Meet the Christchurch cake-maker foraging her way through the red zone
Flowers, fruit and herbs foraged from Christchurch’s uninhabited red zone are being put to good use in beautiful cakes made by Anna Worthington.
An inventive Christchurch cake-maker is crafting magnificent cakes using fruit and flowers plucked from the city’s red zone. Self-taught baker Anna Worthington, 28, who studied at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, started Cakes by Anna in 2012 after a stint overseas. Her rustic, home-style creations are flavoured and topped with ingredients foraged from the residential red zone (the area cleared of houses after the February 2011 earthquake) and from gardens and footpaths around the city.
Eighteen months after the earthquake, when Anna returned home to Christchurch, the city was just starting to regenerate. Creative opportunities were rife, and markets and events were popping up on vacant sites. Anna noticed no one was making naturally beautiful cakes of the sort she had seen at a London market – delicious, slightly messy baking free of fondant, fake flavourings and colourings. In need of funds and contemplating her next move, she set up a cake stall at the Christchurch Farmers’ Market.
Word spread, and soon the five cakes she was selling a day became 12. Wedding and cafe orders started to pour in, and after two months she had to move her operation from her mother’s house to a commercial kitchen. “It grew really, really quickly,” Anna says.
She stopped selling at the market last year to focus on custom orders and supplying eateries – she provides cakes to eight local cafes, including Kadett, Black & White Coffee Cartel and Hello Sunday. Anna’s commercial kitchen is in Linwood, east Christchurch, but she is moving to a central location later this year to help facilitate pick-ups.
Weddings are Anna’s biggest market during the summer months – she can cater up to six a day alongside other orders. Although she only delivers within Christchurch, her cakes have made their way
to weddings around the South Island. “Weddings are definitely an important part of what I do,” she says. “They are the thing I enjoy most. Every wedding cake is different and I love the creative freedom of finding new things to decorate with.”
Growing up in Christchurch, Anna loved to cook. “I was always getting involved in the kitchen – it was probably quite annoying,” she laughs. Her mother and nana were skilled bakers, too. Although she never trained as a chef and says she “wouldn’t be able to cook you a nice steak”, Anna has worked occasional catering jobs and cooked in the South of France at a boutique bed and breakfast and winery while travelling. She also sold Kiwi-style cupcakes (deemed exotic in their simplicity) for €6 each at a market while living in Brussels. After four markets she had saved enough to fund a three-month trip to Spain.
Anna uses whatever fruit and flowers she can find for her cakes, meaning the menu changes with the seasons, but customer favourites such as lemon and banoffee are always available. All other ingredients are the best she can afford, with some organic and local. The chocolate is Valrhona, and milk arrives in glass bottles from Nature Matters in Rangiora, 30 minutes away. Wellington’s Fix & Fogg peanut butter features alongside salted caramel and roasted hazelnut in an “outrageous cake”.
With her artistic background, the hands-on nature of her work appeals. “I like coming home covered in cake batter and feeling like I’ve actually worked hard – I thrive on that kind of stuff,” she says.
Anna doesn’t have ambitions to own a cafe or cake shop – that would take away from the work she loves: the baking, icing and decorating. “Sometimes I feel bad that I don’t have huge ambitions. I’m really happy staying small but keeping the quality high. I’m more about working towards creating a nice lifestyle where I don’t end up hating my job.”
Anna still does the majority of the baking herself, with part-time staff helping to ensure she fulfils her orders and can take the odd day off.
When she’s not baking, she’s in the garden or relaxing at her “lovely house on the hill” in Lyttelton, where she lives with two flatmates. Although she likes cooking, she usually steers clear of cake. “I never bring cake home because I never want to see it at home,” she laughs. “I don’t eat a lot of it, but that’s probably quite normal when you work so closely with something. At the end of the day, I just want to have bread and butter or something simple.”
Foraging expeditions begin with the edible flowers and herbs in her backyard, then it’s off to the neighbour’s for a load of rhubarb. Anna’s family and friends allow her to fossick in their sections, too. In the streets around Lyttelton she finds plums and jasmine to add to her creations. “The other day I walked past four different plum trees laden with fruit.”
The residential red zone is her main foraging ground, though. The eastern suburbs that were cleared of houses after the earthquake now sit empty, with the fate of the land yet to be determined. There are almost 2000 fruit and nut trees in the red zone, catalogued by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) on a map.
“It’s almost like a reserve. It’s this empty, quite eerie place that’s heaving with fruit and beautiful roses,” Anna says. “I go out there a few times a week and every time I find something new.” She has been returning for a few seasons to the same rose bushes. “I almost feel like my pruning is helping them. It’s really sad because where a rose bush is, was probably someone’s front porch, but I feel like this place needs people to go there.”
Although she has dealt with mishaps such as dropping a wedding cake on the day and having to remake it from scratch, Anna manages to keep calm amid the chaos. “Because I’ve done it all before, nothing stresses me out any more. I know it’s going to get done, and at the end of the day, it’s just a cake.” Well, not just any cake – a cake by Anna.
This originally appeared in the April/May issue of NADIA magazine.