Author of Do Wild Baking: Food, Fire and Good Times Tom Herbert is a fifth-generation baker. He grew up on a farm in Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire, watching the wheat grow each year to be cut and milled, and seeing the process of making bread from start to finish. “As a child, I was fascinated by it,” Tom says. He couldn’t wait to start working in the family bakery. “Ever since I started baking, I've been experimenting and seeing how far I can take it,” he says. “Baking out in the wild is an expression of that.”
Describing himself as adventurous by nature, he used to cook sausages and tins of beans on little fires out on the farm as a child. “That fascination with fire never really stopped, so as soon as I was able to, I built a wood-fired oven in the bakery,” he says. Now, Tom also regularly cooks using his fire pit in the garden. When his family travels to Cornwall on holiday, he takes his reusable barbecue with him, inviting passersby to gather for feasts on the beach. “Something that I find thrilling when travelling is to find out what food is being produced in a place, because then you really get to meet the locals in that area,” Tom says. “It's like a treasure hunt.”
He is a storyteller by nature. “Whenever I had the opportunity to bake with a group of people when hosting a cookery course, I had so many stories that I couldn’t decide which to tell,” he says. “Every time I bake or cook outside, it's always a little adventure.” In Do Wild Baking, Tom shares not only recipes for wholesome, simple food, but stories that bring the process alive. “It’s an invitation for people to just get outside and enjoy nature.”
Cooking outside can be daunting, but Tom demystifies the process. “I want the book to be a light-hearted invitation for everyone to start baking outside,” he says. “Baking often requires a high level of precision, instrumentation and fine-tuning, but this way, baking is really liberating because it's more about trying to understand how the different ingredients relate to each other.” For example, intuitively adding a bit of flour if a dough is too wet. Some of the recipes were more difficult to perfect than others, but Tom approaches everything with a sense of optimism and ingenuity. “Sometimes it was just a case of trying the recipe once more with small adjustments,” he says.
The book includes tips for working with fire safely. “Fire is dangerous, but if you do it carefully and follow the instructions, then you can stay safe.” Start with a small fire, and remain focused. For beginners, Tom suggests baking flatbreads with friends in the embers of a fire, or on a barbecue, as you can make the dough in advance and take it out with you. “I think baking can be a solitary pursuit, and this way it is much more inclusive and inviting,” he says. “Everyone can pitch in and help out, and the person doing it can give more attention and love, not only to the food, but the people gathering around the campfire.”
This celebration of community extends to Tom’s work for The Long Table, a community interest company he co-founded with the aim to make locally sourced food available to everyone. “It started with this overwhelming sense that I needed to do my bit for all of the trouble I see in the world. I really wanted to give that energy and time to something that felt hopeful, that might leave things better than I found them.” The community food hall in Stroud offers food made from ingredients sourced locally, and diners pay what they feel, so that everyone can afford to eat there. “No one's excluded,” Tom says. “It gives the whole thing a kind of soul.”
The overarching philosophy of the book is about trying to welcome as many people as you can. “That gives that sense of togetherness that I think our society is really hungry for, because if we're not careful, things become very divided very quickly,” he says. “And food is the ultimate way, as far as I'm concerned, of connecting people, across the table or around the fire.”
Below, Tom shares a recipe from the book for a vegetarian chilli.
Vegetarian ‘I Can’t Believe There’s No Meat, This Is Amazing!’ Chilli
“The bean chilli is great if you're going away for a few days,” Tom says, “because it's particularly good reheated. Our family will make it at home and freeze it in the pan that we heat it up in, then it keeps everything else cold in the cool box.”
Makes: enough for 6
Takes: 30 minutes prep, plus a couple of hours slow cooking (but longer is better)
Fire: low and slow friendly fire
Kit: chopping board, sharp knife, sieve, Dutch oven or large heavy pan with a lid, metal tongs, wooden spoon, large bowl, a tripod for hanging your pot above the fire would be ideal
1 cup spelt or barley grains
1 cup lentils (any type)
Generous glug of oil
1 cinnamon stick
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
4 onions (2 red, 2 white is good), chopped
½ head of garlic, cloves smashed
3 red peppers (check out charring option on page 112 for extra flavour), deseeded and roughly chopped
1 green pepper, deseeded and roughly chopped
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 x 400g tin kidney beans, drained and sieve-rinsed
2 whole Scotch bonnet chillies (or similar)
1 cup strong black coffee
Big squeeze of tomato purée
3 tbsp muscovado sugar
1/2 bar dark chocolate (I would say a whole bar, but I usually end up eating half)
Salt and pepper
Big handful of fresh coriander
Sour cream, to serve
1. Soak your grains and lentils in 2 cups of water – the longer the better. Meanwhile, set your Dutch oven up over a low-medium heat and add the oil and whole spices. Add the chopped onions and, once they are golden, add the smashed garlic. Add the peppers and allow to soften for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to see nothing burns to the bottom (add a dash more oil if things are sticking).
2. Now add the tinned tomatoes and drained and rinsed beans. Swill the tomato tins out with water and add this to the chilli too. Add all the remaining ingredients (except the coriander), including the grains and lentils and their starchy water. Stir the whole lot together and pop the lid on.
3. Drink any spare coffee (cook’s bonus). Stir the chilli occasionally, checking for seasoning and chilli heat and making sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom (top up with more water if needed). After about 1 hour, your chilli should be lovely and thick – once the grains are soft with a little bite, the chilli is done. You know how you like your chilli.
4. Stir in the chopped coriander and serve with a big dollop of sour cream.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Photographs by Jody Daunton.
Recipe from Do Wild Baking: Food, Fire & Good Times by Tom Herbert, published by Do Books.