Cate Devine

If the Think Global, Eat Local mantra is being appropriated by mindful Millennials (and their successors), then Flora Shedden is arguably a standard-bearer of the generations she spans. Originally coined some years ago by older campaigners wishing for a more sustainable, secure and resilient system of food production and distribution, the 23-year-old Scot is taking up the baton – albeit it on a tiny Perthshire footprint.

Four years ago, at the age of 19, the Dunkeld-born student became the youngest-ever finalist in the long-running reality baking show The Great British Bake-Off [GBBO]. Watched by 11 million viewers worldwide, she was the runner-up in the 2015 finale and instantly became a media darling. Evidently thrilled and reassured in equal measure to have such a young woman embrace – in her reassuring mid-Scots accent – the ancient culinary art of baking using centuries-old techniques, print and broadcast commissioning editors flocked to her oven door. Her first cookbook was published, and her online presence rose faster than the lightest souffle. Here was a new domestic goddess in whose delicate hands baking was safe. The world, it seemed, was her ice-cream oyster.

Then she turned the tables. Eschewing the bright lights, she has settled instead for her own tiny craft bakery in a 13th century village in rural Perthshire where she quietly and happily puts in a 10-hour day. It’s from this modest – if infinitely pretty – base that she hopes to influence our relationship with food for the better.

Not that she’s about to disappear completely: with its white-painted 200-year-old stone walls, original black range, front door draped with garlands of dried flowers, the setting for her glass-fronted display of fresh craft bakery items, Aran, is the last word in Instagrammability. Named after the Gaelic for bread, it is also the title of her second cookbook.

“Yeah, it was a bit of a ballsy move,” she agrees of her snap decision to buy the bakery in 2016. “It’s been wonderful. I call it my flour oasis.” We’re perched on little white-painted stepping stools in a corner of the busy shop floor, trying not to get in the way of the constant stream of customers – a combination of locals and tourists – looking for her trademark homemade croissants, cakes, pastries and sourdough breads which have sustainability hard-baked into every bite.

Shedden put her studies on hold – she was doing a history of art degree at St Andrews – to set up Aran with her friend Angus and her boyfriend of just five months at the time, James Irvine, who now manages the Birnam Arts Centre. The pair live together in the flat above the shop. A crowdfunding campaign raised £10,000 for refurbishment and grants from the SSE windfarm community fund, combined with a bank loan and proceeds from her first book Gatherings, made her long-held dream possible.

“I’d immediately become jealous when Angus told me he had a ‘bread shed’, a place where he would create loaves upon loaves post-work and early in the morning,” she says. “His magic little set-up was exactly what I had been looking for.” It took a year for the trio and other family and friends to get the bakery open.

I remark on how busy Aran is, and am informed it does some 200 transactions a day (presumably each customer buys more than one item, meaning several hundred sales each day). The elongated Scottish tourist season means they are busy all year round rather than the traditional Easter to September.

“People have no idea how much work goes into this and how much we bake every single day,” she says. A production kitchen on a small industrial park up the road in Birnam has helped alleviate the flow.

So far, so impressive.

But I’m intrigued.

Alongside gorgeous recipes on how to make the goodies in the bakery – think Whisky Eccles cakes, pistachio and lime loaf, or butternut squash and Birnam honey loaf (see panel for recipe) – her new book features little drop-in biogs of her regular customers and staff, many of them men, and also of her father. So the female vibe of her previous book, in which she praised the influence of women on home cooking, seems to have morphed into something more collegiate and collaborative – as well as less sugary-sweet. Aran follows a day in the life of the bakery, hour by hour and ritual by ritual, and there are recipes for sandwiches, salads, savoury tarts and sandwiches – and a heavy emphasis on sourdough breads, brioches and croissants.

So, does running a bakery span the genders? “Yeah, it used to be all women but the balance is more even now. In fact, I call my team ‘The Boys’,” she says. “Gatherings was more focused on home and family whereas this is much bigger and wider in scope and people. What we’re doing here is definitely more collaborative. People of both genders bring in ideas and suggestions, either orally or from memory, and we try them out. We’re doing continual R&D and things are developing organically. And in the village, the wider community spirit is strong.”

She makes a point of sourcing ingredients, including the all-important flour, from the community and from Scotland as much as possible. Salmon is from the Dunkeld Smoke House, honey from master beekeeper John Taylor, and fresh produce is from the organic Dunkeld and Birnam Community Growing, known as The Field, and from Blackhall Farm. Butter is from Graham’s Dairies, although her Lescure patisserie butter – good for croissants and pastries due to its high fat content – is from France. With Brexit in mind, she is looking for alternative local sources to provide her with the 50 kilos she goes through every week.

“The really important thing for us is to be sustainable,” she says.

Her message about eating sensibly is also strong, and she cites the Rome-based food writer Rachel Roddy and the Irish writer Diana Henry as her food heroes for their “sensible approach to healthy eating”.

In Aran, she writes: “Sugar gets a bad rep, as does gluten, sadly. But my principles remain the same throughout this bizarre time. Use proper and honest ingredients and think of food as a source of fuel and satisfaction, not as something to fear or discuss negatively.”

Kale, which she says, “gets all the attention by the clean-eaters, and I worry it will put people off it”, features strongly in her salad section alongside squash, carrot tops, heirloom tomatoes and asparagus. There’s a foraged nettle and pea quiche in a nod to Scottish culinary history and nettle pudding, “the oldest recorded pudding in the book, but unlikely to make a reappearance”.

Her misgivings echo those expressed in the 2017 Gatherings, in which she lamented the number of people of her age-group that she knew to have eating disorders or troubled relationships with food, and how “earth-shattering” that could be.

The equal balance between sweet and savoury in Aran is notable, and again echoes the author’s desire to change perceptions that baking is all about sweetness and stodge.

Does she think her peer-group – at almost 24 she is somewhere between a Millennial and the younger so-called Generation Z – are confused about food and diet? “Yes,” she replies, without hesitation. “I am from the generation with arguably the most delusional approach to food. There’s so much noise surrounding it on social media. The influencer set are hugely to blame when it comes to diet issues. People aren’t sure about where they stand as they receive mixed messages almost every day.”

With veganism gaining in popularity among Gen Zedders, does she offer vegan options? “A couple, but that’s not something we do massively,” she replies, with an almost imperceptible sigh. “Apart from the fact that it’s very hard to cater for every possible dietary requirement, our ethos here is hugely based on local, as opposed to dietary.

“There’s quite a contentious discourse about veganism. I think it’s doing more damage to the planet than eating dairy from the farm 20 miles down the road."

As well as her concerns about food miles, she also has health worries. “I think it’s crazy to eliminate so many food groups at once, as veganism advocates. It’s about cutting out a huge amount of the foods we’ve been eating for thousands of years. Problems seem to have occurred with the processed foods we’ve had available for the last 50 years. Tradition has never done us any harm. Now everyone’s terrified about their health.”

Sipping milky tea and casting an eye over the ever-forming queue at the counter, she continues: “It makes me laugh when people come in to our bakery looking for gluten-free. But you can eat our sourdough bread because it’s slow-fermented for 24 hours, which reduces the gluten content dramatically, is more easily digested and therefore better for your gut. I spend a lot of time trying to tell people to try sourdough because it’s the best thing you can possibly eat.

“I tell them that if they buy a supermarket loaf they should toast it before eating it to finish off the baking. It’s over-processed and over-yeasted to bake in minutes rather than days and contains 40 ingredients instead of just three or four. When you eat it it’s going to keep cooking in your stomach and make you feel heavy and bloated. Bread should never feel heavy.

“Everything processed is why we’ve lost touch with fresh food. E-numbers, additives, colourants, preservatives and so on are all man-made and, of course, they’re going to cause damage and health problems. Naturally occurring ingredients are hardly to blame.”

Traditional Scottish iced gingerbread, almond and pistachio croissants and chocolate brownies are her biggest sellers. “It’s OK to have sugar in moderation. Little and often,” she says, smiling. Her own favourites are the sourdough sandwiches made fresh every day and filled with locally sourced greenery. “We don’t do them to order, otherwise we’d be making cheese and ham every day,” she says, grinning.

She already has her eyes on the future, and hopes to open a village greengrocers soon. “We want to stay in Dunkeld and open a village store where things will be properly sourced and we can support the local area,” she says. “At the moment we can only buy plastic-wrapped apples from Spain at the local Co-op. We’d like to further help the local growers and producers, while completing the circular system in terms of sustainability, cutting food waste and increasing food security.”

She concedes that she’s in the privileged position of being in the main street of a historic village which is popular with tourists with no large supermarkets or fast-food chains to dilute her influence. The local independent butcher, smokehouse, deli and whisky shop are hardly going to do that. In fact, she believes she is part of wider grassroots movement in Scotland that is being fed – and in turn consumed – by social media.

The downside of being part of the Gen Z zeitgeist is she has in the past fallen foul of social media’s more unpleasant side. A self-taught cook who grew up in Dunkeld, Shedden suffered a Twitter backlash when, as a contestant on GBBO, she said she’d forgotten to switch on the electric oven because her parents had an Aga at home; that she had over 100 cookbooks, most of them French; and that she had picked up a recipe for biscotti while travelling in Italy. Such comments resulted in the Twittersphere posting that she was “too posh”, “too middle-class” and “too professional” – comments that were picked up by the tabloids.

She says now: “I haven’t been on Twitter for months. I love Instagram, it’s a great way to communicate and a huge part of our business comes through it. It also helped us market our Crowdfunding campaign. It is about sharing. It is far more my vibe and less threatening than Twitter.

“Through Instagram it never fails to amaze me how many fantastic wee independent food places, producers and initiatives there are right across Scotland now,” she adds. “I think people are a lot more aware of what they’re eating and where their food comes from. They are aware of sourcing and what they’re putting in their systems. They’re more interested in that than in price. I like to think that from our tiny part of the planet we’re changing things bit by bit.”

Aran, Recipes and Stories from a Bakery in the Heart of Scotland, by Flora Shedden, is published by Hardie Grant at £22.


We do our absolute best to source as many local ingredients as possible, and always encourage customers to come through the door with any of their own goods. One day, we received a wonky squash from a local gardener and a couple of jars of Birnam honey from a lovely man called Mark, and we knew we had to combine them. This is a mash-up of the only three recipes I could find that contained more butternut squash than sugar (something I think is important when cooking with vegetables) and the end result is quite unique. Not dissimilar to a tea cake, the crumb is very soft, and perfect with a cup of Lady Grey tea.

Makes 1x900g (2 lb) loaf

or a 29x10x7cm (12x4x3in) loaf

125 g (4½ oz) butternut squash, peeled

and roughly chopped (peeled weight)

sunflower oil, for roasting

125 g (4½ oz) unsalted butter

100 g (3½ oz/½ cup) soft brown sugar

50 g (1¾ oz/¼ cup) runny honey

1 egg

175 g (6 oz/11/3 cups) self-raising flour

25 g (1½ tablespoons) ground

almonds (optional)

50 g (1¾ oz/¼ cup) olive oil

75 g (2¼ oz/½ cup) golden raisins

zest of 1 orange

½ teaspoon mixed spice

Demerara sugar, for scattering

Preheat the oven to 160C (320ºF/Gas 4). Grease and line a loaf tin.

Tip the squash into a roasting tin and drizzle with a little oil, but with no seasoning, which will feel bizarre if your roast a lot of veg. Cook for 20 minutes or until soft and tender – it doesn’t need to be too well coloured. We tend to roast a big batch, remove the amount needed for this recipe once cooked, then season the rest and use in salads. Let the squash cool down before blitzing to form a smooth purée.

In the bowl of a free-standing mixer, beat the butter, sugar and honey until smooth and pale. Add the egg, flour, almonds, if using, and oil. Beat again until fully combined. Add the cooled purée, raisins, zest and spice and mix together by hand. Pour into the prepared tin, sprinkle generously with Demerara sugar and bake for 40–50 minutes, or until cooked through and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.