Meet the Christchurch mum serving up sweet Christmas treats

A Christchurch mum has turned a favourite holiday tradition into a business that spices up the lives of Kiwi families at Christmas

As the holiday season draws closer, Hilary Bothwell turns on her oven, ready to get into the swing of things. The Christchurch confectioner is the founder of The Gingerbread Company, serving up gorgeous Christmas gingerbread houses, which are topped with a dash of snowy sugar frosting for good measure.

Her mum Vicki, who is also her “right-hand lady” in the business, started making gingerbread houses as a family tradition when Hilary was four years old. “Back then it wasn’t that common and I always thought it was sad my friends didn’t have the same tradition,” says Hilary. “As I got older, we tried to outdo ourselves every year and our houses got better and better.”

That creative and competitive spirit has blossomed into The Gingerbread Company, which now makes hundreds of gumdrop-covered creations for households all around the country. From her website you can order an array of edible houses, as well as a DIY gingerbread house kit and cookie jars, with each offering more mouth-watering than the last.

Between her full-time job in marketing and The Gingerbread Company, Hilary also works as a marriage celebrant. “I’ve had the privilege of officiating at 26 weddings with more to come. It’s cliched but I truly do love love,” she says. This Christmas is an extra-special one for Hilary, who has recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy with her husband Harry.

Have you always been an avid baker?

I wouldn’t say avid baker, more avid decorator. I’ve always loved that the most. I’m a bit rogue when following a recipe, but I do enjoy baking from time to time. I’ve always loved desserts and treating the family to a sticky date pudding every now and then.

How was The Gingerbread Company conceived?

Over the years I’d always thought it would make a great business and I loved the idea of making it a tradition for more families. I also wanted people to be able to buy high-quality New Zealand-made kits (as many are baked overseas). I tried it first in Melbourne and had a massive fail selling one house as a trial and trying to transport it on a tram in crazy-hot weather, then watching it melt before my eyes. I parked the idea but when I moved home to Christchurch, I decided to give the business a go, and here we are.

What’s the trick behind making the perfect gingerbread house?

A good piping bag and icing nozzle, and the right consistency icing is key. Make sure the icing can hold a soft peak. I have spent years developing my style and finding the perfect lollies and sprinkles to make my houses extra special. It’s a labour of love so my advice is to take your time, let your personality shine and enjoy the process. If all else fails, sprinkle it in icing sugar and wrap it in cellophane. Trust me, it’ll look amazing.

How long does it take you to make a house from scratch?

That’s a tough one to answer now as I do them in batches and I’m not baking each one from scratch. But it’s labour of love and I make each house a little different from the last. It’s almost meditative when you get into the rhythm of decorating.

At what point in the year do you start thinking about gingerbread and the run-up to Christmas?

I usually take January to March to recover from the craziness and have a break from gingerbread. But I’d say it’s in the back of mind all the time and I’m always thinking of ideas. We start applying for the markets in August, then it’s really all go from there.

What’s your favourite part of Christmas?

The joy of a full house, laughter, family all being together. I love everything about Christmas, the decorations, the food, the traditions. I never get sick of it. I can’t wait for Theo’s first Christmas and starting beautiful traditions with him.

Your husband even proposed to you using a gingerbread house, which is honestly the sweetest thing ever. What was that moment like?

Harry’s proposal was the sweetest thing. I think I had maybe five mini houses left and, by Christmas Eve, I was ready to have no gingerbread; I was giving them away to anyone who came to the house. But Harry was acting weird and saying he wanted to keep one for his family’s Secret Santa. I said to him that everyone was sick of gingerbread, so I kept trying to give them away to the neighbours instead. Luckily, he snuck one away, but it was a bit of a dud. On Christmas morning Harry gave me a gift-wrapped box and inside was a bottle of Champagne and a beautiful letter. The letter said to head down to the Christmas tree for a surprise and underneath the tree was that dud gingerbread house with ‘Will you marry me?” hand painted in alternating Christmas colours around it with the ring inside the house. It was so perfect and so lovely to celebrate with our families later that day.

We loved the miniature Christchurch Cathedral on your Instagram. What’s been your favourite creation made from gingerbread?

The gingerbread cathedral was super fun to make, it was for the restoration group who loved it. Mum made a caravan one year that was cool. I don’t have much time to play around with custom shapes, but my Pinterest is full of ideas I’d love to create one day. The first house I make each year is so special to me, it reignites my spark and love for them, I love that they still bring me joy too.

Your mum seems to play a big supporting part in the company, what’s it been like to work together?

Mum is my right-hand lady and best friend. Mum and I are super close, and we talk everyday anyway, so working together is super easy. Nothing is ever a problem to Mum, she can do or figure out anything, which is so handy. She always goes along with any crazy plan that I have. We both love the Christmas markets we do and our annual catch-up with the other vendors. It’s like a little market family. We spend hours in the kitchen making hundreds of houses and never get sick of each other’s company. We are very lucky.

What’s been your proudest moment of your journey so far?

The first sale on my website from a random person was such a buzz. I remember thinking that they have no idea they’re my first order and now I’ve really got to do this. I’ve learnt so much and love how much joy this business brings to people. It’s become a tradition for families just like I’d hoped.

What’s next for The Gingerbread Company?

I would love to keep growing the business and offering more products. I have so many ideas and bringing them to life would be such fun. I would like to expand my workshops and have had lots of requests to travel elsewhere to run them.

Is this something you’d love to do year-round or do you enjoy the seasonal nature of the work?

I’ve never really had the time to think about this as Christmas is such a focus, but this year I’m hoping to develop a range for other holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Watch this space.

Words by: Caroline Moratti. Photography by: Sarah Rowlands.

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