The standard answer to the question, ‘Why did baking suddenly become cool?’ is Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and The Great British Bake-Off. But there’s another reason. Two, actually: Tom and Henry Herbert.
Al Gordon caught up with The Fabulous Baker Brothers to find out about their latest publication.
‘Bread on the table is a sign that all is well’, says the introduction to the Herberts’ first recipe book, The Fabulous Baker Brothers, which concentrated on breads and other ‘manly’ baked goods. While BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off was becoming an unexpected tv hit, drawing in its millions of viewers, over on Channel 4 a couple of cheeky chaps were also revolutionising how we look at baking. Suddenly, breadmaking wasn’t just fun, it was blokey.
They admit that their show has a very different feel to BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off – but given that GBBO is judged by 77-year-old Mary Berry, that’s no real surprise. And they’ve even been known to criticise Paul Hollywood, the current patron saint of bread-making for not putting enough olive oil in his focaccia. Risky as that is, the brothers know of what they speak.
Tom, 35, and Henry, 25, are the fifth-generation scions of a family-run bakery established in the leafy Cotswolds in 1920, and they’re putting the art of kneading firmly back on the menu. The ability to make your own bread, they say, “is one of life's top joys”.
The pair have come to the fore in what is regarded as the golden age of cookery, when the British public have a seemingly insatiable appetite for television chefs. I’m curious to know, given their own family’s quiet longevity in the food world, how the brothers regard the modern trend for celebritisation. Do they have their own favourites?
“I think all chefs are inspiring…ones who care about what they do and work hard,” says Henry, with a grin, rather diplomatically. “People who’ve inspired my life are people like Fergus Henderson [founder of the St John restaurant in London]. Even Jamie Oliver, he’s a pretty inspirational fella…”
“…he makes food fun,” adds Tom, “And it should be,” Henry concludes.
Tom is the eldest of six Herbert siblings, who all remain close, although the bond with Henry is particularly strong, as Henry was born on Tom’s tenth birthday. Tom is committed to baking, while Henry, baker by birth, is now a chef-turned-butcher (surely he’ll end up as a candlestick maker…); he acknowledges that they approach life differently, but declares that there’s absolutely no sibling rivalry. Clearly they share the same work ethic – and the same love of good food.
Their second book, Glorious British Grub, accompanies their second series, which has recently aired on More 4. “The first book was an opportunity to tell our story and introduce our best recipes,” says Henry. “I think we’ve had longer to think about what people really want from a book. It’s broken down to meals of the day, from early breakfast, right the way through to midnight snacks, if the party is carrying on.”
They hope to reach people who had never stopped to consider why it would be great to cook or to expand their eating habits. Glorious British Grub contains some of the brothers’ very favourite recipes, such as Gloucestershire Rarebit, served on hot toast with homemade plum chutney. With beer and Stinking Bishop cheese, and sugar for the chutney, this certainly isn’t the healthiest option you could cook for lunch. Like Nigella Lawson, the Herberts offer something of an alternative to the super-healthy diet food beloved of many modern chefs, although they say that healthy living is hugely important to them and their recipes. “I did a talk at the Bowel Cancer charity press launch for a new recipe book they’re bringing out about staying healthy,” says Henry. “It’s a reminder of just how important what we eat it is.”
There are different approaches to ‘healthy’ eating though. “We’ve never been yoghurt weaving, hemp-wearing wholefood worshippers – not that we’ve got anything against any of that – but what we’ve found is there’s plenty of room for eating really well, and enjoying it. So, for instance, with something like Viking flat breads… we found the Vikings would have used spelt flour, which is much easier to digest. Marathon runners eat a lot of spelt. There’s hardly any fat in them,” he says. And if that sounds terribly worthy, fear not. What Henry isn’t mentioning is how delicious the Viking flat bread tastes, with its topping of Curd Cheese, Caramelised Onion and Spinach.
This recipe, both ancient and exotic, sums up the brothers’ philosophy. The emphasis is on British cuisine (naturally, given the book’s title), but as Tom puts it, “The thing with Britain is, we’re like magpies – we’re great at nicking other people’s cultures and having them for ourselves.” He looks around sheepishly as if he might be giving up the British cooks’ secret to an eavesdropping foreign chef, before continuing: “The great thing about London and Britain is that it’s a great place to showcase other people’s cuisines.”
Filming for the series was a voyage of discovery. “We enjoyed unearthing those things that are a great British tradition that maybe people don’t know about,” explains Henry, the more talkative of the two. “We’re pulled towards butchery, sourcing the beasts and animals locally, and getting the flour that’s grown and milled locally. It’s all part of the process, all part of the enjoyment, and we want others to experience that as well.”
Glorious British Grub is published by Headline,
priced £20, and is available now.