At first glance it looks like Sam Swart has just opened a box of ceramic Christmas decorations.
Each colourful piece features a unique festive design, bright colours and intricate attention to detail.
But there’s something very special about these decorations, because they are in fact cookies which are all completely edible.
Sam makes cookie decorating an art-form and she is a master of her work. Last month, her box of Christmas-themed cookies received a Bronze award at the Cake International competition in Birmingham.
It’s the largest event of its kind, attracting entrants from around the world whose chosen sport is cookie and cake creativity.
“The cookie category was introduced last year and I was encouraged to enter it. The theme was ‘12 Cookies for Santa’ and I was delighted to win a bronze. I certainly didn’t expect it as the standard was so high and then to get another bronze this year was fantastic. I’m now thinking about next year and I have my place booked already!” Sam said.
Sam is originally from South Africa but relocated to the Causeway Coast with her husband Tim over 10 years ago. It was a huge change for the couple, considering they didn’t know anyone here but they’ve quickly made the area their home.
The pair now live in Portrush where Tim runs a seafront Bed & Breakfast on Kerr Street.
It’s only since moving here that Sam has unleashed her cookie creativity, and it’s something which happened entirely by accident.
“Prior to 2017, I didn’t even know what Royal Icing was. I was looking for something to do on holiday, as my husband is a photographer. So while he’s off doing that I was looking for doodling and I came across Mehndi cake designs and I realised there was really nothing like that here,” she explained.
Their colourful and elaborate henna-like appearance sparked Sam’s imagination to develop something much more than a holiday hobby.
After completing Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council’s Journey To Market scheme, Sam’s Causeway Cookie Company is now a regular member of both Causeway Speciality Market and Naturally North Coast and Glens Artisan Market.
As well as being beautifully decorated, all of Sam’s cookies are certified gluten free, made possible through the Invest NI Innovation Voucher programme and Foodovation Centre at North West Regional College, something which she is hugely proud of.
“I was misdiagnosed a number of years ago and I ended up in what has been described as a tasteless wasteland. While I’m not coeliac I appreciate the limitations of the diet and it’s becoming more prevalent. All of my products are gluten and wheat-free so even if you have special dietary requirements you can still enjoy a pretty cookie,” she said.
As a regular market trader, Sam has built up a loyal clientele including many who aren’t specifically gluten-free.
The customer-facing environment has also led to some unique bespoke orders, including a memorable first commission for 25 Star Wars themed cookies.
At Sam’s stall you can also enjoy ‘make and take’ sessions which allow children (of all ages!) to have a go at cookie decorating for themselves.
Plans are afoot to make this activity available in a kit-form which will make an ideal Christmas gift for all cookie lovers. Since entering her first Cake International competition, Sam has connected with a global community of like-minded people who share a passion for cookie decorating.
Thanks to its growing following, the inaugural NI Sugar Exhibition will be held here for the first time next March and Sam is already making plans for a series of Titanic themed cookies.
Her attention to detail is clear, and there are obvious parallels with her day job as an architectural technologist.
“Both of them are very much precision-based,” she says.
At times the lines can blur as she recalls one occasion when she was working on an image of Monaghan Cathedral and found herself thinking about how a Royal icing model of the building would look.
Before Christmas you will next find Sam at Naturally North Coast and Glens Artisan Market in the Marine Hotel, Ballycastle on Sunday, December 9th and she’s also taking orders. You can find out more by following @Causeway Cookie Company on Facebook.