As the video call connects, the first thing that I notice about Mellissa is her vibrant hair and infectious smile. The sun streams through the window behind her and she tells me that it’s 10 AM in Canada. She has travelled home for her sister’s wedding and has, very kindly, taken time out of her busy schedule to talk to us.
Her Canadian accent is still thick despite living in the UK for most of her adult life. I ask her if she was a born vegan: “Absolutely not,” she laughs, “I guess it was probably around age eleven or twelve when it really all started to make sense to me – where animals came from.”
She is very complimentary about her beloved home town, just outside Toronto, and tells me a little bit about the history of vegetarianism and veganism in Toronto: “It was always a great, ethically-based, wonderful place. I was involved in animal rights groups at a really young age, sneaking downtown to marches and festivals.” At this age Mellissa wasn’t a vegan and she admits that her love of baking was the main stalling point for her transition.
“I moved to the UK and I’d been in London for a long time when I just ran out of reasons why I wasn’t vegan. When I made the transition into a vegan lifestyle I thought, let me just find a local vegan bakery, and I was shocked that there weren’t any in London. In North America there are loads of them all over the place, even in the smallest of communities. I looked further afield and realised there weren’t any in the UK. I thought – this is ridiculous; I’m going to have to start baking loads for myself. One thing led to another and here we are.”
And where is here? Mellissa, AKA Ms Cupcake, has built her 100 per cent vegan cake empire from a modest business (which she ran out of her flat) to a bakery in trendy Brixton and an incredibly successful book. Now, she is in the process of opening a manufacturing site to expand the brand across the UK. She tells me about the early years: “It became clear that I’d fallen into this massive chasm in the market place… I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I just had a lot of gumption, ethics and love for cake.”
Her strong ethics are what Ms Cupcake is known for and the ethos of her brand is simple: “Everybody deserves great cake – that’s all it is. I don’t care what you can or cannot eat, if you have an allergy, if you can’t eat something for a religious or ethical reason – you should get to eat indulgent and decadent cake.” Ms Cupcake offers a range of free-from vegan products including gluten-free and soy-free and they will be launching sugar-free options in the coming months. Mellissa tells me: “We wait until we find the perfect substitute for something else – we don’t do something because it’s just okay. We insist that everything should taste just as good, if not better, than a traditional bake item should.”
So what are her favourite treats: “I actually really love traditional British flavours. Coming from Canada and being an Anglophile all my life, nothing beats a Bakewell tart… The original six cupcake flavours were all themed on British flavours.” Her flavours are tried and tested 30-40 times before they hit the shelves in her shop and clearly, it works. Having personally eaten her cakes on multiple occasions, I can tell you that her cakes are incredible.
As is her dress sense. Known most famously for wearing her cupcake hat and vintage glasses, she admits that her style is kooky and that her look is all about fun: “I’ve always dressed as whatever I darn well want to dress as…. There is a great business called voodoo vixen but mostly, I like finding vintage pieces and I’ve got a dab hand at the needle.”
Her incredible style, however, is not the reason Ms Cupcake has over 16 thousand followers on Instagram. Cupcakes are her thing. Rather than Ms perhaps she should be HRH, sitting on a sugary throne, and it’s not only me who thinks so – in 2016 the bakery won ‘Best Independent Grocery Retailer’. What is her secret?
“It’s not about the ingredients – everyone gets so hung up on what do you do to replace eggs. It’s about how you stir it. It’s about what you do differently. If you were to use the same instructions [for traditional cakes] it wouldn’t work – you’re using different ingredients!” Mellissa swears by her techniques to achieve the perfect vegan cupcake. In 2013, Ms Cupcake: The Naughtiest Cupcakes in Town was published with the aim of demystifying vegan baking and ingredients. Her eagerly-awaited second book should be out in the next year or so. Mellissa laughs as she tells me: “My husband calls it the difficult second album. We have introduced loads of new techniques which is why it has taken quite a long time to come out.” Ms Cupcake also run cookery courses a couple of times a year.
I ask her if she has any advice for new vegans: “Every little bit helps. I believe there are two types of people in the world – there are vegans and there are not yet vegans. Anything we can do to encourage people to see that you can live a life with minimal cruelty and that you can go to bed at night knowing: I saved animals today and I didn’t contribute to horrors in the world. Even if it’s one day a week or a morning, it contributes.”
Ms Cupcake is located in Brixton, South-West London and is open 7 days a week. Follow them on Instagram at mscupcakeuk.
To find out how to make Mellissa’s delicious Lemon Blackberry Squares, click here.