The festive decorations may not yet be up in Ann Cudworth’s North Shields house, but there is a definite whiff of Christmas in the air as you step over the threshold.
The tantalising aroma heavy with vanilla, citrus and perfumed candied fruit is drifting up the hallway from the large but cosy kitchen centred round an Aga, tucked at the back of the terraced property.
Ann, her hands swathed in a thick pair of oven gloves, is just taking a large, dome shaped confection out of her electric oven. The fragrance of fresh baking coupled with the heat being emitted by the Aga is spreading seasonal warmth throughout the house.
The results of her culinary efforts are cooling all around the kitchen, ready to be dispatched to customers in time for Christmas.
It’s a scene heavy with nostalgia and conjures up convivial memories of Christmasses past.
But that is where tradition ends. For the pastry tarts and fruity cakes are far removed from the customary sweet festive fare that has been served up for centuries in one shape or another here in the UK.
Ann is one of an increasing number of foodies bringing a continental touch to her own and others Christmas tables.
The heavenly smells are being conjured up by Italian panettone, German stollen and cranberry and orange Christmas mince pies.
Ann runs Dough Works, which specialises in providing fun and friendly hands-on baking and bread making workshops.
A former nurse and midwife at North Tyneside and the Freeman Hospitals, Dough Works launched four years ago. But the venture was borne out of an earlier business the 54-year-old set up in 2005 making and selling a variety of artisan breads through independent delicatessens and at farmers’ markets and food festivals.
Her workshops cover everything from basic bread and pizza making (done in the impressive wood burning oven she has had built in her back yard) to croissants and baguettes, pasta and sour dough. But due to popular demand she has now extended her repertoire to cover Italian breads and stollen.
She has noticed an upsurge in interest in festive foods from other countries. She has her own theories as to why the likes of panettone and stollen are becoming so popular.
“I used to take both Christmas cakes and panettone along to the markets when I was doing them and I was far more likely to sell the panettone than the cake.
“I think for many people the traditional Christmas cake, pudding and mince pies are perhaps too heavy, especially with so many people now suffering from digestive complaints like irritable bowel syndrome and being gluten intolerant.
“A lot of people don’t like dried fruit and I think there is a desire in many to try something different. I love trying new foodie things and I think as a nation the British also like trying new foods, much more so than perhaps other nations.
“We might not always make our own food these days but we are very open and willing to try new and sometimes very different cuisines.
“People also want to know how to make things now; they want to know how to bake and do things even if it’s not a skill they use every day.”
Ann believes the BBC’s hugely popular Great British Bake Off has also played a part in promoting the credentials of luxury foods like panettone.
Indeed, Lakeland, the Cumbrian-founded kitchenware company, recently reported a sharp rise in sales of the baking tins used to make the Italian sweet festive cake-bread which has been attributed to the TV series encouraging Britain’s home cooks to be more experimental.
Ann and her family – which includes husband Phil, 55, and three children aged 24, 21 and 18 –are among those who have eschewed what is regarded as traditional Christmas food because it’s not to their tastes. She bakes her own panettone and stollen while her eldest daughter makes a gingerbread house.
On Christmas Day the family sits down to duck or goose as no-one is fond of turkey.
She maintains that panettone – which originated in Milan and is said to have been created by a humble baker to woo the daughter of a rich merchant – is easy, if a little fiddly, to make and unlike traditional Christmas cake can be made at the last minute as it doesn’t need to mature.
It is, she says, well worth the effort. “Homemade panettone is a far cry from the overly soft, artificial tasting, mass produced ones you get in the shops. It’ll keep for about two weeks and it’s fantastic eaten on its own as a dessert with sweet wine (as they do in Italy on Christmas Eve) or toasted with butter.
“It also makes great bread and butter pudding.”
Stollen – a bread like fruit cake with marzipan running through the centre whose shape is said to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes – still contains dried currants, sultanas, mixed peel and glacé cherries, but is altogether lighter than a dark, rich and boozy Christmas cake.
Ann says one of the delights about panettone is its versatility when it comes to flavours. It can be made the original way with dried fruit and vanilla but also pairs well with everything from chocolate to coffee, cranberries and limoncello (a boozy Italian lemon liqueur).
In Italy around Christmastime they even make savoury versions with ham and cheese.
The most difficult part about making panettone is ensuring the dome doesn’t collapse. The usual way to prevent the distinctive rounded top collapsing is to hang the panettone upside down when it comes out of the oven. Ann has rigged up her own DIY ‘hanging rack’ using a couple of pieces of wood and skewers!
It’s all a far cry from Ann’s conventional upbringing in County Kilkenny in south east Ireland. One of eight children, her mother was an adept baker and Ann learnt how to make bread at an early age.
She then trained to be a midwife and nurse and spent four-and-a-half years working at a mission in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, where she met Phil, who was born and raised in the African nation.
For the past 20 years the family has lived in North Shields. Ann has always cooked both out of necessity and pleasure, but it wasn’t until Phil was diagnosed with cancer that she decided to turn a passion into a living.
“Cancer changes your outlook on life,” Ann says. “Phil said that if there was anything we really wanted to do then we should take the plunge and do it. It was then I decided on a complete career change.”
Her baking workshops which she holds in her domestic kitchen sell out almost as soon as they are announced with the panettone and stollen classes going down particularly well this year.
It can be concluded there will be a continental air to an increasing number of people’s festivities.
But we have a long way to go before panettone consumption matches that of the Italians – they consume an average of two-and-a-half for each family each year.
Ann Cudworth is still taking Christmas orders for traditional or chocolate and cranberry panettone. The panettones cost £1.99 for the 100g size and £5 for the 500g version. Orders must be made before December 20.
Dough Works, 0191 296 5393/0778 494 4226, www.doughworks.co.uk