Megan Abbott

A Day in the Life of London Bakeress Lily Vanilli

Megan Abbott
A Day in the Life of London Bakeress Lily Vanilli

There are few places as enticing as Columbia Road on a Sunday. Along with sky-high cacti, tweed-clad buskers, oysters being shucked on the roadside, spinning vinyls and an eye-popping array of flowers sold by blaring East-enders, the Lily Vanilli Bakery has become an iconic fixture of this legendary market. Tucked away inside a bricky courtyard just off the main stretch, the bakery serves the kind of colourful, embellished sweet treats that look almost too good to eat. Almost.

Lily Jones had an unconventional journey into baking, stumbling into it after studying philosophy and working as a graphic designer. After struggling to find work during the recession, she turned to cakes. Her first designs - gothic creations studded with skulls and black sugar roses - quickly caught the public’s attention. Since then, she has gained gastronomic fame for her towering cakes glinting with glittered cherries, edible flowers and shards of chocolate. While she spends the week conjuring up custom-made cakes for celebrity clients, fashionable weddings and lavish parties, she opens the bakery’s doors to the public every Sunday. Her cupcakes, tarts, pastries and hot, peppery sausage rolls having customers forming a disorderly queue out of the front door each and every week.  

Here, we follow a day in the life of Lily Vanilli, the East London entrepreneur turning baking on its head one bronze-dipped cherry at a time. 

Where do you live, and what is the area like?

I live in Dalston, a really vibrant part of East London. There are great bars, nightlife and coffee but the best part is the African, Turkish and Caribbean communities which have been there for generations and survived a lot of change in the area.

How do you get to work?

I walk! There’s actually no other way to get here. It’s around a half hour walk.

Where do you go for coffee?

I switch on the coffee machine in the bakery and practice my latte skills during the week (one latte please, no art), or there is Lanark coffee around the corner. They make a great cup and are always good for chats.

Favourite breakfast?

Hmmm… tea? I’m not very breakfast-y.

What is the average day in the bakery like? How much do you bake in a single day?

There’s no such thing as an average day in the bakery really. I have a wonderful team who manage a lot of the regular orders that we have, and then the majority of the business is bespoke-to-order, so we get really fun, creative briefs that mean every week is totally different from the rest. Today I’m working on a graveyard-themed chocolate gingerbread sculpture, brainstorming some gold & Harlequin themed Christmas cakes, working on a recipe for pate-des-fruits and making samples of some gingerbread cookies for a month long Children’s Christmas festival in Ascot.

Where do you look for inspiration for your work? Do you find a London an inspiring place or do you look further afield?

I think if you're very passionate about something you don’t really need to go in search of inspiration, because you find it in everything. Having said that…. Pinterest & Instagram are handy.

What music is usually on in the bakery?

Lately its more podcasts - Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing!

What day do you look forward to the most?

Sundays are always great because the shop is open and we get to make so many beautiful things for the counter. We’ve just changed the menu for Autumn and it’s really exciting to see the new pastries go out into the world.

What kind of atmosphere do you hope for in the bakery on Sundays?

Buzzzzing. But friendly. It can get crowded so it’s lovely how patient and happy people generally are in the cafe while they wait, its a cosy place.

How would you describe Columbia Road Flower Market to someone who has never visited London?

It is a beautiful slice of London history because it’s one of the only parts of this area that wasn’t bombed badly during the war. As a result, its like stepping into Narnia. You round the corner from Hackney Road and suddenly it’s cobblestones, Victorian shops and antique street lamps. The market has been there since the 1800’s selling plants and freshly cut flowers to locals and tourists. The traders are proper market folk and there’s a great atmosphere, some of my friends on the market have been trading there for over 40 years as part of a family business. It’s a really friendly, old community. Which is rare in London. You can get great flowers, cake and coffee too.

Favourite shop on Columbia Road?

I love Campania, the Italian restaurant, and the French wine shop next door (Printer’s and Stationers). Milagros is great for Mexican homewares and tiles, too.

Where do you love going for drinks in the area?

Printer’s & Stationers for wine, Royal Oak for pints and Marksman for everything.

And dinner?

I seem to spend most of what I earn at Morito on Hackney Road…

What’s next for you? Anything exciting going on this winter?

Yes! Lots of fun stuff. We’re extending the range at Fortnum’s which is exciting and I’m working on a product range which I’m really looking forward to. I’m also launching my online shop soon!