Meet the Makers: Dumisami Nyathi of The Vegan Tart

 Baked goods by The Vegan TartThe Vegan Tart delightfully challenged my preconceptions – I didn’t imagine that vegan cakes and savouries would tempt me, or that their  ‘Head Tart’, Dumisani Nyathi, would turn up sporting a beard, but after talking to him I’ll be pigging out on a ‘lime & thyme’ cake at the next opportunity! 

Read on to find out what made The Vegan Tart special enough to win ‘Best in Show’ at the 2013 Brixton Bake-off.

Tell us a bit about The Vegan Tart, what you make and where you sell it.

I run The Vegan Tart with my partner. We make high quality vegan cakes and savouries. We bake traditional cakes but use our unique combinations of flavours to make them special.

Since 2011 we’ve been selling at the ‘Bakers and Flea’ market in Brixton on Station Road on the first Saturday of every month (next one April 5th). As well as the regular Brixton crowd, the Brixton Vegan Walkabout meetup comes along, bringing us up to 35 eager customers!

Our products are also available at The Lazy Rhubarb in Tulse Hill, and we do other ad-hoc markets and events, such as the Greenwich Food Fest in February and a recent vegan high tea at the Effra Social – these are listed on our website www.thevegantart.co.uk . We also take orders and are often baking away for a birthday or wedding, making sure there is great tasting food which can be eaten by everyone.

What inspired you to get started?

I’ve been vegan for about 5 years. Even before I became vegan, as an American, I found British cakes very dry, and after it was worse – the restaurants seemed to provide only dry bland offerings for vegans. I felt I could make better ones myself, and started experimenting. Then friends started to buy them, and orders started to take off in 2011. I was a support worker at the time, but after I went travelling to Spain and north Africa I began to think about working for myself, and decided to make baking a business on my return.

It doesn’t yet bring in enough to pay the rent, so I work 3 days a week as a gardener, but we are currently negotiating with the ‘cat cafe’ opening in the East End, and once we have two clients of that sort, I can bake full-time!

What makes your products special?

Besides them all being completely vegan, we do both cakes and savouries, and try to make our products a bit different from the usual – we mix it up a bit, jazzing up the flavours to give people alternative flavours eg a lime & thyme cake, a savoury fig & asparagus tart. We were also officially acknowledged as special by winning the Best in Show and Best Savoury categories at the 2013 Brixton Bake-off! There were over 30 entrants and the judges included the Mayor of Lambeth, Ms Cupcake, the manager of Morleys and Levi Roots.

It’s not just the quality of our products which makes us stand out though – we have quirkiness to our brand, such as our special apron and hat outfits, our branded granny trolley and army bag for transporting our goods, my job title (Head Tart), etc, which make  us stand out from the crowd – people often make comments or ask to take pictures. I’d like to have a branded cargo bike to transport my goods in. It’s all very fun and home made, for example a friend made the aprons and hats, and we used an old banner to brand our trolley.

Sounds exciting – how do you go about marrying unusual flavours?

Even as a child I used to try making weird concoctions of noodle packs, those were my first experiments in flavour! I suppose it meant I was used to trying things out… I also invested in the Flavour Thesaurus. It’s not that good for vegan produce, but can give good ideas, it makes us think about the way the food hits the taste buds. We also research into websites and recipes and when we see an interesting combination of flavours, try it out. That’s how I discovered the ‘fig and asparagus’ combination.

You have a section on your website for ‘themed and quirky’ cakes. What’s the strangest cake you’ve been asked to make?

It was a topsy turvy cake for the annual ‘time for tea’ event at the Mental Health Foundation. I made a ‘Mad Hatters’ cake involving big chunks of cake which had to be balanced at crazy angles – that was not an easy cake to make!

What attracted you to get involved with Makerhood?

I wanted to get involved from the beginning but at that time it was just in Brixton and we were in Tulse Hill, I could see all these great networking events and very personable emails coming out and I kept thinking ‘hurry up, hurry up and come to our area!’ so I joined as soon as it opened to Tulse Hill, about a year ago.

It’s great, very friendly and affordable and the events are very useful. I’ve been to events on ‘branding your stall’, social media, and a food taster where Jay Rayner of the Observer gave feedback and a local shop owner helped with pricing, it’s really nice to have that kind of help and diversity.

I’m now a member of the steering group for Makerhood Lambeth, which gives me an opportunity to interact with a wide group of individuals who have a passion for creating and sharing that passion with others.

What do you like about living &/or working in Lambeth?

I’ve lived here since 2003, and I don’t know what it is about Lambeth, it’s brilliant, so diverse – in a lot of people’s minds it’s just Waterloo or Brixton, but there are all these places you can go to and the communities are never the same, the shops are never the same – I’m glad that Lambeth hasn’t been “uber-branded”!

What’s your hot tip for a hidden pleasure or treasure in Lambeth?

Bonnington Cafe in Vauxhall. It’s one of Lambeth’s hidden gems. Also the Rookery in Streatham, which is never busy and is very secluded…and the things you see by looking up. Opposite the White Lion in Streatham is a building with 4 elephants, take a look next time you are up that way!

Dumisani Nyathi of The Vegan Tart
Dumisani Nyathi, ‘Head Tart’ of The Vegan Tart

You can try some of the wonderful cakes and savouries The Vegan Tart have to offer at the ‘Bake and Flea’ market in Brixton Station Road on the first Saturday of the month* , or check out the mouth-watering cakes you can order via their website www.thevegantart.co.uk

*next one is April 5th, but alas The Vegan Tart will be missing this month due to injury, so catch them on May 3rd 

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PJ’s Café

Rachel Stanners spoke to Preethi Sundaram and Jo Chevalier at her home in Brixton about their first endeavour to run their own café called PJ’s at the Making Uncovered event in April at the Brixton East Gallery.

Preethi and Jo both started out their lives in Brixton by renting a room from me and now have found their own flats with their partners nearby.

In a planning meeting I attended about Making Uncovered I heard we needed someone to organise a café for the event and immediately thought of Preethi and Jo. Both of them are fantastic hosts. Preethi has always wanted to set up her own café and is always creating new delicious recipes, and Jo is the baker in my life and another fellow creative. I knew together they would make a perfect team.

I proposed the idea over dinner one night but asked them to think carefully about whether or not they could manage it around their demanding jobs. Jo is a primary school teacher at Sudbourne Primary School and Preethi works as a women’s rights campaigner for the Fawcett society. Lucky for us, they agreed!

Preethi Sundaram and Jo Chevalier
Preethi Sundaram and Jo Chevalier

How long have you lived in Brixton?
Preethi: One year, since March 2012.
Jo: Nearly four years now.

Why did you decide to do the café?
Preethi: Because you asked us to!
Jo: Because you bullied us into it!
Preethi: No seriously, Making Uncovered sounded like an exciting, fun and creative event being run in our local community and we wanted to be a part of it.

Have you ever done anything like this before?
Jo: Never
Preethi: Not before this event, although lots of people at the event thought we did run a café full-time and asked us where it was!

What were you most looking forward to?
Preethi: Making a relaxed and fun environment for people to hang out in.
Jo: Making a pretty space. And the cakes!

What were you most nervous about?
Jo: Giving someone food poisoning!!
Preethi: Managing to organise it well when we are both so busy.

What went into organising the event?
Jo: We had a couple of meetings in which we delegated tasks.
Preethi: It was actually quite relaxed. We overlapped our jobs quite a bit but generally I was in charge of finding bakers and Jo was in charge of the aesthetics.

So who made all the delicious cakes?
Preethi: We tried to get some of the Makerhood bakers to help but unfortunately they weren’t available at the time so we ended up recruiting everyone we knew! Each of us baked…
Jo: … and I recruited fellow teachers, even a mum from school and lots of my friends. We also had friends and family of the Makerhood team. We were overwhelmed by how kind everyone was to volunteer and their refusal to accept payment for their ingredients. We are really grateful to them.

How did you go about decorating the café?
Preethi: We emptied our houses and put it all into the space! The design idea was to be simple and pretty.
Jo: We had a grey and yellow theme and lots of decorations but when we got to the venue we realised it didn’t need very much. It was a dream venue that really spoke for itself.

How did you feel it went?
Preethi: We loved it! It felt like a raving success. I was surprised by how much we sold. We sold everything – except some sweeties.
Jo: We were so pleased with how pretty the space looked and surprised how well it went, considering we had no previous experience. I was amazed at how much people love tea and cake.

Would you do it again?
Both: Yes!
Jo: We made a happy space and it was lovely to see friends chatting over tea and cake and really appreciate it.
Preethi: It made me want to open my own place. I can see there is a lot of joy in serving people a simple cup of tea. I loved interacting with strangers and meeting people from Jo’s school.
Jo: I think almost the whole of Sudbourne showed up!

Why do you love Brixton?
Jo: It’s an eclectic cocktail of people and places, and no day ever feels the same.
Preethi: It’s so vibrant! It feels like a place on the brink of something big and exciting happening.

What are your favourite Brixton spots?
Jo: Rosies. It was the first place I went to in the village. It had bunting in it and I knew straight away I would be happy here in Brixton.
Preethi: My favourite spot is at the top of Brockwell Park – you can see all of the city of London. It’s a fantastic view!

PJ's Cafe at Making Uncovered
PJ’s Cafe at Making Uncovered

Meet the makers: Carly Telford

Carly Telford is a self-taught cake maker whose repertoire has expanded from chocolate brownies to cup cakes and wedding cakes.

1. Why Pi Cakes?

I used to have a top with “Sweetie” written on it, so my friends nicknamed me “Pi” – without an “e” at the end, because two of them were American and said it with a southern drawl! Then when I was thinking about a name for my stall, Pi Cakes seemed appropriate because of the association of pies and cakes.

2. Have you always been fond of baking?

I only started around seven years ago. My mum didn’t cook much, so I had to teach myself. I spent a lot of time in America and I loved their chocolate brownies, but they didn’t taste the same over here – they were too dry. They should be crisp on top but moist and chewy in the middle. So I got a recipe off the internet and had a go at making them myself. The first batch was overcooked – but still tasted much better than anything I could buy commercially!

3. What made you decide to start selling your cakes to the public?

I started buying recipe books and experimenting with other recipes, like caramel shortbread, and all my friends and colleagues gave really constructive feedback. Then last year I made some brownies for my partner’s Christmas do and got several orders, including one from a café owner. This made me think that my cakes were good enough to sell.

4. How have you found dealing with the regulations for food makers?

I’ve done a lot of research. I’ve done the food hygiene certificates 1 and 2, and I’ve been inspected by Lambeth Council. It was a bit nerve-wracking – but a lot of it is common sense. I keep all my baking ingredients and utensils completely separate to ensure there is no cross-contamination.

5. How can Makerhood help you?

When I went to a Makerhood meeting and met Kristina and Karen I loved what they were trying to do. It really gave me the confidence to try selling my cakes online. I had thought about setting up my own website, but it was a very scary process. I already had some great photos of my cakes taken by Sami Dinelli, a colleague at work who is also a photographer. So I set up my stall immediately! I make everything fresh to order, so people can ask if they’d like a different colour or ingredients.

6. So what ambitions do you have for Pi Cakes in the future?

Ultimately I’d like to have my own tea or coffee shop, with all my cakes on display. I’m also expanding into wedding cakes – I’m making a two-tier cake and 80 cup cakes for a friend who’s getting married in October.

7. What’s your top tip for a bit of “hidden Brixton”?

My favourite place in Brixton is the Windmill pub on Blenheim Gardens, off Brixton Hill. It’s a fantastic music pub with great bands and dancing. It doesn’t look much from the outside, and the dog on the roof can be a bit offputting, but it’s a fantastic place.

You can get Carly’s amazing cakes here: http://brixton.makerhood.com/picakes