Lowestoft baker The Penny Bun Bakehouse to supply Raymond Blanc’s Chelsea Flower Show restaurant
- Credit: Archant
Lowestoft baker John Spillings of The Penny Bun Bakehouse counts Raymond Blanc and Richard Branson among his clients.
Baker John Spillings is a bit of a jammy dodger. The cat that got the cream. Okay, so he has to get up at 4am every morning for work (with a one year old at home – eek). But how many people can say they wake up living, breathing and loving what they do?
I'm almost immediately covered in flour when I meet the baker at his Lowestoft outfit and instantly regret my decision to wear black. As I walk into the engine room I'm hit by the unmistakeably sweet, yeasty aroma of freshly baked bread. Tray after tray is filled with seeded rolls. 'They're for Chelsea Flower Show,' John tells me (as I'm contemplating pocketing one for a snack). 'I'm making them for Raymond Blanc's restaurant. Ten thousand of them!'
Chelsea Flower Show? Fancy! But how did this down-to-earth lad, who loves a jam session (music not the sweet stuff) find himself supplying bread at arguably one of the most prestigious garden events in the world, and to one of the world's most respected chefs.
John's story began working his way up through Michelin kitchens. 'But I always loved pastry!' The chef rolled up his knives and, full of enthusiasm, rocked up to work at the Roux brothers' Waterside Inn in Bray where, despite his best efforts in trying to convince them, he wasn't allowed on the pastry section.
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It was here that John met his now great mate, chef Richard Bainbridge – both of them starting on the same day. That, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But the passion for pastry never faded for John, and on the advice of other chefs he was soon knocking on the door of Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, where he was finally let loose on the pastry section. Hoorah!
'After that I did development work with Heston on the TV show Heston's Feasts. And I came back here and wanted to open up a bakery/café type thing but we were in the middle of a recession.'
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Heston sent John to see his bakers at work in London and that proved to be the inspiration for The Penny Bun Bakehouse, where John bakes to order for clients including Raymond Blanc, Flying Kiwi Inns in Norfolk, various restaurants and delis, and farmers' markets. Oh - and he also cooked bread in a wood-fired oven at Necker Island for Richard Branson last November.
While his trade account is the bread and butter of the business, it's at farmers' markets that John gets to flex his baking muscles. 'We take a huge selection. All the usual sourdough and seven seed breads, swirls with things like caramelised red onion and stilton or wild garlic from my garden going through. There's chocolate hazelnut brioche. Spelt bread. Loads.'
From bread John moved to chocolate a few years ago. What started as a bit of pleasure, hand pouring 200 Easter eggs, has become a new facet of the bakery. John invested in a tempering machine and this year made a whopping 1,000 eggs – all beautifully packaged and decorated. 'We make hearts for Valentine's Day too, and dark chocolate caramels and seasonal truffles for the markets,' John adds. Delicious!
In a more unusual move, the bakery has diversified into artisan lollies too - although John admits it was a pain in the butt trying to set up Lickety Ices. 'I saw a guy doing them in London and thought it was a good idea. But it took weeks and weeks and weeks of research looking for the right equipment. We had to import it from South America.'
John sells the ices (in flavours such as rhubarb and custard, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate swirl – like a Vienetta) at Jimmy's Farm in Suffolk and at various events throughout the year. In a coup for 2017, he'll be at Latitude refreshing punters with the ices – but he doesn't want to think about how many lollies he'll have to make just now!
'I love it, I really do,' John says of his work, yawning and ready to head to bed before the next round of baking begins.
John's favourite bread snack
'I love my ciabatta split and toasted on the cut side. Sweat onions, garlic and garden peas. Add some salt, pepper, a bit of butter. Crush it and put it on the bread then put fish fingers, mayo and ketchup. It's unreal.'
John's top tips for great bread.
1.If you want to make something easy check out Easy Bread by Vincent Talleu on Youtube. He's part of the Real Bread campaign and with this bread you just mix flour, water and yeast, leave it overnight and then fold it a few times. I've tried it and it's really good.
2.For a nice crust heat a pizza stone or tray in the oven. Get it really hot and put your bread on top. Also put water in the bottom of the oven. The moist heat allows the bread to soften and open up.
3.Once your bread is a nice colour turn the oven down or off and leave the bread in to crisp up in the residual heat.
Find out more about The Penny Bun Bakehouse here.