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Interview: Tom Herbert, baker

06 May 2016

‘The women in my life have been the greatest influence on my cooking’

Eleanor Bentnall/Tearfund

I’m not a TV chef: I’m a baker. TV chefs are only different because they are on the telly. I’ve found TV chefs to be energetic, creative people; they’re sociable, and want to share the food that they are passionate about.

A typical day is a fine balance of serving the competing needs of our young families and a great and growing business — while squeezing as much fun and mischief in as is imaginable. No two days are ever the same. We could be creating new recipes — my job title is Hobbs House Bakery Innovations Director; so that’s on my to-do-list; meeting and strategising with our teams; scheming with customers; working abroad; attending food events and book launches; judging awards; speaking to WI groups or local schools; ambassadoring for various bread and food interests; demo-ing recipes and ideas at festivals and gatherings; teaching food skills like baking or barbecuing at our cookery school.

I like full-flavour dishes made with just a few simple and natural ingredients,
shared with the people I love. For example, yesterday was my birthday; so some family came over to my house and we shared a massive smoked brisket — seven hours of smoking for a delicious rich bark. We ate it with homemade bourbon beans, guacamole, salsa, oozy nacho cheese — all home-made. It was a wonderful treat. Anna, my luscious wife, made me a boozy, flour-free, rich chocolate-and-prune cake, one of my all-time favourites.

The women in my life have been the greatest influence on my cooking:
Anna, my wife; my mum, obviously; both of my grans; my sister; and my sister-in-law. They’d probably look at my cooking and wonder why I can’t do what I’m told and follow a recipe without risking a meal. Hunger over here is rare, and for that we are grateful.

I have admired the inspiring work that Tearfund do for a long while,
and so, when they approached me, I was delighted to work with them. The trip to Brazil was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my daughter Bea and me (pictured) to better understand not only the challenges the people face, but also the tremendous work being done by the charity.

The opportunity to have such an adventure with Bea was invaluable.
She’s 12, and at a very inquisitive and formative age, and I’m keen for us to experience as broad a view of life as possible. And to have her perspective on what we experienced was tremendously insightful. If I’d gone on my own, it might have felt like work. As a small family unit, it was much more than that.

What surprised Bea
was the heat, at first, and the food, and how friendly everyone we met was, and just how massive Brazil is. Seeing how people live in favelas with so little comfort and so much danger was a shock to us both.

I was surprised by how well Bea thrived with all the stimulation;
and how resourceful people are, and how much of a tremendous impact small interventions from Tearfund and their partners can have on people who need some ideas and resources to get their lives on track in a fast-changing country.

We were in the north of Brazil,
mostly, in a semi-arid area. We saw so many people on small farms who have had their lives transformed. For the past six years, the rainy season has got shorter, and massive American and Chinese industrial farms have made the countryside even more hostile. And yet the common and very counter-cultural story we encountered was one where people had escaped a life of almost slavery in mega-farms to one of near self-sufficiency, selling their produce through a co-op, and finding now the hope of a better future — working with nature rather than against it.

That experience has changed the way I live.
I feel even more grateful for what I have, more determined to do what I can to understand the dynamics, and share the great ideas that make a difference.

What the Brazilian farmers want is what we all want:
just enough rain; a fair price for their produce; time with loved ones; good food; a roof that doesn’t leak; hope for their kids. I hope my interest in them was an encouragement.

The world we share has got much smaller.
Everyone is now our neighbour. We consume more of the planet’s resources, and yet poor people feel the effects of climate change more. It’s not fair, and we can do something about it.

As Christians, we care about our neighbours
— both in the UK and around the world — being hit by climate change, like the people in communities I spent time with in Brazil. We understand that the way we live our lives has an impact on the world around us.

God wants all of us, and all our life, to be just:
our clothes, our food, our coffee, our pensions, all of it. Do the choices we make reflect the love we’ve been shown to a world that really needs it? How can we boast of a bargain if someone else has to pay the price? Can we really be smug about making a saving if someone else suffers? Do we know if the investments we make are put to good work?

I’m the eldest of six children:
five boys, with one sister. We grew up above Hobbs House Bakery, in Chipping Sodbury, as fifth-generation bakers. I helped out from an early age, and it’s been baking all the way for me since. It’s something I hope to pass on to my own four children — a love of sharing food together as a great way of doing life and being a family.

You can’t worry and trust,
my grandma used to say to me; and, I suppose, as I grew up, I got a strong sense that prayer was something I could do to lay down my worries. As I got older, I sensed God’s plan for me, and I feel this has given me courage and a purpose. For that I’m very grateful.

I’m more of an evocative-smell person than a sound person,
but there are so many sounds that mark out the rhythm of my life. There’s a clock tower in the centre of Nailsworth, where I opened a bakery and café 14 years ago. It rings every hour, and that sound makes me happy. My kids laughing and squealing on those hot summer days or rare snowy days in the garden. I’m a sucker for water, though: the sound of Anna running a bath at the end of a long day, the sound of the sea crashing as heard through the canvas of our tent, the van doors slamming as a full bread van leaves the bakery at the crack of dawn.

The last thing that made me angry
was seeing how desperate things have got in the north-eastern Brazilian countryside. With a worsening water situation, people in their millions are forced to find work in the cities — and have to live somewhere worse and less desirable than everyone who arrived before them. In these favelas there’s flooding, and the Zika virus; and tropical diseases are rife. The squalor, the violence of a drug-gang territory, and seeing young girls standing out after dark on street corners made me very sad and angry.

I’m happiest when I’m discovering new things with Anna,
and in those rare moments at home when everyone is working on something happily together.

The people who love me enough to tell me it like it is
have been the greatest influences on my life, and the ones that allow me to dream, and goad me to make it happen. And all the wonderful teachers I’ve had, mostly since school, though I’m very grateful to my schoolteachers, too, that have shared skills and insight with me, a too often unpromising student.

I like to be grateful in my prayers,
to be humble, and say sorry, to ask for protection of the people I love. To see his Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

I am never really alone.
I think, perhaps, I’d like to try some peaceful time to myself, if I found myself locked in a church for a few hours. Would that be dangerous?

Tom Herbert was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

https://hobbshousebakery.co.uk; www.tearfund.org/supper

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