Smells evoke special memories

The area around Tawa Street in Wanganui was well known to any kid of my era, especially during the school holidays.

Across the road from the chlorine-soaked waters of the old Gonville baths was the Ice Cream Cone factory, where one could peer in through the open door, and watch the fresh pink ice cream cones empty from their moulds into bins, with the gentle waft of vanilla.

And at the other end of Tawa Street was a row of shops and a Post office. One could smell the buzz of sawdust as you rode your pushbike passed Sovereign Woodworkers. And then your ultimate destination: Butchart’s Bakery.

Anyone who grew who up on the south side of Victoria Ave knew of the pleasures of a Butcharts sponge.

The Butchart’s opened their doors in 1947. There was Mr Butchart (nicknamed ‘Butch”) and son Don, who worked tirelessly away in the back of the bakery. One only ever caught a fleeting view of them as the hurried about: they were too busy to take notice of a scrawny kid with 20c to spend.
But it was Mrs Butchart who was front and centre in the shop. She was always perfectly quaffed, with stylish hair, a clean pink smock and perfect makeup. I never found out until she passed away that her first name was Vivien: it would have been impolite and completely unthinkable to refer to her as anything other than Mrs Butchart.

Ah but the sponges that Butch and Don baked, and Mrs Butchart sold! Ordering a sponge was almost akin to practicing a religious rite: Mrs Butchart would lovingly lift your requested sponge from the glass cabinet (that you never saw refilled) and carefully place it in a large brown paper bag, twisting the bag closed at the top. She would then hand it carefully across the counter, leaving a slight subtle trail of coffee or chocolate or passionfruit icing.
To say that these sponges were a culinary experience is an understatement. The texture was always perfect: soft and melt in your mouth with an exquisite flavour without being excessively sweet. Such was reputation of Butcharts that their sponges became local folk law, and the stalwart of a many a birthday morning tea shout.

Mrs Butchart passed away in 2008, at the ripe old age of 91. Sadly, Butch followed less than two months later.

Any trip back home to Wanganui these days is somehow never complete without a visit to the bakery. Mrs Butchart may no longer be with us, but the family bakery tradition still continues, and produces something akin to the perfect sponge. And it still smells just as I remember.


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