£21 loaf strictly for the upper crust?
ONE key ingredient makes Tom Herbert’s bread so exclusive – at £21 a loaf, you need plenty of dough to afford it.
But a growing revolt against mass-produced supermarket fare is making this lovingly baked product a favourite of the discerning wallet. Probably the best thing since sliced bread, in fact.
The Shepherd’s Loaf – by far the most expensive in Britain – takes two days to make and can last up to two weeks.
It might look a little like a giant cow-pat and require both hands to lift – but when the baker describes it as ‘a work of art’, you can assume it’s not your average split tin.
Yesterday I sampled the bread that counts actress Liz Hurley, footballer Tony Adams and artist Damien Hirst among its fans. To say it is a loaf fit for a king is no exaggeration.
Gloucestershire-based Hobbs House Bakery, which makes the loaf from a recipe that has been in the family for more than half a century – delivers a weekly order to Prince Charles’s Highgrove estate.
But the story of the Shepherd’s Loaf turns the clock back much further than the time when the first of five generations of Herberts began to bake commercially.
The flour is made from locally grown organic spelt. The sea salt used has been harvested in the far west of Cornwall since the Iron Age.
Even the sourdough mixture that makes the bread rise has been glub-glubbing away in a 100-gallon tank for the past 55 years.
‘We call it The Monster,’ said Tom Herbert, 33. ‘It’s the mother of all breads because it gives life to our loaves. We feed it every day with flour and water to replace the sourdough that we take out.’ That process has been going on continuously since just after the war.
The Shepherd, as it is known, was created in what Mr Herbert describes as ‘the search for the perfect loaf’. It is ten inches in diameter, some four inches tall and weighs in at two kilos. Its crust is marked with the image of a shepherd’s crook. At £21, it works out at £1 a slice – which leaves me wondering if the crook has a double meaning.
‘I know it may seem horrifically expensive,’ Mr Herbert admits. ‘But when you taste it, you really know the difference.’
The price includes next-day delivery for online customers and, since its launch in October, the Shepherd has been disappearing at the rate of around 100 a week. Canny West Country folk can get it direct from the family’s four bakery outlets in Gloucestershire for ‘just’ £12.
So what’s it like? The next batch is not due in the oven for several hours after I arrive at the Herberts’ shop in Nailsworth – but Tom offers me one that’s six days old. Not many bakers would volunteer that fact, but he insists it’s tastier for maturing.
The crust is a thing of beauty – dark brown, nutty and slightly salty. Inside, the bread is quite dense, and far less sweet than a supermarket loaf. I can’t deny it’s really nice bread. But £21?
‘I’ve used the best possible ingredients so they’re also the most expensive,’ he says. ‘But I don’t believe I could make it cheaper without compromising the process or the quality.
‘We’re finding the public want more from their bread, and they want it made by real bakers, not just by someone in a supermarket heating up horrible unfermented mixture in a so-called in-store bakery.
‘You shouldn’t even be allowed to call that stuff bread. This is bread,’ he says, and gently pats the Shepherd like a small pet.
A dusting of flour comes off on his hand. Probably about 20 pence worth, I reckon.
Rising star: Baker Tom Herbert with a ‘Shepherd’