Among the new breed of butchers taking over Britain’s high streets, quality and provenance are king. Will Hawkes reports
It’s Monday afternoon at Hartland Pies in Nottinghamshire, and owner Ian Hartland is butchering a pig. When you make pork pies, it’s part of the job – or at least it is if you do it the proper way. Hartland does. He’s the sort of piemaker who knows exactly where his pork comes from.
“I buy direct from the farmer – a father and son team, Andrew and Richard Baugh,” he says. “I got to know them a few years ago. They rear the pigs outdoors; they’re properly fed. It’s a small company that produces fantastic pork.”
The public appetite for food traceability has been part of the meat and poultry landscape for more than a decade. A new breed of butchers is slowly colonising Britain’s high streets, bringing with them a passion not only for quality meat, but also for full transparency about its origins.
“The public holds local butchers in high regard,” says Mark Turnbull, chairman of the Q Guild of Butchers. “They’re massively more trusted than supermarkets and big food service providers, and this comes back to quality of produce, quality of service and of course reliable provenance.”
The desire for reliable provenance has spread into the world of pork pies, scotch eggs, sausage rolls and charcuterie – a category you might loosely describe as gourmet meat snacks. Hartland Pies is one of the suppliers that has sprung up to service this demand – and save British consumers from the perils of the grey service-station pasty or the questionable mini-market scotch egg.
King of King’s
Hartland has been making pies for over 30 years. He was one of the original suppliers at the revived Borough Market near London Bridge, taking over Mrs King’s Pies in 1998 and running it for 15 years.
He then left the company – now run by his brother Paul – to set up on his own, working with his sons Luke and Adam, continuing to make pies in the Melton Mowbray tradition from the company’s base in Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire. He’s enjoyed significant success since then, some of which must be down to his insistence on good-quality, local ingredients, such as his pork.
“I go up regularly to the Baughs’ farm to see them,” he says. “It’s just a good all-round farm, not too big; they produce about 50 pigs a week. It’s fantastic pork, with a right cover of fat on it. It’s not rare breed – they’re commercial Duroc White pigs. But it’s not just about that; it’s about how they’re looked after, how they’re fed, how they’re taken to market. They’re well kept, and that’s what I want.”
It’s a philosophy that is driving a number of new gourmet meat snack businesses. They include Scotchtails, a London-based scotch egg producer that uses free-range pork and Burford Brown eggs, and Cooper’s Gourmet Foods in Shropshire, which makes free-range meat sausage rolls. Then there’s Moons Green, which makes superb ham and charcuterie in Sussex, and Native Breeds, a curer and charcutier in Gloucestershire.
It’s a revival that stems, according to Hartland, from what was lost in the 20th century. “We lost so many producers,” laments the 58-year-old Hartland. “It’s like beer. The big companies took over, then real ale and craft beer came along. As with brewing, there’s an art and a skill to pie-making. You need dedication. You can either get your ingredients from anywhere in the world, or you can build it off local businesses.
“You try the supermarket [pork pies] and you think, it’s got to be better than this. But we don’t want to get too much bigger. When you get bigger, you fall down the same way as the big boys. We want to stay a good size.”
Nonetheless, Hartland Pies has grown in its five years in business. Hartland and his sons now produce as many as 2,500 pies a week, a total which includes not only pork pies but hot pies too. There’s also a butcher’s shop. Hartland makes five different types of pork pies: authentic Melton Mowbray, Stilton, black pudding, chorizo, and smoky bacon.
“People tend to buy only one pie at a time, and only on certain days – they have them at the weekends,” says Hartland. “I thought: how can I sell more pies? I started off with Stilton – it’s perfect. We listened to what people say, and a lot of people wanted smoky bacon, so we did that. Then black pudding. You can go weird and wonderful, but you don’t want to go too far. You want to tempt people.
“Once people get to know you and your product, they stick with you – as long as you don’t change, and you keep making it the same way.”
The pies are now on sale as far away as south London, where a stall at Brockley Market has led to listings with butchers like Proud Sow in Brockley and The Butchery in Forest Hill. A company called The Charcuterie Board sells these and other British meat snacks into the capital’s best butchers.
The rise of the likes of Moons Green demonstrates how foreign flavours – from saucisson to chorizo – are increasingly being produced in Britain. There are other foreign flavours, though, that are less popular; once you’ve tasted them, there doesn’t appear to be any good reason why.
Take biltong, a dried, cured beef snack that originates in South Africa. Perhaps it’s because we don’t associate good-quality charcuterie with the Cape, or perhaps because there are too many mediocre versions on the market. Whatever the reason, British customers don’t have a very high opinion of biltong.
Skye Saltzman, a South African who has lived in London for a decade, is keen to change that. He recently left his job at Barclays Bank to devote his time to his startup business, Woza, which makes high-quality biltong. “I settled on biltong because I’m proud of being South African, and after running a few South-African themed supper clubs and pop-up clubs with a friend of mine I realised it was the biltong that was most popular,” he says.
“I started looking at gourmet meat snacks – like the Serious Pig brand – and I saw a massive increase in demand for that kind of thing. South African biltong wasn’t being done well, so I wanted to remedy that.”
Saltzman’s product is one of a number of similar products with a strong link to the world of beer that have emerged recently. For example, Cleaver & Keg’s ‘meaty morsels for the modern drinker’ are small bags of sliced charcuterie that come with beer recommendations and, of course, Serious Pig. Woza is regularly available at Beavertown Brewery’s taproom, with Saltzman himself making quarterly visits to slice fresh biltong.
“It breaks down people’s preconceptions,” he says. “The hard part is getting people to try it because a lot of people have this negative perception or misconception about what biltong is about. Once they try it, I think pretty much everyone comments about how soft and moist it is. I use top-quality meat from the West Country, and that shines through in the flavour and texture.”
Woza’s range (which currently takes in original beef, Cape cinnamon and wild venison) is soon to expand, with the addition of a chilli-flavoured biltong. Saltzman, 34, is also planning to launch another South African delicacy, droëwors, a dried beef sausage.
“I want people to think of these products as the accompaniment to a good beer, a good wine, a good whisky,” he says. “I’m trying to change people’s minds.”
Knowledge is king
Elsewhere, traceability is equally crucial. Companies like Udale, which sources much of its meat in Cumbria and supplies to top restaurants, are leading the way. Even the origins of ingredients used alongside meat, such as spices, are now considered significant, as Christine Peers of EHL Ingredients, an importer, blender and packer of food ingredients from around the world, explains.
“Authenticity and provenance are of high importance for EHL,” she says. “We always go the extra mile to ensure that our ingredients are sourced from quality suppliers with full traceability to the country of origin, assuring manufacturers that the product they are getting is 100% authentic.” Products include chakalaka seasoning from South Africa and creole seasoning from America’s Deep South.
And, according to butcher Lee Frost of WH Frost in Manchester, butchers that can demonstrate quality and provenance are very attractive as suppliers to good restaurants. WH Frost sources its meat from a farm five miles from its shop in Chorlton. “It’s customers that drive demand, but they’re constantly told by increasingly knowledgeable celebrity chefs to seek out a good butcher,” he says. “This filters down to the menu, where our chef customers name-check us, as well as asking for advice on describing dishes.”
The desire for local meat from good butchers is obvious at Hartland’s shop in Stapleford, Nottingham. “Butchery is an art and people like to see it,” he says. “We butcher out in front of people. They like to see the skill of the knife work and what you’re doing. There’s nothing better than carrying a pig through the shop – that stops everybody, that does! People go ‘ooh, look at that!’”
Cleaver and Keg
Cooper’s Gourmet Foods
Mrs King’s Pies
Native Breed Curers
Q Guild of Butchers
The Charcuterie Board