Baking for boys (that’ll win over the girls!): TV’s latest foodie stars the Fabulous Baker Brothers are on a mission to get men into the kitchen
Bread has had a lean time of it recently, what with the fad for low-carb diets, but brothers Tom and Henry Herbert are set to restore it, in all its floury, golden-crusted glory, in the nation’s affections.
‘Put an effort into learning to bake and your fortunes in love will improve,’ says Tom, who should know: a decade ago, when he won the Young Baker of the Year award, he was wooing his wife Anna with hot cross buns with hearts piped on top.
Now they have four children. Henry, too, is convinced of the aphrodisiac power of baking. ‘There’s a knockout chocolate cake I make whenever I’m in trouble with my wife Jess. Never fails.’
Breadwinners: Tom, left, and Henry Herbert feature in The Fabulous Baker Brothers on Channel 4
Then Tom recounts how their brother George, slow on the uptake when it came to romance, had his eye on the local optician, a lovely girl called Zoe. ‘She said to me, “What do I have to do to get a free chocolate croissant” I told her, “Marry my brother,” and she did!’ beams Tom. ‘I dread to think what she’d have done for a brownie,’ adds Henry.
The Herberts have been baking in the Cotswolds since 1920 and Tom, 34, is the fifth generation to carry on the family tradition. Henry, 24, one of six Herbert siblings, is a chef-turned-butcher and he and Tom trade from adjacent shops in the handsome Georgian Hobbs House – once the Herbert family home – in the Gloucestershire market town of Chipping Sodbury.
A winning combination of skill, good looks, enterprise and the capacity to chat and cook with seamless fluency make them ideal front men for their own TV cookery show. And, sure enough, The Fabulous Baker Brothers are now on our screens with their distinctive brand of hearty, blokeish and impeccably sourced grub.
Lily Allen and Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen are both fans of the bakery
‘Our show has a very different feel to The Great British Bake Off,’ says Tom, referring to the hugely successful BBC2 cake baking contest, judged by genteel septuagenarian Mary Berry. ‘We hope to reach people who had never stopped to consider why it would be great to cook.’
‘It’s baking for boys – but for the enjoyment of girls,’ adds Henry, who explains that while blokes will relish rustling up a steak burger made from rare-breed British beef, to nestle inside one of Tom’s ‘ultimate burger buns’, women won’t be averse to eating them. At home in Chipping Sodbury, the Herbert brothers have got the High Street tied up.
‘It’s a great arrangement,’ says Tom. ‘Henry sends the pie fillings over and I take a break from breadbaking to make pastry. We turn out the pies together. And the lardy cake is a joint effort. Henry has the lard. I’ve got the flour.’
We like to think the Queen Mother’s longevity was down to our Sodbury cake…
Tom has spent decades perfecting his lardy cake, and its celebrity fans include Laurence Llewellyn- Bowen, who lives in nearby Siddington. Singer Lily Allen is also a customer, while Liz Hurley, another Cotswold resident, has a heartier appetite than many would imagine.
‘I made her one of my breakfast sandwiches with bacon, egg and sausage. She ate all the filling but only half the ciabatta,’ reports Tom. It is his bread, of course, for which Tom is celebrated. The care and artistry he invests in each loaf is reflected in its price, and 18 months ago he made headlines when he produced the most expensive loaf of bread in Britain.
The Shepherd’s loaf can be couriered overnight to anywhere in the country for 21. Customers happy to travel to the shop get it for a knockdown 12. Tom explains its genesis. ‘For several years I’d won Organic Loaf of the Year, so each year it became a challenge to make an even better loaf than the previous one. So I decided to make a real statement loaf.’
Family business: The Bristol bakery pictured in 1976
But how does he justify the extortionate cost He says he uses locally grown spelt flour, which is pricey and flavoursome as well as high in protein, and the loaf weighs in at a massive two kilos. ‘You could feed a whole village with it. And it lasts a long time and is even tastier when it’s mature. We also use our very best baker to make it, so the costs mount up.’
Shepherd’s loaves are ordered as gifts, sent in lieu of flowers in presentation cloth bags. Tom sent one to Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall when they got married. Hobbs House Bakery is poised to receive a Royal Warrant and at the Prince’s Highgrove estate, the visitors’ caf serves sandwiches from Tom’s shop.
A SLICE OF FAMILY HISTORYThe brothers’ great-grandfather Thomas Herbert used to sleep on the dough bin each night. The rising dough would tip him out of bed long before cock crow.Their pioneering grandfather David Herbert sold pitta, sourdough and focaccia in the 1960s in Bristol’s bohemian district, Montpelier.The sourdough (a fermented grain mix used to start the next batch of dough) Tom uses is a staggering 50-plus years old. ‘It’s had our grandfather’s hands in it,’ he says.David Herbert used to take on newly released prisoners at his artisan bakery in Bristol, and teach them everything he knew about baking to help reform them.
It was another of the bakery’s specialities, though, that was a real Royal favourite: the Queen Mum always requested a Sodbury cake – a glorious blend of date, walnut and molasses – be sent to Highgrove every time she visited.
‘We like to think the Queen Mother’s longevity was down to our Sodbury cake,’ laughs Tom. But the brothers guard their recipe for the cake so closely that when the Duchy of Cornwall asked to include it in one of their cookbooks the brothers refused. ‘Nooo! We wouldn’t let them use it,’ they chorus.
Tom and Henry are ferociously hard workers. Henry rises daily at 5.30am and only realised what a lunch break was while filming the TV series. He graduated from catering school just three years ago – winning the Student of the Year award at Westminster Kingsway College, where Jamie Oliver is a past alumni – then worked at the twostar Michelin restaurant Le Gavroche under MasterChef: The Professionals judge Michel Roux Jr.
‘People thought I was mad when I stopped being a chef to become a butcher,’ he says, ‘but I still cook. I do pies, Scotch eggs; ready meals with nothing dodgy in them. And I’m trying to put a bit of rock ’n’ roll into butchery. I want to broaden people’s horizons. I made a big ox cheek stew the other day that they could buy and reheat at home.’
Tom and Henry come from a family of craftsmen and self-publicists. Their grandfather, David Herbert, tried to get into the Guinness Book of Records by producing the fastest-ever loaf, from field to table in an hour and a
half. In contrast, Tom found fame by baking bread slowly, in a TV show called In Search Of The Perfect Loaf.
‘We’re custodians of ancient crafts and customs,’ he says, ‘and we’re passionate about passing on these skills. We take on young local kids as trainees. We want to have the next generation biting at our heels. They don’t have to go to university. They could join us and become butchers and bakers!’
The Fabulous Baker Brothers is on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 8.30pm.