to me an aura of spontaneous generation, as if the cakes only appear after the wave of a wand. It wasn’t that I wanted to puncture this illusion of magical cake, but, with fairy-tale hubris, I hoped to witness the wand-waving, such as it was.
“Would you like some tea, Sydney?” Packwood asks, closing the book.
Four cups of tea are made and abandoned on the edge of the metal island as Packwood and I start to discuss wedding cakes. While a select few cafés across Dublin sell her single-serving cakes, which change with the seasons, much of her business comes from special orders.
This fascinates me too, because of the creativity involved. Packwood’s eyes light up; it’s clear she loves this aspect of her work, the challenge of using her skills, knowledge and inventiveness to come up with just the right thing for the right person.
“With weddings you can have a bit of fun,” she says. “You can get a bit creative because they’re one-offs, so I like to say to the bride, ‘Give me just any point of inspiration, a bit of information about your favorite things, favorite bands, favorite colour or holiday,’ because you can read a lot about a person from those kinds of choices.”
“Of course I present them with a list of what works seasonally, because if someone contacts me in November for a raspberry cake, I tell them no, it’s going to be horrible, it’s completely out of season.”
She smiles again, and turns toward one of her assistants, a cooking student on work experience named Lorna, who’s hovering around us.
“If you get everything ready — have you got that flour weighed out as well? Get the flour weighed out . . . it’s 600 and that one’s 300, I think. That one there. Just regular flour, it’s in that one, reach up there.”
“Was there a couple you worked with where you felt like you really nailed it?” I ask.
Packwood pauses, thinking. Then she says slowly, “There was a bride actually once, and I’d met her at an event where I was talking about wedding cakes. She baked herself, and the minute she came in she was like, no, no, I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone to bake my cakes, I bake my own cakes. And I thought hmm, okay, no bother.”
“But then she called and said, ‘I’m getting married in a week’s time and I’ve changed my mind, will you do the little cakes to go with the big cake?’ ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I was like, ‘What’s your favorite drink?’ And she said, ‘I love Campari,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve never had that! I’ll design you cakes around Campari, no bother.’ Grand. So I went up to Mulligan’s and bought a jar of Campari and brought it back here and I tasted it, and oh my God, it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.”
“It’s bright pink, like Benylin pink, and it’s kind of bitter, kind of pithy, zesty bitter. I’m like, what the hell am I going to do with this? Damn it, and I’ve already committed! Damn! So I was doing loads of research, cocktails being made with it, tasting it, and in the end I did Campari cake with grapefruit and black sesame, to bring out the kind of char flavor that goes on in it as well.”
“It’s not a flavor I would associate positively with desserts — char —”
“Yeah but it is, if you get it right, it’s delicious, and when I finally got the cake right, I was like, ‘Yes!’ I was so bloody pleased with it, it was so balanced.”
“Did the bride like it?”
“Yeah, she was delighted. It’s funny, I never would’ve chosen to work with it. But you know, it’s their wedding cake, it should be special, it should be exciting.”
There’s a knock on the door and a woman dips her head in and asks if Packwood can spare a minute. When she returns a minute later, she’s carrying a small jar of South American seeds called tonka beans.
“How intense is that smell?” she asks, extending the small jar under my nose.
Intense is a good word for it. The aroma of these skinny brown beans reminds me of something I can’t quite put my finger on, though I’m trying.
“I love that about smells,” Packwood says, screwing the top back on the jar and setting it down. “They trigger all kinds of memories and associations. From tonka I get sweet almonds, vanilla, a kind of base note of hay. It’s quite talcum-powdery. You have to be careful how you use it because it can be overpowering, it can be really heady. It’s a real kind of sexy smell, a sexy flavor. I love using it with dark chocolate, I think it’s just amazing.”
We talk about her flavour pairings, her collaborations with Wicklow-based chocolatiers Bean and Goose, and the rhubarb, rose, and Hendrick’s Gin cake she loves making when rhubarb is in season.
She explains: “For a certain period, it’s the only fresh seasonal fruit that says Ireland. You just have to work with it. And it’s just, it’s, ugh. I hate it. I was raised on sloppy rhubarb, you know, when it’s overly stewed. So I was like, okay, I have to design a cake that I like, with rhubarb, and that’s going to be really tough.
“I was just working the hell out of it until I came up with something that made rhubarb sing to me. And juniper did that, that pairing with juniper and rhubarb I just adore. The cake is inspired by the botanicals in gin, so you’ve got crushed juniper berries and rosewater baked into the rhubarb from the start, and then you put that through the cake. And then I made the icing out of Hendricks gin, and that pulls everything together.”
Behind us, Packwood’s longtime assistant, Nadia, is scooping batter out of cake tins one spoonful at a time, and then sprinkling the little caverns with nuts.
It occurs to me how meticulous these recipes must be, but also how streamlined: each one made so many times with a degree of precision and aptitude that would foil me, should I attempt any of this at home.
Packwood’s manner reflects this, like a writer whose masterful voice carries through every attempted genre, Packwood is Wildflour and Wildflour is Packwood. When she speaks, she’s mild-mannered, sweet, but there’s authority and originality to her ideas, her opinions. She’s a humble person who is very, very good at what she does, and as soon as you talk to her about this thing, her eyes brighten and it’s the artist who answers back.
At one point, I ask about this: Packwood wasn’t always a baker, and didn’t spend her childhood dreaming of becoming one. She was doing a PhD in English when she decided she wanted a different kind of life. Did it take a long time, I couldn’t help wondering, to choose a new direction and become confident in her abilities, which were mostly self-taught?
When Packwood answers, I can tell she knows exactly what I mean.
“I was having this conversation with another female friend of mine recently. She’s gone from being a doctor to being a photographer, and she does this thing where she interviews women all the time, and it’s a woman thing actually, more than anything else — all successful women think they’re frauds, so that’s a good sign. If you think you’re a fraud, you’re doing well,” she said.
Packwood, Lorna, and Nadia keep working and chatting away to me at a leisurely pace. When I first asked Packwood if I might come by, she told me she baked at odd hours, shattering my belief that bakers were freak exceptions to society, rising well before dawn. Even if the three of them were working now as if they had all the time in the world, it was easy to see what a friendly, efficient team they made, and how effortlessly they could kick production up a notch.
Perched next to my dish-washing unit, watching Nadia assemble a small army of wrapped butters along the counter, I felt the ghosts of weeks’ worth of cakes piling up around us, the ghosts of flour-dusted arms and red caps and the kitchen growing warmer and warmer from the lit ovens.
After a minute, I ask about Stoneybatter.
“Do you think this environment has fomented all this for you, or is it incidental that it all happened here? How attached to do you feel to the area?”
“I love Stoneybatter,” Packwood declares. “I love it. I think it’s the best place on Earth.”
We grin, slightly taken aback but mutually proud to find ourselves — both women with ancestral links to Ireland though born in other countries — living and working in the best place on Earth. After all, a big part of me believes that too. With its scrappy feel and community spirit, Stoneybatter has been good to us both.
“There are loads of brilliant people to work with around here,” she says. “I love that there’s a real community, and I can go to any of those people for advice and they would come to me too, and I could ask any of them if I run out of ingredients. I love that there’s no kind of bitchiness, there’s a real community spirit between the producers.
“And I know there’s not a lot of strong crossover, but still it’s really nice, and living here as well, I feel really rooted. What I love about Dublin at the moment, especially about Stoneybatter, is how people are coping with the economic state — it’s kind of forced a new way of thinking. Which shouldn’t be forced on anyone, but it was, and good things have come out of it as well, and I love that.”
“A friend of mine said that after the Celtic Tiger, there were about two years when nobody smiled.”
Packwood nods avidly, her own smile fading.
“Yes,” she says. “It’s so bloody true, actually.”
We looked out at the metal island, which was once again clean and bare.
“But there’s hope now,” Packwood adds. “There’s fury as well, but I think that’s a bloody good mix.”
Later that evening, I stopped by Wildflour on my way home from running errands. Packwood was alone, doing her accounts.
“I’m going to ice some of the cakes we made this morning,” she said. “In about an hour, if you want to see it?”
I shook my head. My experiment had failed, and it was time to concede with grace. I’d been to the source, and still, somehow, those cakes had materialized without me noticing, so that, looking back, I can hardly remember what I saw during my visit at all.
In memory, the experience was like baking as performance art, a play in 20 acts, each act a fragment of the whole which I could only ever consume as a fragment or as a whole: the process itself remained mysterious.
And it was better that way. The next morning I went into Lilliput Stores and pointed at a Wildflour cake, as always perfect in its row atop the display case.
“I’ll take that one,” I said.
I cycled home and ate it over tea with my flatmate.
“What’s in it?” she asked, taking a bite.
“Never mind,” I said. “Isn’t it delicious?”