It’s Friday evening, 7.00 p.m. at Hobbs House Bistro in Nailsworth, and I am talking to Chef Antony Smith who is showing me round the kitchen. Next to his gas stove there are bowls of mise en place finely cut vegetables, seasonings, stocks and sauces, ready for the first orders in half an hour. Pots are simmering and plates are warming: around me is the quiet, industrious hush before the weekend storm.
This Bistro is an unusual affair. Antony had been working at Hobbs House Bakery about 6 years ago, but left to work for a pub in London, with Henry Herbert, who now runs the butchery next door to the Hobbs House bakery shop in Chipping Sodbury. Antony very much wanted to set up his own restaurant, but the capital requirements of such an initiative were too prohibitive.
Tom Herbert, the oldest son of Trevor Herbert, Managing Director of Hobbs House, who is himself the Marketing Director for the four bakery shops under the family banner, had an idea. He and his wife Anna, author of the food blog She Shops Local, had long since discussed what to do with their Nailsworth cafe at nights. Located above the main bakery shop, it was always crowded during the morning, lunchtime and afternoon service, but it seemed a shameful waste to leave the space empty in the evenings.
Tom offered Antony the chance to establish himself in his own Bistro, and so every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, from 6.30 p.m till 9.30 p.m. the doors now open to the smell of grilled meats, fish stews, game pies, seasonal vegetables, warm puddings, and of course, oven ready breads.
“It’s very simple, casual and relaxed dining” says Antony. “I cook traditional Bistro food, but we do have a very strong connection with British food, local provenance and seasonal changes. This is not a big, fancy kitchen. I have a wood burning stove, which was set up to do baking demonstrations, and in it I can grill all my meats and slow cook stews.” Antony calls the shots: he decides what he wants to cook, he creates the menus and sources all the ingredients.
As he opens the oven door I can see logs burning brightly, and glowing embers pushed to one side. There is warming oven underneath, dry logs stacked to one side and heavy metal pots and pans lined on the oven ceiling, where the flue passes the smoke outside. The stove was installed by Paul Merry of Panary.
Despite his unassuming and gentle nature Antony has already made his mark in this very foodie region. Nominated as one of the best new chefs in the Cotswolds by Cotswold Life Food and Drink magazine, the local customers sing his praises, and 40 % of the clientele that eats here is from around these parts. Some regulars come every single week, as well as booking birthdays, anniversaries and parties here.
Amanda McNube, the manageress, has worked here for six years. “When Hobbs House first opened up in Nailsworth, nearly ten years ago, we were the first to serve really good coffee, homemade cakes, slow roast pork and the sorts of traditional dishes that people remembered from the past” she tells me.
Nancy, one of the waitresses, is Sam Well’s daughter, and he is part of the Hobbs House dynasty from the grandmother’s side of the family. Nancy’s boyfriend also works for Hobbs House, and she tells me how you can never misbehave if you are part of this enterprise, as the whole town would know in five minutes.
The Bistro seats 24 people inside, at wooden tables set out on a scrubbed wooden floor, the walls are white and the windows look out on the bustling high street and William’s Kitchen below. Outside, in a little terrace at the front of the building, there are tables and chairs to eat outside in warmer weather. Indoors, on the first floor, there is also a long wooden bar where you can sit on stools and read the local magazines, newspapers or baking books. There is a dresser filled with local, vintage pottery, homemade jams and breadboards and the pictures on the walls are all from local artists. There are splashes of colour: paper flowers, bright pink plastic chairs and lots of artwork. The Bistro is a place for local artists to showcase their talents, and on one occasion, keen amateur photographer Papa Trevor Herbert raised £1500 for charity selling his holiday photographs from Morocco.
I am here to meet Tom and Anna, to hear all about the news and views at Hobbs House, as well as to go on a Friday night tour of the bakery at Chipping Sodbury (see my other article).
A wicker basket of G-Stone bread (coarsely milled wheat flour with molasses), wild white sourdough bread and rye sourdough is accompanied by a homemade black olive tapenade and Netherend Gloucestershire butter.
Hobbs House bread is famed throughout the region, and freshly sliced from that morning’s production, the taste and texture of crunchy crust, wild yeasts, Cornish sea salt, black olives and soft, pale butter, is really unbeatable.
The menu, printed on brown paper with the Hobbs House insignia, is very short (3 starters, 3 main courses and 2 puddings) and the prices are very reasonable, considering the provenance of ingredients.
Our starters “Oatmeal mackerel with cucumber, brown shrimp and dill”, “Sweetbreads on toast with brown caper butter” and “Guinea fowl Caesar salad” arrive quickly, on plain white, simple unadorned plates.
The flavours are fresh, gutsy and fulsome: this is what Italians call “cucina casalinga” the communal, good, old fashioned, farm house home cooking that we all want at the weekend but are often too tired or rushed to accomplish.
Our main courses are equally delicious: the “Wood Grilled Jacobs lamb with samphire, tarragon butter and Puy lentils” and “Cornish fish stew with saffron potatoes” are embedded in a style of cooking that is comforting, thoughtful and careful. Puddings celebrate Britain’s love of summer gooseberries, sweet elderflower cordial, soft meringues, dark chocolate and seasonal strawberries.
The wine list offers a good choice of wines by the glass, amongst them Vaucluse 2008 and Cotes de Gascogne 2008. There is also beer, stout and ale, or for a more special moment, bottles of Dolci Colline Prosecco Adria.
On every table there are lit candles and dotted throughout the bakery and restaurant are little glass bottles of fresh sweet peas and roses from Anna’s garden.
There are many plans afoot. Tom tells me how the family is going to convert some stone outbuildings behind the Chipping Sodbury bakery into a cookery and bakery school, a café, delicatessen and charcuterie hub.
He is excited about his bakery lesson on Sunday: a group of students are coming to learn bread making with him, and Antony is going to cook the lunch. Downstairs the work benches are scrubbed and recipe packs, tea towels, bread cloths and equipment all lie ready on the counter.
Hobbs House also sells really popular bread kits, replete with 55 year old sourdough starters, organic flour, Cornish sea salt, baking stone, bread scraper, dough knife, baker’s apron, hessian oven gloves, water sprayer and a tin box containing a demonstration DVD and recipe cards. The box contains four of Tom’s simplest bread recipes: sourdough, white loaf, soda bread and cholla, which is a Jewish sweet bread with poppy seeds. His brother, Henry also includes recipes for his favourite beetroot cured salmon, cured toasties, bread and butter pudding, glazed pork belly and beef stew.
Tom distils 10 years of bread making experience in a 45 minute DVD, but he is adamant that “Absolutely anybody and everybody can bake really excellent artisanal bread by just watching this DVD. It really is that simple. Thereafter, you can refine your craft, and book one of our breadmaking courses here at Nailsworth or at the Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath in order to get more out of your skills.”
Tom is attending this year’s “The Do Lectures” based in a Welsh campsite, where 30 of some of the world’s most pioneering and influential people give lectures to 80 very fortunate ticket holders, who all camp together (“It’s actually glamping!” says Tom) for four days and share in this life-changing, networking, learning and inspirational venue. Tom is going to be baking flat breads on embers, and his friend Guy Watson, owner of Riverford Organics is also going.
Since appearing on the television series “Turn back time: The high street” and “In search of the perfect loaf”, as well as in the national newspapers and magazines, life never stands still. Father to four very young children and ambassador for real bread and baking apprenticeships, Tom also writes a Blog and is planning to write an interactive breadmaking e-book, possibly with newly launched Push Pop Press.
The Bistro is nearly full, and now Illy coffees are being served from the Gaggia machine. During the time that we have been chatting people have come to shake his hand, one group of customers waves to another, and more members of the family arrive, including Tom’s parents, Trevor and Polly Herbert.
Polly, who is a nurse, told me how, ten years ago Tom and Anna took on the Hobbs House premises in Nailsworth and proceeded to renovate the whole building and set up the ship that now sails with a crew of 18 staff and the Bistro that is gaining in reputation, both near and far. “There were times that Tom would ring up and ask whether I could come and help with the washing up, so I would drive up here with my rubber gloves. But now it really is a very organised place, and I don’t really think they need me anymore” she says. Trevor tells me how, growing up, his family always valued wholemeal flour, which many regarded as the food of the poor. Yet now the trend has come round to more people understanding how important fibre is in a healthy diet, and seeds, wholegrains, nuts and spelt are extremely prelevant in the bakery’s repertoire, alongside the white flour breads.
Downstairs Antony has finished his shift, and looks tired but glowing. Another night of happy customers, the food is finished, the kitchen is clean and it’s time to go home. Everyone wishes me luck for my tour of the bakery: they have all worked there before and know how exhausting it is to do the Friday night shift. Thankfully I am just going to watch, and not knead dough. As the lights go out, and the doors are locked we leave the warm, cosy building and enter the cool, humid Nailsworth night. If I lived here, I thought, I think I would be one of those regulars. It’s magic.
Hobbs House Bistro
4 George Street
Gloucestershire GL6 OAG
Telephone: 01453 839396
Follow Hobbs House Bakery on Twitter: @Tom_Herbert
Follow Antony Smith, Amanada Mc Nube and the Hobbs House Bistro team @HobbsHousBistro