We talk with Andrew Lowkes about his journey from baker to grocer to restaurateur to miller.
We opened Landrace in February 2019, Tom & Mel Calver, Tom own’s Westcombe Dairy and Mel owns the hairdresser next door. Before this I was working for a company called Pump Street Chocolate, a lot of these ideas find synergy, ideas like directly sourcing, and producing in a way that preserves identity. I joined Pump Street right at the point that they moved their production to a larger space to shift their focus a lot to bigger wholesale, working with people like chefs and bakers. Prior to that I worked for Neal’s Yard Dairy who are also very good at preserving the identity of ingredients, they’ve established a supply chain in London of somewhere around 50 farmhouse cheesemakers.
Tom and Mel had the lease on this unit, 61 Walcott Street, in Bath and they were looking for someone that they could put in and go into business with. Their initial idea was for a kind of Fernando and Wells vibe, Tapas, sherry, beer, natural wines and was keen to start a bakery, having just attended UK Grain Lab. Prior to that I wasn’t even really thinking about opening a bakery or even being a baker but I found it really inspiring meeting this community of people looking to move the industry forward with identity preservation and flavour and quality and direct sourcing being the main drivers. This community of people who just seemed to get it right and furthermore seemed to get it right by working together, by getting all the stakeholders of a supply chain together and saying these are the issues we all share in thse problems, how can we get together to fix them. I found that very spiriting, in a way that I maybe hadn’t been so exposed to because, chocolate, maybe coffee, the supply chain is very disparate and it’s harder to bring those people together. In a UK grain/ baking context it’s quite easy, or at least it should be if the system works. So I found it pretty mind blowing. 5 or 6 months after attending the UK Grain Lab, this site became available and it just felt like a confluence of things to work on. Had the site, had the idea and had a community of people that I felt like trying to place myself among and learn from. That was 3 years, 6 months and 3 days ago. I was shitting myself. The mix I’d done the day before opening I made the mix, shaped the dough and then left the fridge door open overnight, so I got in in the morning to make the first bread that we’d ever sell and it was all over proofed and ruined.
It was a very different business then, we opened as a sort of bakery cafe, we had Daf who is still with us today and still a really important member of the team. We set up the place with just me Daf and Joe who is an incredibly talented chef. Very curious and very led by what is in front of him. I remember just filling the fridges with ‘stuff’ on day one and he just came in and went for it, not many chefs can do that. Joe had been with Birch in Bristol and worked in restaurants in London, I think he’d picked up the tool kit to know how to take apart an ingredient and give it expression in the way that maintains its integrity.
So we opened as a bakery/ cafe, I baked all the bread, all the counter buns, cookies, Daf made the coffees and other drinks and Joe did the menu. Pretty much a fresh black board every day, a lot of stuff that was served on bread or with bread so the bread was the sort of backbone of the menu with a beautiful little seasonal menu built around it. This formula was working well, mid february 2020 we celebrated our 1st birthday and then about a month later covid happened. So we, like a lot of businesses had to make some really big changes really fast, we shut the cafe, closed all that down, we moved our big communal table from the middle of the room and put it against the wall to sell produce, we took the lamp from above said table, that became a bell jar to cover charcuterie and cheeses. Having Tom’s farm which produces cheese and charcuterie was a healthy leg up. We were using Pump Street Chocolate in the bakery to make cookies so we started selling bars of chocolate, we sold eggs, flour, bread. We were just sort of riding it, seeing what we could do and then there was this Saturday where it dawned on us that we were going to be able to cling on and figure things out. It was a mess for about 6 months but then we got a handle on it, through coming in on days off and putting up shelves and more permanent fixings on the walls, lots of bench marks on the road to becoming a shop which is what we still are now.
One thing that was quite interesting was to see that the supermarkets were running out of things that we didn’t have trouble accessing, at this moment of why, what is going on with our supply chain of flour and eggs. So we were quite involved with the South West Grain thing, we were getting this beautiful Spring varieties of wheat; April Bearded, grows super tall, beautiful ear on it, we were getting that from Fred Price’s farm near Bridgewater about 40 miles away, who we also buy pigs from. He was selling his grain to a stone mill in Shaftesbury called Cann Mill who were milling it and then sending it up here. That van was delivering direct to us, I think, every third week and it was at this moment I remember looking out and seeing this full van of flour delivering to us when you couldn’t get flour in Waitrose. That consolidated in my mind this idea of resilient, highly adaptable, nimble supply chains. It really galvanised a lot of the ideas I’d been floating about in my head with the cafe, but really the cafe format didn’t lend itself to vocalising some of these ideas but as a shop we had a method of expression for our supply chain. It was a little easier to get our message across as a grocer and as a retailer. In a cafe, people want a different experience, with a shop it’s just the customer and the product with you there to talk about it and showcase it, whereas with a cafe there’s all of this manipulation that happens in the middle. Covid in hindsight gave us license to reimagine what we wanted to do here, and I think the way we’ve refigured it, which works for us better, is as a shop.. And of course still very much a bakery.
The other big change is what we did upstairs. So I’ve known Rob and Jules since my time in London. Rob cooked in Brawn and The Quality Chop House and Jules worked at Jolene. Rob is a very talented chef and Jules is a very senior front of house and restaurant manager. They were rethinking their London life during covid as a lot of people were, and Jules being from Bath they started considering moving here. Rob called me and asked if I knew of any restaurant jobs and, I’m a little bit of an opportunist and for all my faults I think I’m fairly good at seeing an opportunity when it comes my way. So I said, you know what, we’ve got this space upstairs that we’ve been using as a bit of a tomato and tarocco orange storage for our burgeoning grocery business. So we decided to bring back the indoor dining thing that we did pre covid but under a bit of a different guise. What we’ve ended up doing, very much under Rob and Jules’ management and direction is we’ve build a bit of a kitchen space in the back and a 26/28 cover dining room in the front that Jules manages. Team of five up here so this business is now almost 24 hour; baker comes in at 3 oclock in the morning, bakes, open at 9am upstairs and for coffee and buns upstairs, from midday lunch is served upstairs, shop closes at 2.30, lunch closes at 3, bakery team gets out, restaurant team gets ready for dinner service from 6, goes through all the way until 10ish, clean down, out by around midnight.
It’s been amazing watching Rob and Jules grow the restaurant, Daf has really taken on the shop and we’ve been able to grow the bakery side of things. We use the same supplier network for upstairs and downstairs but we are able to show a different expression of the same ingredients. To give an example we serve coffee in takeaway cups downstairs, very casual, bit of a vibe with people hanging out on the street and around the shop, but then upstairs we are serving that same coffee in beautiful hand thrown Skye Corewijn ceramic cups. To give another example, one thing we’ve done in the past is buy a whole pig, for the company, the bakery minces much of that for sausage rolls, in the restaurant Rob serves the chops or might braise the cheeks or do something with the belly section. So we’re taking the same animal but we’re using the full animal and expressing that ingredient in multiple different ways. This is something we’d like to do more of.
Almost since opening we’ve had this amazing relationship with Felin Ganol, a water mill in West Wales who mill exclusively by water power, which has been very problematic for the last six weeks in drought. They buy identity preserved grains from farmers in our network, farmers who I met in UK Grain Lab four years ago, and Anne and Andrew bought this house in Llanrhystud in Ceredigion, on the river Wyre and it came with a water mill. They used to work at the plant breeding station at Aberystwyth University, they’re very involved with farming, grain… and were way before it became trendy and people like me with my silly sourdough bakery started trying to make a name for themselves. They were pursuing this stuff in a highly academic way and then they bought this house, it came with a water mill and they fixed the thing and started milling grain. Not only that, exceptional quality flour.
What Anne and Andrew have done so well is revive this water mill as a value adding mechanism for their rural community but also for bakers and people like me and my network. We buy a lot of wholemeal flour from them which they love because there’s no waste, and in their small system they can’t easily handle waste. Then I, being a baker, asked them for white sifted flour and Anne said, well yes you can have it but only if you take the other fractions. So this has been a fascinating exercise for us because she started sending the whole grain but broken down into white flour, grain middling (the semolina) and the bran. So three bags of white flour, two bags of semolina and then one bag of bran. (15 kilo bags). Ever since then we’ve had to adapt our cuisine to this, we use semolina in our sweet paste for our tarts, we use it in sourdough crackers. Rob’s using a lot of semolina in the restaurant, largely for fresh pasta. Bran we sadly are still adapting to so we largely use it for lining baskets with it, but we’ve tried things like Nukezuke, the japanese method of fermenting vegetables in bran.. There’s so much potential and it’s something we will keep developing. So we’ve found ways of taking the whole grain and separating it and finding different avenues for each of those elements. White flour is easy, it goes straight into buns but all the other things we’ve had to figure out and that’s probably the greatest challenge and the one that’s sparked our interest in milling and led us towards where we are now, buying our own mill.
We’ve really struggled here since opening with consistently available and quality and supply of flour. The problem with the beautiful stone ground flour we get from Felin Ganol is that we’re capped to a weight limit as it’s delivered by a fruit and veg supplier that’s located near the mill. The Felin Ganol flour isn’t currently the whole picture, we’ve also had to buy modern wheat from stone millers who mill a very functional, high extraction but still sifted flour. Every batch that we get in from small producers is a little different so we’ve had consistency issues. So we’ve realised that milling is the only way we think we can build some more resilience and tolerance to some of these peaks and bumps, into our supply chain. I don’t know if maybe we had a different milling relationship, for example, I’ve got a very good friend, Kate, who owns a bakery in Oxford, probably my favourite bakery in the world, Hamblin Bread, Kate has an amazing relationship with Offley Mill in Staffordshire, where essentially she buys grain and then has it contract milled on her behalf. That’s worked incredibly well, and I think it’s a model that needs to be promoted and celebrated and I certainly don’t think every bakery needs to have its own mill but it’s hard. Plus there aren’t many of these guys left in the UK.
If you’re an aspiring miller, looking at the coffee roasting industry, the roasting industry seems to be very well established in the UK, there’s a great variety of different roasters, with their own profile and branding and area of expertise, there are coffee festivals and ways that people come together and people in the industry come together to talk and exchange and share. On the other hand, the milling industry has been completely lost in the UK or more accurately that small scale, highly diversified, highly decentralised milling industry has been replaced by huge industrial roller mills. So this knowledge is quite scarce and sparsely held. So i’ve decided the mill we want to buy is from New American Stone Mills, who are based in the states in Vermont. What Andrew and Blair at New American Stone Mills have been doing really successfully is embedding themselves in a culture of millers, artisans and farmers. Andrew travels extensively, they install their mills personally and are very involved and active in equipping their customers with as much knowledge and expertise as possible. They also have a bakery so they really understand the needs and concerns of bakers who only want to work with identity preserved, directly sourced, stone milled flour. We could have bought a mill from France or Austria but I felt like New American Stone Mills could really offer us something in terms of community and exchange of knowledge. We’re going to locate the mill down at Tom’s farm at Westcombe, we just had our first grain harvest on the 22nd of July, it was very successful. So we’ll be milling that grain as well as other grain from farms in the vicinity of Bath, farms who we are already talking to. Then the plan is to of course use that flour in our bakery, and in our kitchen but also to sell flour in our shop to like minded folk in our community. The hope is that the mill will in essence allow us to up and down our supply chain, create a network of local growers and a network of local end users. Hopefully, the mill is this incredible nexus where it all comes together.