Not that he’s really considered the arbiter of taste or a bastion of good judgement, but George ’Dubya’ Bush is said to favour the Lainston House Hotel when he’s in the UK. The high quality of the breads and patisserie may have played a passing appeal, but it was more likely to be the draw of the lawn croquet. One can only speculate whether the US president balked at being served French pain de campagne, or insisted on a ’freedom loaf’- aping the ’freedom fries’ that replaced ’French fries’ in parts of America following France’s opposition to the war in Iraq.
If he did, then he would have been missing out. While most hotels buy in their bakery products, Lainston’s scratch-made goods were deemed so good, that the hotel started selling them at farmers’ markets. Indeed, they regularly sell out, with over-zealous customers scrabbling in the back of the van for any remaining hot cross buns or Lardy Cake.
One of the few UK hotels to employ a dedicated baker, Lainston also boasts the double whammy of having the UK Callebaut Chocolate Champion, Mark Tilling, on its pay-roll. I meet the latter the day after his three-minute appearance on celebrity chef James Martin’s desserts series, Sweet Baby James. "And that was from over four hours of filming!" laughs the head pastry chef.
With chocolate masterclasses advertised at £200 a pop, the hotel seems to be doing rather well from his new-found chocolate master status. Tilling won the accolade having made a metre-high King Arthur and Merlin chocolate sculpture, as part of a ’national myths and legends’ theme. "I did it in a modern art, contemporary style," he says.
It has helped raise the profile of the bakery at the hotel, with local papers and radio picking up on the success story. "The hotel has given me time to work on the competition but they’ve done well out of it too. Going to the world finals, everybody gets to know who you are and where you’re from."
HOTEL BAKERS: A RARE BREED
Meanwhile, attracting less of the glare but equally valued, is head baker Adrian Chant. Specialist bakers in hotels are a rare breed, he says. "Bakery in hotels is coming back, to some extent. But we’re not that common, to be honest.
"Hotels tend to buy in a Délice de France-type product. But [executive chef] Andy MacKenzie doesn’t believe in that - he believes people can tell if it’s not homemade."
Lainston’s bakery produces pastries and rolls for breakfast, bread for sandwiches served in the bar and drawing room, four varieties of bread for dinner and lunch, using herbs from the herb garden, teacakes and scones for tea, plus rolls and other breads for functions. "And of course we make bread to feed the staff," adds Chant.
The operation started out small-scale, with just a basic oven, but now houses a Tom Chandley oven, a Mono prover and a Bear mixer. It bakes for three farmers’ markets a month, taking around £1,000 a go.
There are plans to build a new bakery, visible from the functions suite, for giving live demonstrations. "At the moment, we share space with everyone else. But the oven, prover and main mixer are only a year old so you can see how much the hotel values fresh bread over part-finished," says Chant. "It’s sort of mushroomed, really. The hotel used to buy in all the croissants, pains au chocolat and Danish pastries, but now we make all those, as well as tarts, cookies, shortbread and biscuits."
Farmers’ markets, which they started attending in September last year, quickly proved to be a profitable sideline and a nifty means of promoting the bakery at the hotel. The biggest seller is Lardy Cake, which sells for £1.60 - the same price as their 400g loaves. "You’d think it would be the older people going for Lardy Cake - and they do - but it’s the younger people who are really going for it. Some people say they can’t sell it. Rubbish! We were besieged when we started. We couldn’t even get the trays out of the van before people were picking them up! It was a similar story when we did hot cross buns before Easter."
The bread is baked using a 24-hour sponge and dough process. The sourdough starter was supplied by baker Paul Merry, of Panary, and the breads are hand-shaped. "I only use scratch recipes - no premixes, improvers or enzymes. It’s all hand-moulded. I’ve done fancy knots and things, but they’ve got to be able to handle the bread in the restaurant. We’re given the freedom to play about and try things out - as long as it’s not too outrageous."
Flours come from Heygates, while stoneground rye and wholemeal flours are supplied by Stoates Flours at Cann Mills in Dorset. Occasionally, they buy from the nearby Bursledon Windmill.
Chant makes a selection of four to five breads daily and seasonality plays a big role in the choice of flavours. A well-cultivated herb garden provides inspiration for a number of breads. Loaves include lavender, rosemary and sultana, basil and tomato, and watercress varieties.
The hotel plans to put its 65 acres of grounds to better use, extending the herb garden and, in time, growing all its own vegetables, rhubarb, apples, pears, apricots, redcurrants and blueberries. "It will take three or four years for everything to mature. But the herbs come quickly," says Tilling.
The downside of an ample orchard is when the gardener drops 32 kilos of kiwi fruit from the hotel’s kiwi tree on the doorstep, he adds: "We were like, what are we going to do with all that?"
Tilling says he is making use of Callebaut’s Origin chocolates, sourced from individual countries. "Tasting chocolate can be a little bit like tasting wine - they’ve got their different flavours and aromas. We’ll put ’Madagascar chocolate sauce’ or ’Papua New Guinea chocolate mousse’ on the menu. Some are more caramel-flavoured, some are fruity, herby or tobacco-ey - the acidity can change between them."
But asked what he thinks the hotel particularly excels at and, perhaps out of modesty, he proclaims the bread over the chocolates. "It’s amazing that we make all our own bread - and a selection of breads, colours, textures, shapes and sizes as well - because there are so few hotels doing it. A lot of people don’t realise we make our own bread, so you need to make them more knowledgeable about it."
TAKING OVER THE KITCHEN
There is a sense that the bakery and patisserie are taking over the kitchen, and it already employs the majority of kitchen staff. "There’s a lot of cross-over," says Chant of the pastry and bakery roles in the kitchen. "I’ll do some chocolate work and Mark will help out at the farmers’ markets."
Now, there are even hopes to sell the bread from the hotel reception and Chant is also planning on introducing a bread menu.
On that day, the hotel’s bakery credentials will surely be complete. n
=== Adrian Chant CV ===
Trained at Salisbury College and has worked across a mix of large and small-scale bakery operations, including roles at New Forest Patisserie; McCambridge; Bakers Oven; David Powell Bakeries; Tesco; and Mr Kipling
=== Mark Tilling CV ===
Head Pastry Chef
BTEC National Diploma (hotel and catering) at Southampton City College; 1st commis pastry chef at The Lanesborough Hotel, London; head pastry chef at Hotel du Vin, Winchester; Zest, Winchester; chocolatier, Locherley, Hampshire
l Won the Callebaut UK Chocolate Champion 2007 and will go on to the World Finals, held in Paris