A trip to Bristol isn’t complete without a visit to Hart’s Bakery. I say this with a swaggering confidence, as I’m pretty certain few people would contradict me and, there are the queues to prove it. Run by Laura Hart, in the few short years it has been open, it has become a firm food favourite. Tucked underneath the arches of Templemeads Station, a haven in an area that still remains a food desert; it sells some of the best sourdough loaves, sausage rolls, custard tarts -oh and cinnamon buns, that many would tackle the cross town traffic for. With good coffee and a lively atmosphere; just keep your hands off my cauliflower cheese pasty.
WM: When did your interest in baking begin and do you remember the first thing that you baked?
LH: I was really lucky to have a brilliant food up bringing -homemade bread and vegetables from the garden. My mother is a great cook and I learnt a lot at her apron strings. Although it took a few years to get over having to take homemade brown bread sandwiches to school and a desperate love of white sliced like my friends had. My signature bake as a ten or eleven year old was ‘Profiterole Mountain’, with a cream filling and chocolate sauce. There was one particular summer holiday when I was really let loose in the kitchen and cooked or baked every day and haven’t really stopped since.
WM: How did you get started?
LH: I moved to Bristol in 2001 and spent ten years working as a pastry chef/baker in some great restaurants: Quartier Vert; Bordeaux Quay; Ocean Tapas Bar and the Lido which was a fantastic scene to be involved in. I was really lucky to learn on the job and grow with the businesses. I had no experience when I started and just managed to find myself in the right place at the right time. It’s a great industry for seeing potential in people.
WM: What was it that made you decide to open your own bakery?
LH: I was starting to look for an alternative to the restaurant scene but couldn’t see anywhere to move to in Bristol, so when I got made redundant, it seemed the right time to start something. The food network in Bristol is so supportive that it wasn’t long before I had a premises, a few wholesale customers and just enough nerve to give it a go. I really started without much of an idea of where it might lead.
WM: You were originally based in Cotham; did it feel like you were taking a big risk when you moved to the railway arches?
LH: The space we started in was such a great opportunity to give it a go without too much of a risk; just a borrowed kitchen with some basic equipment. When the arrangement came to an end, I spent a year looking for a more permanent site. Initially I really wanted to stay in the same area as I knew the market and customers but just couldn’t find the space I needed. I had always wanted one big open plan bakery where everything happened in the same space and customers could feel involved, as well as a small cafe area. A few days at E5 Bakehouse in Hackney opened my eyes to the potential of railway arches and I dashed back to Bristol to find one -eventually finding Arch 35. The physical space was perfect, but would anyone find us? More than a few sleepless nights, but it seems to have worked out OK!
WM: How long did it take for you to set the place up?
LH: Only a couple of months. The benefits of one simple space and big doors at the front meant we could install the ovens and the kit very easily and keep our costs of the refit to a minimum. This was a big factor in choosing this space; we could concentrate initially on the baking and think about some of the pretty stuff later (or not, as the case may be).
WM: Can you describe a typical day?
LH: We start at 5am, get the ovens and coffee machine on before finishing off the pastries that have been slow proving all night. By 7am when we open, the shop counter is full of fresh pastries and warm bread and the bakers start on the next day’s bake. By making everything very slowly (the pastries take three days, the bread twenty four hours), it means we can prepare during the day and have really fresh products in the shop. This rhythm is so important for a sustainable working life and so customers can see how and by whom, everything is made. The chefs join us at 8am and start making savouries and lunch specials. We are pretty busy all day, but there is often a morning rush of coffee and croissants, and then a lunchtime rush for all the sausage rolls and specials. We close at 3pm, usually cleaned down by 4pm and then I start my other job, running the business.
WM: You only bake sourdough bread, why is that?
LH: It’s my favourite! I find it more interesting to make and easier to eat than yeasted bread. It has more character of flavour and texture, the slow rhythm helps with our working hours and it keeps better and makes better bread based dishes.
WM: What is your best seller?
LH: That’s a tough one, we’ve got a few. Cinnamon buns, custard tarts, sausage rolls; white sourdough is the most popular bread.
WM: Are there any bakers or bakeries that you admire?
LH: Lots; thanks to Twitter and Instagram we spend a lot of time admiring what everyone is up to. In Bristol: Mark’s Bread and East Bristol Bakery. In the UK: E5 Bakehouse; Brick House Bakery; Haxby Bakery; Baltic Bakehouse. In the rest of the world: Pip’s Bread, Jane on Larken and many more.
WM: Finally, do you ever hanker after a bit of sliced white, even for a bacon butty?
LH: Yes, but I’m usually disappointed. The memory of it doesn’t usually stand up to the reality: soggy; doughy and with a strange chemical aftertaste.