The Evolution of Shortbread

Story by Montana Jones/photos by Gary Mulcahey—originally published in Watershed Magazine

My winter country kitchen wafts buttery notes as shortbread bakes golden in the oven. Rising vanilla hints and brown sugar scents fill the farmhouse, from a crystallized ginger version made to sate my Scottish soul.

Shortbread has long been a rich exquisite tradition of Christmas comfort, blending butter, sugar and flour to melt delicate festive bliss over merry tongues. That ‘special’ family recipe passed-down through generations will carry on, but annual holiday boasting about making the best shortbread, ever, may be up for review.

Just ask Mark Pollard. His shortbread is definitely not Grandma’s. The local foodsmith has crossed the mainstream cookie line by creating “savoury cocktail shortbread” that is arousing both taste buds and interest worldwide.

Wandering into the country kitchen of the Sprucewood Handmade Cookie Company is an aromatic tease—cheddar, rosemary and Thai bouquets mingle with the dark chocolate, apricot and maple scents of their dessert shortbread line. This is no ordinary cookie.

Classic shortbread actually began in medieval times as a savoury biscuit made by the poor, consisting of oats, butter and sometimes caraway seeds. In the 19th century the wealthy added sugar and replaced the oats with wheat flour to create today’s familiar sweet shortbread. Seems what was olde is new again—Pollard has crafted savoury new characters for the good ol’ classic cookie from Scotland, and the world is wanting more.

In the six short years since the business launched, there’s a burgeoning demand for Sprucewood’s boxed treasures. This little cookie gets around. The popular local morsels fly to Bon Marche in Paris, Harrods of London, France, Belgium, Switzerland and another 400 accounts across Canada. Their Original Cocktail Cheddar signature cookie was featured in the LCBO’s Food and Drink Magazine’s premiere entertaining issue, and holds a distinct honour as one of 10 Canadian products showcased in the Ontario pavilion at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

The shortbread is currently sought by an increasing number of fine food and upscale gourmet outlets, as well as an expanding market in home décor, gifts, delis and cheese shops. Ontario wineries in the Niagara and Prince Edward County regions, and at Northumberland’s own Oak Heights Winery, are keen on the savoury bites as an accompaniment to their product tastings.

The bakery is nestled inside the renovated, once cavernous old Masonic Lodge in the charming village of Warkworth, just behind Mrs. McGarrigle’s Fine Foods. “The Big Cheese” and his staff of nine are cheerfully trundling out 40,000 all natural cookies a day, with each one rolled, cut, baked on parchment, packaged by hand and topped with a label that reads “Hand baked traditionally without attitude.”

“Food is really catching on. People aren’t buying chachkas any more—gifts like an eighty-dollar pewter platter. Now a little bag of handmade cookies made in Warkworth?  Got to have one of those…so gifts is a whole new area for us.  It’s a very competitive market, we’re a small company, and it’s hard to stay on the shelf without paying slotting fees and marketing dollars to stores. I just won’t do it.  The product has to stay on the shelf on its own merits…we’re kind of old fashioned that way.”

Sprucewood uses local ingredients like Maple Dale cheddar cheese, Stirling Creamery butter and Red Fife wheat before landing on appreciative global palettes. This little local cookie is already responsible for nine new jobs in the village and eleven new positions across Canada, “with sales reps who are really passionate about food.”  Soon they’ll be dotted across the country Newfoundland to Victoria.

Mark has had several previous lives and careers, including stints in the corporate finance sector, sales, marketing, as a teen career counsellor and meat franchise owner.  His love of food led him to study at Toronto’s George Brown, to train in Switzerland; to own the Oasis Bar and Grill in Cobourg and to launch a catering business after hours. It has also led him to an unprecedented success with his savoury cocktail shortbread. Herma’s Fine Food was the first to carry his shortbread, packed in a little brown bag. When they continued to sell out week after week, it was time to take the cookie seriously.

“Sprucewood is the name of the property where I first made the cookies. I lived in this great old farmhouse north of Bowmanville up in the Kendal Hills and there were these towering fabulous spruce trees. I sat at the breakfast table one morning wondering what I would call the business.  Our squiggle logo is the same tree I scratched on a napkin then.”

“When I was 2 my parents bought a farm property north of Cobourg, I was raised there, and I always knew I’d come back to Northumberland, I gravitated back here.  Now we’re here in the heart of it, surrounded by rolling hills. It is truly God’s country. I’m in Toronto 2 or 3 days a week seeing accounts, talking to our reps, sourcing packaging and ideas, but I can’t wait to get back here.”

Christmas is the busiest time of year for Sprucewood, when 60% of their annual volume is output in the fourth quarter. October saw the enthusiastic team already dough deep in back orders, with plans for adding another whole shift to the production schedule.

“When you are a small company and growing, there are always financial pressures. You are always reinvesting in the company and borrowing and it’s very tough to get support in a poor economy. You never use the ‘f’ word—failure. It’s just not a part of your vocabulary. If you are entrepreneurial you must never think that way.  And if your mind wanders a little bit and you’re tired you must just stop that thought. Almost like behavioral therapy. Don’t go there. You have to lead every day…lead your staff, lead your customers and you have to be positive to motivate.”

“We’re going to have to expand, but we’ll always be in Northumberland.  I have thousands of flavours in my head, but they have to work in the market, they have to have mass appeal. I have been working on this beautiful Stilton shortbread, a Lemon Ginger, and a Pumpkin Spice, but more on our savoury line, they go so well with cocktails.”

Flavours include Vanilla, Lemon Zest, Apricot, Maple, Raspberry and Dark Chocolate in their dessert shortbread, and Original Cheddar, Rosemary and Spicy Thai in their savoury cocktail offerings. Their booth at this year’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair will launch the newest line of liqueur-based cookies called ‘Typsy’ shortbread, just in time for Christmas.

How does Mark like his own cookies?  “The apricot and the rosemary. The rosemary is the only cookie we have that you can put cheese on. A bit of Brie or goat or any soft cheese, even cream cheese. The Original and the Spicy Thai are very cheddar intense, you don’t want to add more.  Some retailers describe them as cheese and crackers all in one, just open up a bottle of wine with a box and you don’t have to add anything.”

The handmade, all natural cookies have no artificial flavourings, colouring, preservatives, hydrogenated oils or trans fats. “I’m an advocate of less is more,” says the chef who favours the Thomas Kellar philosophy of food. “I think you can overwork food. ‘Salmon foam’ isn’t very appealing when you could enjoy simple fresh salmon. The purer the ingredients, the fresher they are. We always want you to taste the shortbread and know its shortbread.”

Changing a tried and true recipe is not recommended for most cookie cutters following the norm, but Mark Pollard is cut from a different tartan. His particular blending of old-fashioned tradition and contemporary taste has revealed a new generation of appreciative followers who still like their shortbread pure and simple—and savoury.

Mark’s Scottish grandmother, and mine, would like that.

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