I am early for my meeting with Fran Warde at the new Ginger Pig shop in Shepherd’s Bush Askew Road, and I look with hunger at the rows of perfectly prepared lamb chops, pork loins, fillet steaks, baskets of vegetables, handmade raised pies, cheeses, pickles and jams. More than just a butcher’s shop, the Ginger Pig chain, now five sale points in total (Borough Market, Marylebone, Hackney, Pickering in Yorkshire, Waterloo and newly opened Shepherd’s Bush) is also a local meeting point, grocery shop, butchery school and the inspiration behind the eponymous cookbook, published by Mitchell Beazley in 2011.
I remember when the “Ginger Pig Meat Book” first came out, there were gushings of love and admiration for Kristin Perers’ beautiful still life and food photography, for its very simple, pared down honest cooking style and its brown paper-cardboard tactility. By the end of the year, there were very few people left in foodie circles who had not heard of the name of Tim Wilson, the founder and owner of the Ginger Pig business. Yet the whole enterprise started from very humble beginnings.
On his Nottinghamshire farm, farmer Tim had pregnant Tamworth pigs on his hands, and so decided, encouraged by Food Lover’s Fair champion Henrietta Green, to set up a small stall at Borough Market in 1998, in order to sell the surplus sausages. Fran, co-author of The Ginger Pig book, later told me that Tim and a helper would drive up to London with a van filled with meat, stay in a cheap hotel, sell all the produce, and then drive back up North the next day.
“Tim is really focussed, a very hard working farmer and business man and completely obsessed with his animals,” she told me.
It was the success of that stall that later enabled Tim to set up the Moxon Street The Ginger Pig shop in London’s Marylebone in 2003.
In the book he writes:
“At the start of The Ginger Pig I needed a bank loan. I visited a local bank, who told me that the business was a daft idea and it would never work . So I spruced up and promptly drove down to London, where a large bank liked the idea and supported me; today I employ more than 40 staff”
The word “farmer” comes before the word “butchery” in this business though, because the emphasis on the supply chain is very much the land. There are three farms in total, and Tim lives on one of them, at Grange Farm in Levisham in North Yorkshire. There 280 acres of farmland is used to grow barley, wheat, oats and fodderbeat as animal feed and the 1800 acres of heather moorland, part of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, are the grazing pastures for a flock of 1500 Blackface, Bluefaced Leicester, Charollais and Suffolk sheep. At Blansby Park, owned by the Duchy of Lancaster, 500 acres are used to keep 900 pigs and a flock of Dorset sheep. The 140 Longhorn cattle, the largest herd in Britain, are kept at Eastmoor Farm.
Fran told me that she was first introduced to the idea of The Ginger Pig Meat Book by her agents, Johnson and Alcock, who, together with Octopus Publishing, must have realised the potential of creating a meat bible from a brand that specialised in naturally reared, humanely slaughtered and properly hung meat which was only sold in private shops, and not into the supermarket food chains. The renaissance for good, old-fashioned, simple, seasonal British cooking and sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry was well under way. Customers were becoming increasingly interested in slow-cooking, lesser known cuts of meat, old-fashioned breeds and heritage vegetables.
To see just how much demand for better meat is growing, Fran led me down into the inner-temple of the cellar of the Askew Road shop, inside the cold room, to see the various beef cuts on the stainless steel slabs. The air was cold and smelled of rotting fruit. I saw beef that had been hung for over two months, a very pale and hairy mould beginning to form on the garnet red flesh. Fran explained,
“These cuts are for those cooks and chefs that want to serve a more intense flavour. By ageing the carcasses like this, the taste is much more intensive. This sort of maturation is become more and more popular. There are some which choose the meat that has been hung for just one month, and then those that are looking for something more special.”
So when we eventually sat down for coffee at the nearby Lavelli bakery, I asked Fran what the journey was that eventually brought her here. She revealed that Tim had decided to open the new shop in this part of London, which, quite honestly, is neither particularly attractive nor famous for food shops, because she believed that there are many people in this section of West London that are prepared to pay good money for excellent food. There is definitely better parking here and more footfall from mothers taking their children to school and stopping to buy their daily necessities on the walk back home.
Born into a Herefordshire farming environment, Fran grew up with good, home cooked food, three siblings and plenty of fresh air and space to roam free. She loved animals, and helped a local vet doing his farm rounds. After catering college and a hotel management training programme, she carved a career that has spanned over a quarter of a century, cooking, teaching, travelling and writing, firstly working in some of the best kitchens in London (The Café Royal, The Savoy, Simpsons on the Strand, Dorset Square Hotel and the Trust House Forte chain ) followed by writing for some of the best publishers and magazines in Britain. She has been the food editor of Red Magazine, worked in Australia, learned about seafood by working on a prawn trawler and cooked in alpine chalets. Wide-ranging and diverse is how one might interpret her peripatetic career. Many of her stories ring true to my own experience of catering: brigades of bully male chefs, tough customers and critics, punishingly long hours and lowly wages underpin an industry that is not for the faint-hearted and sensitive.
Yet after seeing the cut and thrust of the catering world from both front of house and as a private caterer, she decided, when she married her osteopath husband in 1993, that she had seen enough of the long hours and hectic schedules that go with being a chef, let alone the moments of panic when restaurant reviewers from national newspapers come to dine. She decided she just wanted to write.
She penned ten cookbooks in total, some, like “30 minute Italian” and “New Bistro” under just her own name, but others she co-wrote, like, for example, “The French Kitchen” which was a partnership with the author Joanne Harris. Fran has worked with some of the top food photographers in the world, such as Jason Lowe, David Loftus and Debi Treloar.
She is mother to two teenage boys, and she found the early years of having small children in London, juggling deadlines, international travel, food photoshoots and doing interviews quite a struggle, but she told me she just got on with it.
“I like to balance my work with my family. Yet even when I am not working, say I am on holiday, I am always drawing inspiration from the people I meet, the food I eat, the places I stay at. My eyes are always open to what’s going on around me.”
She went to stay with Tim at Grange Farm at the very beginning of the collaboration, because, she told me, she did not want to put her name to anything she did not believe in.
“What I saw was a man who is completely addicted to his work, the farm and the animals. During the day Tim’s kitchen becomes the staff canteen and all the stockmen and farm labourers come in with their packed lunch and thermos flasks and sit round his table. Tim’s office is one floor up, but there is very little privacy. The job is the life and the life is the job, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Obviously, seeing the level of care being taken by the stockmen, the amount of land that the animals have to roam and graze, the quality of the food that the sheep, cows, pigs and cattle ate and the whole ethos of the business, after three days on the farm last August, I decided I definitely wanted to write the book.”
With Rebecca Spry, the commissioning editor at Mitchell Beazley, the decision was made to structure the work so that the reader would not only understand the different cuts, their characteristics and flavours better, but also come to appreciate the whole process of animal husbandry, from birthing barn to butcher’s slab.
How to select the meat, talk to the butcher, ask the right questions, use fat, joint a bird, stuff a loin and cut a steak: the first 100 or so pages of the book are a mini-apprenticeship in the science and art of butchery, pertaining to pork, beef, lamb, poultry and game. As Fran and I discussed in depth during the course of the interview, these skills are not taught at school. It is up to private classes, properly written and illustrated books and didactic television programmes to fill the gap left for a whole generation of young people who do not know how to chine, fillet, trim, cure, preserve and marinade meat.
“What we need to do is change people’s mindset. It is better to eat a 6 ounce steak with very good provenance and great flavour, than an inferior quality, cheaper 12 ounce steak. We need to transfer more knowledge about farming and the sourcing of good ingredients to people who do not know anything about it. This can start at the front of the shop: make friends with your butcher, ask him lots of questions and become better educated. This is free for all.”
Fran is very busy at the moment on the second instalment, “The Ginger Pig Farmhouse Kitchen”. In it she is going to write about all the food they produce for The Ginger Pig shops throughout the year, including the chutneys, jams, jellies, sauces, pies and marinades. There will also be a host of comforting , country farmhouse recipes, to include puddings as well. The format and formula is in place now, and there is a loyal following that anticipates this institution’s offerings, news and events. There is also an ever changing array of seasonal products that certain customers prefer to make at home rather than buy.
From a northern farmyard and a south London market stall to an internationally recognised food and publishing brand: the story of The Ginger Pig is interesting and inspiring on so many levels.
Fran Warde can be contacted through her agent Anna Power at www.johnsonandalcock.co.uk
Follow Fran on Twitter @franwarde
The Ginger Pig: www.thegingerpig.co.uk
Follow The Ginger Pig on Twitter: @GingerPigLtd
Mitchell Beazley: www.octopusbooks.co.uk
Follow the publishers on Twitter: @octopus_books and @Fiona_C_Smith
Kristin Perers Photography: www.kristinperers.com