Indie Interview: Hamblin Bread

 In Indie Oxford Interviews

On the Indie Oxford blog today, Liz Wilding interviews Kate & Hugo, owners of Hamblin Bread, a bakery on Iffley Road in east Oxford. >>

Hugo & Kate at Hamblin Bread Oxford
Image by Danni Maytree Photography

I recently caught up with Kate Hamblin and Hugo Thurston from Hamblin Bread, the east Oxford neighbourhood bakery that just celebrated its third anniversary. They shared their passion for great-tasting bread, community, and sustainability.

Hamblin Oxford Country Loaf
Image by Mark Lord

How did you get started?

We’ve both worked in restaurants – Kate as a chef and Hugo as a general manager – and met at Moro in London. Kate’s always wanted to be a baker and trained at E5 Bakehouse Hackney about 10 years ago, before getting lots of experience at other bakeries. When we decided to move to Oxford we knew that it would be east Oxford and it would be a good community for a bakery.

Hamblin Oxford Cinnamon Bun

Tell me about the flour you use in your baking.

We make all our bread from stoneground organic UK flour, which is something only about ten other bakeries in the UK do. For us it’s about traceability and being able to link the produce directly back to the person who farmed it. When you think about your bread, there are only three ingredients – water, flour and salt –  and you want know where they come from. 50% of our flour comes from John Letts, a nationally renowned heritage wheat farmer. We also buy modern organic wheat from other farmers within a 50-mile radius of Hamblin.

The flour is all stone milled by David Howell, a seventh-generation miller in Staffordshire who’s the best in the country. He mills to order and delivers to us every two weeks, so it’s super fresh. Stone milled flour is more volatile, but the flavour is so much better. It’s like a puzzle; with every new batch of grain you have to spend a month working out what it wants and what it wants from you. That’s the baker’s job – to work out how to get the best out of that potential. Like natural wine and cheese makers, you are a conduit: what you eat will be a snapshot of the season, the milling, the place. It’s fascinating and exciting, a brilliant rejoinder to the way we tend to be so disconnected from what we consume.

There are lots of arguments for our supply choices in terms of the food system, but foremost in our mind is the eating experience. We use that flour because it makes the most delicious bread.

Hamblin Oxford wheat

How important is sustainability?

It’s a huge factor and a massive plus point for why we work with John Letts. Quite soon after we opened, John suggested setting up an ‘Oxford Landrace’, a mixed population of grain which over time becomes adapted to a specific area, based on its climate and the soil. That’s how people used to grow grain, and this mixed population gives you an inbuilt buffer. Depending on the conditions that year, certain varieties will thrive or won’t.  You’ve got your bases covered, which you don’t have with modern monoculture. We’ve called it the OxPop (Oxford Population). It’s beautiful, and there’s so much diversity in the field – so many plants and insects.

That’s going to be the future of Hamblin, that year on year we use more of this locally grown wheat. It’s being sown by Gavin Smith at the Worton Estate just outside Oxford. This super-local landrace has its challenges and we have to learn to work with it, but it’s so amazing: strong and full of character.

Hamblin Oxford OxPop

What’s the best thing about running Hamblin, Kate?

The best thing is being able to make the bread I want with integrity every day. On my day off I look forward to getting the dough started again. Above all, we are a bread shop, and I just love making bread. And I love the relationships we’ve formed through the bread making process.

Same question, Hugo.

I couldn’t have imagined how enriching the relationships with the people would be, even having worked in hospitality for a long time. There are loads of people who come every week, every day. I got to know names, seen people have babies, and watched children grow up. It’s incredible. We’ve made close friends and there really is that sense of being a community hub.

The other thing has been this wonderful process of finding these extraordinary products we 100% believe in. We want to get the best (though not necessarily the most expensive) without compromising. For example, there’s the Ham and Cheese company, the Woodcock Smokery, or farmhouse cheeses from Norton and Yarrow Cheese.  Just to have these products in your life, and to introduce other people to them, is an extraordinary privilege. We sell them because they add value – and certainly make our meals better!

What plans do you have for the future?

We love Christmas and it’s such fun to have a bakery in the run up to it. There are all the products you get to make. Beyond that, we like what we do and we’ve been able to grow, so we have no plans to expand at the moment. We’re going to focus on the quality here.

Hamblin Bread Oxford

Hamblin is open 8 am – 1 pm Thursday to Sunday. You can also pre order for collection to make sure you don’t miss out on your favourite bakes!

Liz Wilding Food Writer Oxford

About the interviewer: Liz Wilding

Liz is an Oxford-based food anthropologist foraging across town for new culinary experiences. Hearing the stories of the chefs and producers is just as important as the eating: tales of toasties to tahini to tempura.

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