Henry and Jess Herbert at Hobbs House Butchery
Chipping Sodbury is a very rare place in the modern world: a market town, located just north-east of Bristol and south-west of Stroud, where you can do all your weekly shopping on just one high street. There is a very well stocked delicatessen-café called The Hamptons, a thriving green grocer, Ian Veale’s, that has been standing proud for 28 years, old fashioned gift shops, toy shops and a chemist too. It even hosts an annual car race run.
At number 39, at the very centre of the high street, are two of Hobbs House flagship shops: a bakery and butchery. Mentioned in the 16thCentury Book of Martyrs, when a heretic bound for the executioner’s stake won reprieve by a runaway bull who speared both axe man and priest administering last rites, the very courtyard where the Herbert family established their shop and bakery, is still one of the main destination points for shoppers in and around south Gloucestershire, nearly 6 generations later.
In 1891 the butchery and the rooms above it were owned by James Hobbs and his family, and it was purchased by the antecedents of the Herbert family in 1920 and run by another butcher. Henry Herbert, the 24 year old son of master baker Trevor Herbert, who is the father of six children and one of the directors of the Hobbs House company, was only a teenage boy when he drew on paper the master plan of what he would do with the butcher’s shop, one day, if the incumbent butcher were ever to leave.
After training at Westminster Catering College, Henry worked as a Chef at a coaching inn in London. He and his wife Jess had taken a short work sabbatical to travel across India when the call came from his family back home: the residing butcher was leaving and the shop would soon become vacant. Did he fancy coming back to England and becoming a butcher?
The distance on the learning curve between a Chef and a professional butcher is not as long as some might think:
“I already knew a great deal about preparing a carcass, how to analyse the grain of the meat, to choose between different cuts and how to cook and serve them, so you could say I was already half way up the curve,” Henry told me, while busily getting the display window ready on this cold Saturday morning.
Outside the street lights are twinkling in the darkness, as the bakery behind me comes to life. On the warm side the building shop assistants are arranging loaves and cakes in neat rows on shelves, and on the cold side platters of freshly made sausages, hams, lamb chops and chicken Kiev are being assembled and lined in the shop window and butchery fridge.
Notwithstanding his years in the kitchen, in the last four months the couple have been on an accelerated learning programme, led by Jolly Allen Hopkins who had worked in the butchery for 9 years previously, and whose good temperament enabled him to pass on “the knowledge”. Slicing, gutting, cutting, hanging, stuffing, rolling and displaying, the high standards that prevailed before are still there now. He wears a silly hat to charm those customers that might feel in need of a lift this chilly morning: despite the laughter and chat he keeps working, for this is their busiest and most profitable day of the week.
Jess, just 26 years old, had worked as a surveyor in the retail industry, but now works in the butchery on a Saturday as well as working across all the shops under the Hobbs House brand, in Tetbury, Nailsworth, Cirencester and here in Chipping Sodbury. She sports a sharply cut red bob, and has the small, delicate features of a porcelain doll, with ruby red lips and smiling eyes. Leaving buzzing, cosmopolitan South London for the sleepy provincial life of Gloucestershire might prove to be a stark shock to the system for many a young couple, but she laughs:
“It is quieter here, for sure, but we still have lots of friends in London for when we want to go and visit, and they also can come to stay with us in Minchinhampton, where we live now.”
She and her sister in law, Anna Herbert, Tom Herbert’s wife, mother of four children and the author of the Blog “She Shops Local”, have created a new vintage tea party props hire business, whereby the whole of your event can be delivered or collected, including pretty china, bunting, napkins, sandwiches, scones, jams, biscuits and cakes.
Nearly all of the members of the family are active, in one way or the other, in the business. A strong work ethic and an ambitious drive seem to run through the veins. Henry describes himself as a “bull in a china shop”, so that when he starts on a new endeavour he wants to make it as successful as possible as quickly as possible. He shows me where an old walk-in fridge door panel and wall are going to be knocked back to enlarge the shop. The butcher’s block will be repositioned so that Alan can face the customers when he is preparing their cuts, rather than turning his back to them. There will also be more floor space for customers to wander around the shop, have a look and decide what they are going to have for dinner.
Behind the scenes the smell of newly fried and baked Scotch eggs fills the air: I have coffee freshly made from the bakery and standing between sourdough loaves, burger baps, ciabatta, ribs of beef, loins of pork, fresh ducks, pate and cured hams I am dreaming of a long, hot breakfast. I imagine hot, buttery toast laden with juicy, brown edged, crisp bacon.
No less than 2000 sausages and 400 Scotch eggs are sold here every week, as well as homemade chicken stock, faggots, pates, terrines, ox tongue, hams and pies. Henry has been visiting and talking to the farmers and cheesemakers that supply the business: Sandwich Farm (bacon), Copas (Turkeys), King’s abattoir in Gloucester (beef and veal), Margetts (poultry) and Neal’s Yard, Jonathan Crumps and Woefuldane for cheeses. Fifteen different recipe cards have been created to inspire the customers to cook and experiment and with total staff numbers now at seven, there is always a new idea, a new initiative or plan coming from someone who knows a different recipe or has read a new cookbook. Henry is very partial to “Cured: Slow Techniques for Flavouring Meat, Fish and Vegetables” by Lindy Wildsmith, published by Jacqui Small.
Henry calls his father “Babylon” which in Rastafarian patois means the government, or those whose regime oppresses the ordinary people, a term he learned when living in Brixton: “When I first signed the business documents for the handover of the butchery, I said to my father “Well you are the Babylon now!”
He says it made both himself and his wife feel more confident and reassured to have the weight of the family business behind him. He also confesses that, above all, to work in this kind of job requires a very good sense of humour.
“Customers here do not like change. If a certain terrine or pate is initially made in a round tin or a square tin then you cannot change the shape of the tin, because the regulars are accustomed to a certain look, so change upsets them, even though the recipe is exactly the same, week in week out.”
At the back of the shop there is a little fenced garden where Edith, the curly haired fox terrier, jumps up and down in feverish exhuberance: the prospect of a treat from the prep kitchen is far too much to contemplate. Henry also shows me the courtyard where I once interviewed his older brother Tom, who has plans to convert the outbuildings into a café and cookery school.
Henry will be leaving for London soon, where he will be for the next four weeks, filming with Tom in a studio for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” programme produced by the television company Betty for Channel Four. In it the boys will be showing us not only baking, but also recipes that everyone can make: “It’s going to be cookery for real men with fun, fire and knives. Cookery to impress your girlfriend!” he tells me. The recipes from the series are being published in a cookbook by Headline.
More and more customers are coming into the shop, the queues are lengthening, the sun is now streaming through the window and Jolly Alan holds up a string of sausages asking a lady where he should cut it. I wander through into the bakery shop, where an even longer queue is winding its way past the cakes, loaves, biscuits and pies. The smell of warm sugar, sweet vanilla and floury yeast is making everyone smile and chatter, children eat chocolate cupcakes and mothers fill carrier bags with what seems a week’s supply of seeded soda breads, Sherston and cottage loaves. A bag of bread in one hand and two bags of meat in the other, I make the most of the Saturday market and the greengrocer’s shop to finish my food shopping. And there are not many towns in Britain of which I could have written that sentence about. What a difference it can make to the quality of your life to shop among artisans. There is nothing quite like it for the heart, the soul and the community.
Hobbs House Butchery
39 High Street
Gloucestershire BS37 6BA
Telephone: 01454 312136