Starting life selling hand crafted marshmallows on a Portobello market stall, The Marshmallowist now sells to the likes of Selfridges as well as creating bespoke flavours for events.
Of course we’re not talking the cheap and cheerful pink and white versions from our childhood but gourmet, handcrafted mallows with a French, soufflé-like texture that have seen The Marshmallowist transform this sweet treat to a culinary delight.
We came across The Marshmallowist a few years ago when we were looking for an artisan to provide something different for our Alice In Wonderland styled event at Kent House Knightsbridge. Since then we’ve also worked with them on our Scandi themed Christmas parties where they created bespoke flavours for our toasting stations and we know their mallows will be just perfect for our new venue the Secret River Garden, where guests will be able to gather around the bonfire at night discovering their mouth-watering flavours including raspberry and champagne, coconut, passion fruit and ginger and blueberry and gin and possibly even their very own bespoke flavour too.
Oonagh Simms is the brains behind the business and started out as a pastry chef in Paris and London, and creates all of the marshmallow recipes herself, using seasonal fruits, herbs and essential oils. We can’t imagine anything more glorious than spending all day making marshmallows so we caught up with Oonagh recently to find out what it’s really like to be a Marshmallowist.
What inspired you to start your business?
I originally trained in chocolaterie and patisserie. I adored every early morning, burnt-fingered, flour-faced part of it. When I returned to London I worked for a luxury chocolate company but I loved experimenting with confectionary for myself. In Paris, fruit marshmallows were a common sweet treat in patisseries and luxury food stores- but not in the U.K. I loved them and spent evenings playing with different flavours- inspired by cocktails or unusual desserts, pairing herbs and spices with seasonal fruits. I managed to blag a weekend market pitch on Portobello Road and began selling my marshmallows. I would make them when I got home from work and sell them on a Saturday. At first it was just a way of me testing new marshmallow flavours (and making a bit of extra money) but very quickly the marshmallows started getting lots of attention- Vogue Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, the BBC. Very soon Harvey Nichols asked if they could start stocking them and I realised that I could have a growing and creative business.
How do your marshmallows differ from everyone else?
The marshmallow recipe I created is perfect for carrying flavours because it doesn’t use egg white and is soufflé like in texture so you can taste the different layers and notes of the flavour develop as you eat them. I use premium ingredients and I’m known for my flavour pairings that hadn’t really been used in confectionery before.
The business has come a long way quickly. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced along the way?
I would say it was two-fold; both age and gender have been a challenge. I trained as a chef so the first formal meetings I attended were not under the mentorship of someone more senior. It was just me, negotiating as a company owner. It was difficult to overcome those hurdles and get people to take you seriously, stock you, invest in you and work with you.
What does a typical day look like?
Although years of working in bakeries and kitchens meant that I had to be up at the crack of dawn, thankfully, I don’t have to do that anymore. I wake up at 7.30 and I’m in the bakery by 9. Being a ‘marshmallowist’ sounds quite soft and fluffy but for a long time it seemed to involve extremely heavy lifting. Attaching large mixer bowls to a hobart, fixing broken strings on my ganache cutter, lifting 25 kilo bags of sugar from my van. I’m not in the kitchen as much as I would like to be anymore. Our online shop sends alerts to my phone so as soon as someone places an order it goes straight through to the kitchen. Making sure that customers come to our online store and are happy enough to order again is really important; 70% of my business is through our web shop. So I had to very quickly get out of the ‘chef’ mind-set and think about design and creative aspects of the company; how we package and wrap the marshmallows and how customers feel when they get them.
We’re still a small team so evenings are spent catching up on unread emails, invoicing and accounting which really crept up on me. At first it was easy enough to manage but as the business has grown I had to get my head around spread sheets a lot faster than I would have liked.
With over 500 different flavours of marshmallows created, what are the favourites and what would you choose over all the rest?
Passionfruit and Ginger is my favourite flavour from my retail range and the Christmas pudding one I dream about all year! I made a stunning Dark Cocoa and Beetroot flavour that I whipped up as a custom order and it was truly delicious – I’d love to make that again!
Your pop up stands and s’mores stations are really popular. How can people use these at events?
We love our pop up stand for events. We have roaring firepits so guests can toast their own marshmallows and we also use chef torches to caramelise our marshmallows to create s’mores. It also means we can tailor our offering for all weather conditions, which is pretty handy in the UK. We get booked for a lot of summer weddings especially as festival style themes have become super popular and toasting marshmallows have become a must!
You’ve been involved in some fabulous partnerships such as Alexander McQueen and Chelsea Flower Show. Tell us how brands can work with you to create bespoke flavours?
We love working with brands but we always want the collaborations to be more meaningful than just printing a logo on sugar paper and ‘branding’ the marshmallow. We love to create bespoke flavours inspired by a campaign theme or ingredients and colour profiles that match the brand. Some of our most creative partnerships have been with non food brands such as paper companies or magazines. We’re lucky to have been given such fun creative projects over the years.
The branding and visual identity of Marshmallowist is really strong. How important was it for you to create a strong look and what role does Instagram play in your marketing?
Our marshmallow flavours are very bold and not often found in confectionary; I use basil, gin, yuzu and unusual bitters. I wanted that boldness to be reflected in the branding and packaging. I wanted the brand to be synonymous with progressiveness. As ever, with packaging and design projects we never have quite enough money to do what we would like to but it is an evolving project and there will always be development. We have to think creatively about using stickers or things we can print ourselves. With Instagram we take the photographs ourselves, we can’t afford art direction or props so we have to just get on with it. It has mixed results…. Sometimes we really nail it and other times it just doesn’t work but I’ve found you can work with some of the best photographers and the same thing happens so I’m happy with how it’s going. The only thing that holds us back is lack of confidence.
Artisan making seems to be going from strength to strength – why do you think this is?
I think consumers are becoming more conscious about provenance they want to know how something has been made and what has gone in to it. I also think that although it’s taken some time, consumers are willing to pay a little more for a craft product. I think increased personalisation and bespoke products are becoming more expected – we already get so many requests for bespoke marshmallow flavours that we launched a monthly changing ‘limited edition’ box.
How do you develop your new flavours and what are you inspired by?
I’m inspired by cocktails bars and restaurants for new flavour pairings. I also look at cultural trends so we’ve recently launched a CBD marshmallow.
Are there any flavours that you wouldn’t want to turn into a marshmallow?
Yup, anything with Mint in. I used to sell a Blackcurrant and Mint but it was incredibly divisive and one Christmas I created a Candy Cane Marshmallow when we did our first large scale Christmas toasting events. It was NOT popular. Because the marshmallows are soufflé like the taste was compared to toothpaste! Which isn’t very pleasant. I got a real panning for the mint marshmallows and wasted a lot of stock.
What trends do you see impacting on food & drink in the future?
Provenance and awareness. I definitely think customers want to see better ingredients and a shift towards ethical sourcing.
Any insider foodie tips you can share?
I’ve come back from a weekend in Bordeaux and I definitely think they’re pushing boundaries with French cooking the restaurants are hip, serving incredible menus and it feels as though there is a really exciting scene there.
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