Hereford has always loomed large in my memory.
It was here we went when I was -what? seven?- to stay at a house belonging to friends of the family. Or their parents, anyway. ‘House’ doesn’t really do it justice, though: it had its own stretch of river, its own tennis courts, even its own croquet lawn. It all made a bit of an impression; this, at a time when I already held the belief that if you had those minty chocolate biscuits in your house- you know, the ones in green foil- you were probably something in line to the throne.
It wasn’t that glimpse of an unobtainable life that has stayed with me most, though. It was seeing the Gothic Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi, that remarkable artifact of an age and a worldview long since consigned to the realms of fantasy and magic. Its intricacy- and sheer age- was hugely impressive, even though I think I knew even then that a child had access to greater knowledge of the earth’s lineaments than those medieval cartographers.
Add to this claim to fame the fact that our entire perception of two of our most iconic fictional characters was shaped by a Herefordian, and you suspect that occasionally this small border town punches well above it weight. A place this size, set in farming country, is perhaps an unlikely genesis for the voices of Yoda and Miss Piggy.
Thinking big can do wonderful things. So the six-strong Beefy Boys crew, formed after experimenting in each other’s back gardens with barbecue, is heading to The World Food Championships in Las Vegas this week, having won the right to compete at this level by trouncing the opposition at this year’s Grillstock: a thumping 100 point margin of victory in the Best Burger category means you’re doing something right. A friend (hello, Dee) who never misses one of their popups has been telling me about them for some time, so now seemed as good a time as any. A mini road trip with fellow burger enthusiast (and photographer for the day) The Grill & Barrel was on the cards.
It was clear from the Hang Fire/Meat and Greek sized-queues in the beer garden at The Barrels, that locals were already converts to how they do things here. It wasn’t limited to locals, though: our round trip was 160-odd miles, but the next table was full of clued-in Londoners.
So. National acclaim, personal recommendations, media exposure. All of which is so much blah if the burgers themselves don’t come up to scratch.
Excitement and anticipation are tempered by a certain fatalism: they can’t be as good as people say. Can they..?
The team works slickly. There’s constant demand on them, yet they have that knack of appearing unflurried even as the pace remains constantly high. Factor in the knowledge that the meat is freshly minced just before service and that these burgers aren’t even made until you order- they are shaped by hand in the pub kitchen and passed out to the production line. Everyone has their role. It’s like a carnivore-themed Wu-Tang Clan. (Yes, I’ve heard of your hippity-hoppity music, young people.) There’s a seamless productivity to this flow: orders taken, buns and sauces prepared, boxes initialled. Then, you wait.
Meat meets heat, the secret seasoning is sprinkled over the sizzle. Cheese (two types) is laid atop: a steam-inducing squirt of water, a domed lid hurriedly covers all for a few moments. Cheese melts, oozes, flows.
It was a long five or six minutes.
First impressions? These things look wonderful. The bread (a semi-brioche, baked to order by Peter Cook of Peter Cooks Bread in Worcester) is a thing of beauty: burnished bronze, soft and yielding, but with enough about it to absorb the juices of the beef. That annoying way some lesser buns fall apart, leaving a rapidly disintegrating mess in your grasp, is notable by its absence. They are toasted, of course: again, it’s perplexing more ‘quality’ venues omit to do this sufficiently, leading to the mucky problems already noted. Get the basics right, seems to be the watchword here.
Which brings us to the heart of the thing. They use locally-reared meat here: if you have the Hereford breed on your doorstep (not literally, that would be both awkward and potentially dangerous), then it makes sense to source 21-day-aged beef for your patties. They are served medium-rare by default, though you can order them well done- it takes all sorts etc- or rare. Again, you can easily spend over a tenner in a prestige burger restaurant without being asked how you’d like yours done.
The cheese is made locally, too. A very reasonable 50p adds that, or bacon, to your burger.
You can tell when food is good. All chatter ceases and you sit in silence.
There is serious work to be done. The entry-level Beefy Boys Burger for me- salad, pickles, bacon and cheese, heavy on the baconnaise. The Butty Back for m’colleague, laden with slow-cooked beef.
And when you polish off that last, lingering bite, you ask: ‘How…good…was…that!’
And then- the suspicion it was some kind of glorious fluke, some celestial smile, that another couldn’t possibly scale those same heights.
So you do the only sensible thing. And order another. A Butty Back with its pulled Herefordshire brisket, a Piggy Back for Jordan.
The Piggy Back adds their slow-smoked pulled pork and their Butty Back (a collaboration with Wye valley Brewery) sauce into the mix. Obviously, second time round the shock of the new is no longer in play, but your existing impressions are confirmed. Everything in these burgers is there for a reason, and very well done, but nothing is allowed to submerge or overwhelm the flavour of that 1/3lb patty. We are talking a symphony, not a solo. It shines through, as it damn well should, in tandem with the extras. It’s the star attraction, after all. We cared not a jot that there were no sides available; they do a range at other events- chilli cheese fries, buttermilk onion rings and the like- but with the numbers turning up when we visited, it was clearly all about keeping it simple.
Look. After travelling that far to eat a few mouthfuls, I was ready to be underwhelmed. I was hoping to be dazzled, but readied myself for quite the opposite. It wasn’t exactly a quick bus ride into town, after all. It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that we both reckoned it absolutely remarkable. Stellar. Stratospheric. Superb.
Apply whichever lavish terms of praise you wish here, because they’d all ring true. There’s absolutely nothing fancyschmancy here- just excellent individual components, treated with respect and assembled with care and pride, to sumptuous effect.
Punching above their weight? These are true heavyweights. Catch them. Make the effort. I’m ridiculously, risibly glad we did…
Thanks to JH (@thegrillbarrel) for taking the photos!
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.