Richard Bertinet

22nd December 2015

Interview: Alice Hancock
Photographs: Dan Dennison

22nd December 2015

Interview: Alice Hancock
Photographs: Dan Dennison

Bath doesn’t get much more spectacular than when it is smothered with the gold morning light of late summer. Nor when there is the promise of breakfast with Richard Bertinet, the city’s best-known baker. Brought up in Brittany, he arrived in England 30 years ago with a love of the language and just enough money to survive for two weeks. Now he owns a cookery school, a café and a hugely acclaimed bakery, all within walking distance of the train station in Bath.

Our first port of call is Richard’s house wedged into the hillside above the centre of town where, from a behind a big grey door with an impressive silver knocker, Richard emerges with Riley, his ancient spaniel, wiggling around his heels. Down hessian-covered stairs we emerge into the Bertinet’s newly completed kitchen. It’s not big but judging by the expansive marble worktops, Mercury cooker, double-doored fridge and satisfyingly tactile reclaimed dresser stacked with Kilner jars, this is a kitchen that means business.

Through an opening at the back is the larder, home to an espresso machine that keeps us and Richard in constant supply of coffee swilled in glugs from large white mugs, and a dusty but well-filled wine rack (“Building dust, not dusty through lack of use,” Richard assures us). Before we get settled though, it’s down to the shop to pick up the essential base for today’s dish – a boulder of sourdough that is slightly larger than a football but not quite as round. Arriving at the bakery shop, it feels as though we could be in France. Richard greets a regular customer, a fellow Frenchman, and we are given croissants, crisp as a paper bag and thick with unctuous almond paste.

Richard is in gregarious form. As we head back up the hill, via the school where we admire the chocolate being patiently tempered by one of Richard’s employees, he pours forth on everything from overly-immaculate food styling to a lack of common sense among today’s cooks. By the time we’re back at the house, watching shallots soften in the pan, we are more than ready for a good French breakfast.

Continued below...

When did you decide to become a baker?

I’ve known I was going to be a baker since the age of 13 or 14. Before that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was rubbish at school and I remember one day the teachers did that thing where they go round the classroom and ask you what you want to do when you’re big. They had a list of jobs but my idea of a job was more as something to do for fun so when they said “baker” I put my hand up.

Was food important when you were growing up?

Yes and no – it was never anything fancy. Mum cooked every day as normal and I had an uncle who was a baker in Paris but I wasn’t close to him. Bread is something you eat every day so you fall in love with it without knowing you’re doing it. I would go to the boulangerie every morning – the same boulangerie where I started out and worked for three years. I remember when I was still young, the door behind the counter would be ajar sometimes and I could see the guy kneading away. When I found myself behind that door working I thought, This is not as much fun as I imagined. But once you start you can’t stop. You get hooked on it.

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Why did you decide to move to the UK?

Girls. No, I’m joking. After I had done my stint in the army, I did a summer and a winter season in [the ski resort] Meribel and I started to speak English. I fell in love with the language so I came over for a two-week holiday and stayed a bit longer than I planned…

Was it a culture shock moving to Britain? We do have a very different attitude to bread…

It’s incredible to me how much attitudes in the UK have changed in the 30 years I have lived here. The first week I arrived in England I went to a party and when asked what I did and I said “I’m a baker”. Because of my French accent they asked which bank are I worked for. I had to say, “No, I’m a baker, I make bread”. And they didn’t know what to say because 30 years ago nobody talked about bread. Now if you go to a party and say you’re a banker nobody will talk to you, whereas if you say you’re a baker, whoof, everyone will talk to you about bread.

Now if you go to a party and say you’re a banker nobody will talk to you. If you say you’re a baker, whoof, everyone will talk to you about bread.

What was your first job in the UK?

I worked in a couple of hotels in the New Forest. That’s where the first girl I met was. I came off the ferry in Portsmouth, had a good time for two weeks then realised I had no money left so I got a job and six months became a year and one year become two, three, four…

And from there you moved to London?

Yes, which is where I met [my wife] Jo. She was a lawyer in one of the top firms. I worked there for about 10 years and then we decided that we wanted to do something that put our two skills together. Originally we thought we’d set up a cookery school in an old chateau in France. We had a few meetings in Toulouse but as soon as I was there I realised why I was in England. I couldn’t wait to come back.

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Why did you settle on Bath?

We looked at the map and you know, when you’re in London north is somewhere you don’t know so you don’t go there. East you have Delia Smith. I had come from the New Forest in the south so I didn’t want to go back there so we looked west. Bath ticks all the boxes. Jo’s family is in Cheltenham and Bath is not far. It’s well-connected to London, it’s near Bristol airport so we can fly to France and, from a business point of view, it is the most visited city after London so you’ve got lots of tourists coming here. Plus the views are fantastic, plus the rugby, plus, plus, plus…

Eades greengrocers can source anything… and I’ve discovered it’s always worth asking what’s out back as they don’t put everything at the front.
Richard on his favourite food shops in the area – see Address Book

Do you miss the buzz of the capital?

I remember when I first arrived in London, I thought “Pfffft, I’ll go back to the New Forest”. But, when I actually lived there, I discovered that it’s such a great place with so much happening. I love just driving around. Here in Bath though it’s more relaxing. For me, there’s fishing and shooting and the south-west food scene has really boomed in the last 10 years.

You have three children – do you cook with them?

My daughter loves spending time in the kitchen with me but my biggest boy is all just about the rugby so cooking for him is just to open the fridge. It’s like a TV for him. He opens it, looks at it, hoovers it all up and shuts it again. He’s 15 and he’s six foot two.

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Were you much different aged 15?

When I was his age I was working in the bakery, getting used to the early mornings. I love the morning now though. When I was 14, I would wake up and start work at 3 or 4am and there’s nobody around so you get your little routine. You do more work first thing than you do for the rest of the day. It’s wonderful.

Do you like other people cooking for you?

Yes of course. All my good friends now know that I don’t go to their homes to judge them on the food. I go there for them. They might do very simple stuff, or I might end up in the kitchen with them anyway. I love doing that. When we have a party everyone ends up in the kitchen. I’ve done dinner for 25 people in here. It was one of the best parties we ever had.

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Are you pleased with how the kitchen has come together?

Definitely. I hated the kitchen before we re-did it. Cooking is a good thing but if you don’t like your kitchen, it’s not good. I used to be upstairs watching TV. Now, you’ll find me downstairs in the kitchen listening to the radio. We didn’t really have time to do anything to it when we first moved in. We arrived on the 19th of December and my daughter was born on the 20th. Then all the family came down for Christmas. It’s a good thing we love chaos.

There are so many talented chefs all over the UK and I think there’s much more understanding of good food here than in France now.

Do you experiment with other countries’ cuisine?

I can make a curry and I can make sushi and other things like that but it is never ever as good as someone from the country making it. I am lucky I have so many chefs coming to the school who are at the top of their game and when they cook something the flavour is just so good. I could never reproduce it. I really believe you must teach what you know. I never pretend to teach what I don’t know.

The mushrooms smell amazing. What’s the magic ingredient?

It’s the French Calvados probably…

That would explain it. Are there always things you stock up on in France?

Salt. There is great sea salt in Guerande in Brittany. It’s famous for it. You can buy most things in the UK now but the salt is so much cheaper over there. You do get good Cornish sea salt but you don’t get the same flavour as from the grey sea salt you get from Guerande. Of course it is also what I grew up with…

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Is there anything you miss about France food-wise?

We have a house down in Provence and when we go there I love the relaxation and the weather – and the markets are really good. The problem with France is you have all these markets full of great food but all the restaurants are often poor. In the old days you could eat so well for very little and now it’s unbelievable how bad some of the food in France is. Did you know France is the second biggest consumer of the Big Mac after the US? The younger generation is hooked on junk food. It’s weird because you have so many beautiful ingredients and there is still great home-cooking but the restaurants are all chains.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Richard Bertinet
Bath, September 2015

To eat:

Mushroom tartine »
Sourdough bread
Almond and chocolate croissants

To drink:

Lots of espressos from his machine in the pantry

What do you think about the British food scene in comparison?

Thirty years ago you would travel through Britain and you would be lucky to get a plate of something good. It would be fried chips or whatever. Now you go to a local pub and you get something wow. It’s incredible how much it has changed. There are so many talented chefs all over the UK and I think there’s much more understanding of good food here than in France now. Maybe we go back to our roots more in the UK, back to the ingredients, where they come from, what we do with them and how we look after them.

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When was the last time you bought bread in a supermarket?

Umm… probably never. I might have got some bagels or something for the kids but nothing that I can remember. We never have no bread in the house. You run a bakery, you are never going to have no bread. Plus, you look at what they put in bread in supermarkets, even in the in-store bakeries. There’s a lot of junk in there. Even if they have a pop-up bakery and make it look cool and artisan, there will be a lot of rubbish in the bread. It’s so frustrating.

What’s the one tip you give to people when making bread?

Patience. And don’t cut corners.

And for making sourdough like this? Is there a trade secret?

No, it’s simplicity and practice. Everybody tries to make sourdough because it is fashionable but nobody knows how to make a basic white dough properly. It’s like you’ve never had a camera before and somebody gives you a professional SLR. How are you going to learn the basics? If you have no foundation and you don’t know what you’ve done wrong, how can you get better? With sourdough there are so many different things that can go right or wrong. If you don’t understand how bread works, it won’t go right.

Richard Bertinet’s cookery school can be found at 12 St. Andrews Terrace, Bath, BA1 2QR. To find out more about classes visit his website

Follow Richard: Twitter | Instagram

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Posted 22nd December 2015

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Interview: Alice Hancock
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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