The Norfolk Foodie – Charlie Hodson
Charlie Hodson is one of Norfolk’s biggest characters and over the past years, he has worn many hats within the region’s culinary and charitable channels with great aplomb. Now he is set to take on his greatest challenge as he realises a long-held dream – that of opening his own cheese room and deli. However, as Charlie was busy signing the contract just a matter of weeks ago, he discovered that he has bowel cancer. Characteristically unstoppable, and with a smile on his face, Charlie is determined that not only will nothing stop his dream from happening, but that he will also beat cancer – just as he has already beaten so much in his life.
“I have always had a dream of owning my own cheese room and deli, somewhere where the moment that people walk in, they feel at ease,” says Charlie with his characteristic grin. “I have always had a clear vision on what this place would look like, and now it is becoming a reality.”
Indeed, Hodson & Co Cheese Room and Deli will open its doors in Red Lion Street, Aylsham, on 14 October and the glimpse of photographs that have been released so far show a beautiful space with wood and brick work adding a natural element of class and sophistication. This is just the latest accolade for Charlie, who has been promoting local food and drink under his Charlie’s Norfolk Food Heroes banner for many years now. This new direction, however, has given an energy to Charlie that I have never known before. He is a new man, focused and very driven to finally achieving his dream. Indeed, as I write, cheese deliveries are winging their way across the country to the Hodson & Co, while a host of local producers have been contacted so that Charlie can sell their wares in his boutique. But where did this desire come from – and why cheese?
“Not many people know this, but I grew up in Courrières in the north of France,” Charlie begins. “I spent my childhood there and this has influenced my culinary life in many ways. I would watch elderly neighbours do amazing things with chicons [endive] and Gruyère cheese, for example. And above all, I remember going to the fromagerie and the smell… It was amazing. The fresh breads, the cheeses, everything about the whole experience. And now, all those years on, those moments have resulted in Hodson & Co.”
Indeed, it was the flavours that Charlie tasted as a child in France that became the foundation for his own culinary style. He recalls going to visit a lady who had cages of rabbits and it was there, he explains, that he first really understood how food was grown – from eating said rabbits to helping her with the herbs in the garden, that then seasoned the cooked rabbits. He also stayed on a pig farm during the summer holidays, picking tomatoes and cucumbers, and this has cemented Charlie’s ethos in using local, seasonal produce in all of his cooking.
When Charlie was seven years old, life changed dramatically as his parents moved from France to Kent and then to Norfolk when he was 10. It was at this time when Charlie began to be systematically sexually abused by a close family member. Charlie carried this secret with him all through his life – the guilt, the shame, and the wanting to run away forever while putting a brave face on for the public or, as he calls it, “my mask, my shield”. All of this would come to a head last year when, not for the first time, Charlie attempted suicide. The police and good friends were there for him, and having reached the lowest point, Charlie has worked hard to put the past behind him.
“Samantha, this is something that never goes away,” he sighs, visibly struggling with his emotions. “I used to be scared of how broken I was. When I was young, I left Norfolk as soon as I could – I couldn’t wait to get away. I felt that being here was slowly killing me. Those years that should have been my happiest as a child are so tainted. So as soon as I could, I ran, and I ran as far as I could. It has been a long, long journey and I have finally stopped running. And now, here in 2020, with all this uncertainty going on around us, I feel that I finally have a future.”
As Charlie keenly looks forward to this future, we also gently look back over some of the highlights that have led him to his dream. A dyslexic, Charlie struggled at school and wishes that, even then, there had been more hands-on education, such as horticulture, rather than all classroom and textbook based. “I wanted to learn but my dyslexia held me back – this was in the 1980s after all. My heart bleeds for children these days. It is all about numeracy and writing, and many children shine in other areas. All too often, these children are told that they are stupid or trouble makers – but if there was more education that involved the children being hands on, such as cooking, horticulture, and so on, then they would have a better chance for their future. Every child deserves a chance.
“This is especially true in catering. So many chefs are self-taught, and they are at the top of their game. I myself learned all that I know in three or four exceptionally amazing kitchens. That is the most important thing of all, and more youngsters should be given the chance to go down this path rather than straight academia.”
When he was 16, Charlie tried his hand at horticulture, going to Easton Agricultural College. It was there that he met Tim Allen, with whom he has a really strong friendship to this day. “It was quite early on that the Principle at the College realised that horticulture and I were not a good mix! I loved being outside as a boy and working on farms and in gardens, but by the time I was 16½, I realised that this was not my forte. However, I did learn all the Latin names for flora and fauna. And I also learned how to drink!”
Having left school, Charlie had a short-lived career in the military before stepping into a professional kitchen for the first time in 1993. “It was in London and this was my opportunity to start to shine and make a path for myself. I began prepping vegetables, and I didn’t see daylight for weeks on end as I worked from dawn until dusk. And I absolutely loved it! That set me on the path to where I am now, and I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”
It was at this time that Charlie stumbled across a great man who has been a friend to him ever since, and he is coy about revealing this person’s name, saying “I respect his privacy. However, he taught me a lot about what a chef really needs back in my early days, and I have never forgotten that: a clean set of chef whites, a sharp set of knives, and a good palate. These things enable you to go anywhere and do anything – and for me, I followed this advice and ended up cooking for everyone from the Royal Family to Crown Princes.
“I travelled as far from Norfolk as possible, and I loved it. I was cooking amazing food for some amazing people, and I was learning all the time. I still had a couple of friends in Norfolk, including the amazing Tim Allen, but I was off living my own life.”
Things changed for Charlie in 2008 when tragedy hit within his personal life, and he turned his back on the food industry. “I was living in London by then, working in property development at the time. I was a bit of a prat, if truth be known, a bit arrogant. I liked being selfish, with a nice house, flash cars, and not many worries.
“It was 2010, and I was on my way out for dinner at Le Caprice and there were two people in the car with me. This friend – again, he will remain nameless – would ring me every couple of months and get me to try to come to Norfolk. I always refused, but we did keep in touch. He rang that night when we were driving across London, inviting me up to Norfolk to a party. I replied that I was out with ‘my real friends’. There was silence and my friend replied that the people I was with were not real friends, and to test them. He told me that they were just there for the free meal and I should pretend to be ill and offer to pay for dinner anyway, to see what they would do. When we pulled up at Le Caprice, I told them that I didn’t feel well and gave them around £500 in rolled up notes. They couldn’t take the money quickly enough! I watched them walk into the restaurant and I asked my driver, David, to take me up to Norfolk. That was it for me – I was done with that kind of life.”
Charlie adds that this particular Norfolk friend has been by his side ever since they were children, having met when they were around 11 years old. “He never gave up on me,” is all Charlie will say.
Arriving back in Norfolk a decade ago, Charlie fell in love with the county and its people. “I left as a 17-year old boy and I came back as a 40-year old man,” he says. “I had forgotten how beautiful the people in Norfolk are. When I came back, I really appreciated how special this part of the world really is.”
One of Charlie’s first jobs when he returned to Norfolk as head chef at The Grove in Cromer. Within seven months of opening, the restaurant earned two AA rosettes, something that Charlie counts along his career highlights. “They don’t normally award two rosettes in one go, so to get that was very special,” says Charlie. “I loved being back on the stove and cooking my own food. I find it incredibly satisfying.”
As for Charlie’s own style, that early French influence of his childhood has stayed with him, and his bible is L’Art Culinaire Français, which he reads with the help of his French phrasebook. “I love changing the old French methods of cooking into modern British,” Charlie grins. “I developed my own style. Once I returned to Norfolk, I added more and more local produce as I finally fell in love with this always-glorious county.
“I love to cook for people who least expect it – the ones who save up to go out. When I first moved back to Norfolk, I was cooking for a couple who had saved up for six months to be able to dine and stay at The Grove. I sat talking to them after dinner, and they knew more about food than most people I have spoken to. I do find that people are not always interested in the provenance of food – but this couple knew so much. They copied everything they watched on television at home and that is how they learned how to cook the food that they loved.
“Essentially, this is how a chef becomes a chef. Nothing teaches someone as much as when you cook yourself, especially on stage at a show. You learn and learn, and you make mistakes. Food is about bettering what you were given to begin with – and this is even more true in the times we are now living in. While there are so many people struggling to go out and dine, there are even more people struggling to put food on the table. As chefs, this is a very different world for us, and we need to go back to educating people at home.”
We take a breath and pause, knowing that the time has come to tackle the most delicate part of the interview – that of the abuse Charlie suffered as a child and how it has shaped him. “Over the last decade, I have slowly confronted my past. First, I did this by being brazen, with my mask on, and people probably got tired of the ‘Charlie Hodson Show’ – but it was what I had to do to survive. I thought what happened to me as a child moulded my future, but I have managed to change it. And, I can say this now – Norfolk made me, returning to Norfolk made me. But if I had stayed there as a 17-year old, I would probably be dead by now. With the incredible support of so many friends, I have finally worked through this and I am free. It is not the ‘Charlie Hodson Show’ anymore. This is me. Just me and laid bare.”
It is over a year now that Charlie last tried to end his life, and he hopes that by telling his story, he may help someone else. He has done a lot of work with the Harvard Centre in Norwich, as well as a lot for mental health charities including MIND. He is an ambassador for Hospitality Action, and he now uses the pain of his childhood to help others. “For me, making sure that people are okay, and moving more and more towards doing what is right is the most important thing right now.
“Since that day in August last year, a lot of people have distanced themselves from me. Notably people in Norfolk, both within the food and drink industry and outside. That is why it is so important now for me to be real, humble, and honest. I want to finally show the world who I really am, with no more false bravado. I am amazed daily that so many of my old friends whom I turned my back on are still here by my side. For that, I will be forever grateful.”
Taking a deep breath, Charlie smiles, somewhat emotionally, and we then firmly look to the future. Having reached his all-time low in 2019, Charlie decided to take the positives from his childhood in France and follow his dream – that of Hodson & Co.
“I love the space it is in,” he grins, balance restored. “It is in a new building, but it has so many features that make it beautiful – double bay windows, brick walls, and timber frames. It is enchanting. I want to offer customers that old world service and charm, something that we are missing these days as man becomes evermore greedy.
“We have so much incredible produce here in both Norfolk and Suffolk, and I want to be able to showcase that. I want to have a deli where people can find the very best of what this region has to offer in terms of food and drink. There are amazing wines, spirits, jams and chutneys, oils, coffee, beer, meats, fish, and, of course, cheese. I want to be able to showcase the fantastic produce that we have here. And I should mention that I will be making fresh sausage rolls every day of the week as we…”
Ah yes, sausage rolls. The undoubted career high for Charlie came in 2017 when he won the Great British Sausage Roll Off at the Red Lion in Barnes, London. “Ah, that was an amazing night!” he grins. “There were four judges, and they included my food hero, Pierre Koffman, as well as Dan Doherty, then of the Duck and Waffle, Mark Poyton, and Graham Garrett. With the sausage roll, you have to tell a story, and I called mine ‘The Nelson’ after Lord Admiral Nelson who was born in the county. The Nelson celebrated the amazing produce and producers that we have here in Norfolk. Pork from Tim Allen, flour from Letheringsett Watermill, butter from Norton’s Dairy, the amazing Norfolk saffron from Dr Sally Francis, cold-pressed rapeseed oil from Crush Foods, spiced carrot chutney from Candi’s Chutney, and finally a splash of Wild Knight vodka. It all came together in one incredible sausage roll, served with my barbeque sauce, on one special night.
“I have never cried as much as I did that night! I also met some amazing people, including Natalie Clifton from I.O.Shen Knives – which I will be selling in Hodson & Co. I also met the guys from Netherton Foundry in Shropshire, and I will be selling their pans. Above all, I met Angus McKean, Manager of the Red Lion, and he has become a real friend.
“I will be honest, Samantha. This was the night when my life started to change – and yes, it had to get worse before it got better, but the people there with me are all part of my saving grace. I have several people who I call my ‘saving grace’, and they are part of the reason why I am not dead and am still here. So in Hodson & Co, as well as selling The Nelson, I will have a sausage roll called my Saving Grace. There will also be The Humble One, for Tim Allen, which will be just pastry and sausage meat – pure flavour and packed full of amazing pork. I will also have one called The Angus, marking where it all began.
“I will have seven sausage rolls in total, freshly made each morning using meat from local Coxfords Butchers. But the final one to mention is The Cornish Fields, named to remind me just how far I have come. Last year, when I was reaching my lowest point, I caught a bus at Kings Lynn and got the train down to Bristol. I ended up just standing on a railway platform, and I rang my friend Adrian, who lives in Cornwall. I was just sobbing, and he told me to get the train down to him. When I got there, Adrian pulled me off the train and just gave me the most beautiful hug…”
Charlie stops talking as tears overwhelm him. After a few moments, he smiles. “So yes, there will be The Cornish Fields. Perhaps we can work on that together. And who knows, maybe it will make a future Great Sausage Roll Off?”
Other highlights in Charlie’s career that must be mentioned include creating the first ever live cookery stage at the North Norfolk Food and Drink Festival in Holkham during lockdown, and cooking for the NHS staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn earlier this year. He also worked with Coastal Exploration a few years back, out on the marshes, and cooking with founder Henry Chamberlain, something he plans to do again in the future.
Charlie also has plans to create his own range of Hodson & Co produce in time for Christmas. This includes beer, gin, cider, vinegar, coffee, chutney, and jam among others. And, most importantly for him, he is working with Moongazer Beer to create a Triple T Beer – Time to Talk – with some of the money from sales going to Hospitality Action.
“I cannot wait to open Hodson & Co,” says Charlie. “I want people to come into my cheese room and deli and feel totally at ease. I don’t want people to feel how they did when I was at school and be too afraid to ask a question in case it sounds silly. No question is stupid – that is how we learn. I want people to feel free to ask advice on the cheeses – and I cannot wait to see them all laid out in the counter!
“I also want to be able to offer advice, such as on good knife skills, and the best pans to use for which job, and so on. Above all, I don’t want people to feel as though they are being hurried out of the door. I want them to feel the love that we put into Hodson & Co, and also the love that the producers put into their products. I want to recreate that amazing vibe there is in the Mediterranean when you go to a lovely deli with a big long counter, all those cheeses and meats.”
Charlie continues, saying that he has many plans to evolve Hodson & Co in the future as COVID-19 allows, but one thing he is very keen to do as soon as he can is to get children involved. “The earlier we get children involved in cooking and produce, the better,” he says.
Other plans include a bespoke dining in-home service, but that may have to wait for the time being as life has decided to throw another curve-ball at Charlie. As he was busy signing the contract on the Aylsham shop, he discovered that he has bowel cancer. This news has not stopped Charlie – far from it. In fact, he sounds galvanised when we speak, and his energy is very much focused on the future.
“I feel good, Samantha,” he says when we speak after he has found out his surgery date. “I have so many good friends who are there to help and who will run Hodson & Co for me when I am in hospital and recovering. Plus, I have my amazing partner and she is right here by my side. I am still going ahead with the opening of Hodson & Co, and I know that this will give me the perfect focus to get back on my feet as soon as I can. I won’t let this stop me.
“This is my dream – my own cheese room. You know the power of following your dreams, and this is my chance to finally do mine. I have done so many amazing things in my life, and been to so many amazing places, but this feels right. Celebrating Norfolk and all that is within it and laying my ghosts to bed as I open this new chapter in my life. And this new chapter will contain a lot of cheese – they say that you dream well when you eat cheese, so I must have eaten a lot of it!”
I ask Charlie what his favourite cheese is, which will be the first Cheese of the Month in Hodson & Co. “Mrs Temples’ Copys Cloud,” he says without hesitation. “It reminds me of France. It is a beautiful, ripened cheese, very brie-like, and the smell takes me back to when I was in shorts, standing in that fromagerie. Copys Cloud is my own little bit of Norfolk, and I just love it.”
And with that, Charlie’s eyes glaze over as he remembers happy times. For while there is no doubt that he has been through so much in his life, he has drawn deep from within himself to create something good from something bad. Hodson & Co will be a permanent next step in his life and, cancer or no cancer, there really is no stopping him. I have known Charlie for several years now, and this is the most relaxed, the most positive, I have known him. Here’s wishing him and his Norfolk fromagerie the success it deserves, and may it finally lay the darker days of his past to rest.