15 October 2017, 12:04 PM

The artisan bakers of Market Drayton in Shropshire have kept a secret closely guarded since 1817: the coveted recipe of Billington’s Gingerbread. “Made famous by a Mr Thomas who baked the gingerbread in the basement of his bakery in the town, the
recipe has been passed down to a succession of local artisan bakers, including a Mr Richard Billington in 1864, from which the brand Billington’s Celebrated Market Drayton Gingerbread was born,” explains Sarah Hopcroft, sales and marketing director at Image on Food. “Market Drayton is known as the home of gingerbread and has always celebrated close links to the ancient spice routes via Major- General Robert Clive – also known as Clive of India – who originates from the town.”

Celebrated for its unique blend of spices and spirits, Billington’s Gingerbread has been made in Market Drayton for over 200 years. This history, heritage and provenance of the celebrated gingerbread biscuit is integral to the Billington’s brand. The current artisan baker, Tim Hopcroft of Image on Food, makes the gingerbread under licence to owner and previous baker, Terry McCarthy. Now custodian of the secret recipe, Tim is part of a continuum of bakers who have produced this celebrated gingerbread biscuit for the people of Market Drayton and Shropshire.

“The challenge for Tim has been to produce a product consistent with the original handmade version while meeting the regulation requirements of a modern-day bakery and being recognisable to its passionate fan base,” says Sarah. “The ingredients are sourced locally where possible. The finest ingredients are included such as butter rather than margarine, and the recipe also includes rum plus a secret spice blend.”

A taste of Shropshire

Now the brand has been re-launched by Image on Food with a brand new packaging design geared up for the speciality food and drink sector at Speciality & Fine Food Fair. “This speciality gingerbread brand is an ideal fit for farm shops and delis which champion local artisan brands and products,” says Sarah. “Billington’s Gingerbread has its roots in the local provenance of a Shropshire market town and has survived for over 200 years by local artisan bakers. The product branding reflects the positioning of this sector with reference to the town and heritage of the product.”

Since its local re-launch in June, Billington’s Gingerbread has been selling out in all stocked retail outlets within Market Drayton and demand is high, emphasises Sarah. It’s this demand twinned with Image on Food’s gingerbread-making expertise that will put the product in good stead for its national roll-out. “Image on Food has been producing hand-crafted gingerbread novelties for over 30 years using only the finest ingredients and state-of-the-art technology,” explains Sarah. “The company makes over 50 tonnes of gingerbread a year, employs over 50 local staff and provides novelties for companies such as Waitrose, John Lewis and The National Trust as well as coffee shops, farm shops, delicatessen and tourist attractions. Each gingerbread novelty is handcrafted by highly skilled decorators to create a wide variety of fun and beautiful designs.”

Speciality spiced

For those who haven’t had the chance to visit Market Drayton or taste a Billington’s Gingerbread, Sarah notes their flavour as the most stand-out element. “Customers make reference to the product being exotically spiced, irresistible and moreish,” she says.

“They also like the crunch of the gingerbread. Famous for being dunked, the aromatic spices of the biscuit are the perfect pairing for a glass of port. Customers like to buy our gingerbread as a gift, and tourists pick up a pack as a memento from the town of Market Drayton.” Image on Food is aiming to expand on Billington’s gifting potential, and the development of items such as a Gingerbread Dunking Kit and Christmas Gingerbread & Port Pack are now underway, as well as smaller finger packs for the foodservice market.

Foodies will recognise the Billington’s Gingerbread biscuit because of its signature finger shape, which Sarah sees as part of the brand’s charm. “Originally the mix was processed through star-shaped nozzles, creating the ridge effect along the back of the biscuit fingers, for which Billington’s Gingerbread is famous,” she explains. “Historically the farmers’ wives of the surrounding areas used to visit the town on market day and buy Billington’s Gingerbread fingers to dunk into port. This became a local tradition and the gingerbread became know as ‘Shropshire’s dunking delight’. These biscuits are still ideal for dunking into a glass of port, tea or coffee.”