Weekend Interview: Pork Pies - How Do You Eat Yours? Warm, Cold, With Brown Sauce Or Something Else?
I was salivating the moment I got out of my car. The aroma was not one normally expected in the Vale of Mowbray, the delicate bouquet of fragrant countryside flora and fauna, instead it was the smell of freshly baked pork pies wafting over the car park.
I was on my way to meet Mark Gatenby, Managing Director of Vale of Mowbray, manufacturer of pork pies and already my senses were being teased.
Mark is keen to talk about the successful rebrand. The pork pie category has been stagnant, and he and his team have refreshed the brand, moving away from old fashioned perceptions that the only way to eat a pork pie is with a flat cap firmly perched on your head and whippet by your side.
“A pork pie is for every generation to enjoy, and we’re attracting more younger shoppers” Mark says.
You can pick up a Vale of Mowbray pork pie anywhere in the country such is their appeal. The reach is national, with the biggest branded customer Iceland, although you can also find Vale of Mowbray pork pies in Nisa, Co-Op, Sainsbury’s, and Tesco, as well as selected ASDA and Morrisons stores.
And as I am soon to discover there’s more than just the standard pork pie.
“There are many specialties with different flavours like cheese and pickle, pork and pickle, caramelised onion and apple plus the seasonal flavours. We are always developing new and interesting flavours some of them have yet to see the light of day!”
I start thinking about the flavours I would like.
The biggest selling flavour after the standard pork pie is pork, cheese, and pickle.
“People really like that flavour. The standard pork pie will always be the people’s favourite, but everyone likes a different take. However, we try and make products that give us a critical mass and produce a sustainable and viable product. We don't always get it right and sure; you always wonder why it wasn't right especially as some of these flavours are sensational. The market demands innovation and this is one of our strong points.”
One of Mark’s favourites is the pork and caramelised onion along with the cheese and pickle, and I am soon to be educated in how I should tackle eating it.
I did not know there’s an optimum temperature to enjoy this delicacy.
“One way not to eat a pork pie is straight from the fridge. Take it out and let it rest for at least 20 to 30 minutes before you tuck into it.”
“Somewhere near room temperature brings out the flavours. I would be tempted to get it out around 10am if it was for lunch.”
I look round to see if there is one already out but Mark senses my intrigue and says it’s like a busman’s holiday.
“I have mine at weekends, placing it on the kitchen work top and will probably have it with brown sauce. Although it’s an emotive subject. People have it with mustard a big favourite or piccalilli. We've done lots of research on social media.”
Emotive? Well, it seems everything about eating a pork pie stirs the passions. If it’s not the trio of condiments, it’s the jelly which I will return to, or other ways to serve them.
The responsibility for finding new flavours falls to the NPD (New Product Development) team, now there’s a job I wouldn’t mind.
“NPD work their genius and produce ideas which are put to a test panel, the decision makers on the ones to take forward. We usually introduce four or five new flavours in a year excluding the seasonal favourites like Christmas specials.
“One of the weirdest flavours was Katsu curry and we have tried Mexican spicy and chilli flavoured pies but if you are going to deliver a spice it needs a kick with a zing.
I’ve already told Mark I’m an Essex-boy and I need to be toughened up. As an adopted Yorkshireman none of my southern wimpish behaviour will be tolerated especially when it comes to eating a warm pork pie!
“Some people like to warm them up. I can see from your facial expression, Andrew, that’s not one for an Essex-lad. You know, a warmed up pork pie is something that is quite northern. There’s nothing like walking into a butcher’s shop and being handed a bag containing a warm pork pie. We did a recent survey, and the popular choice was to have it warmed with mushy peas. It’s just a pie and peas.
“That’s the way we bring them out of the factory for the tasting panel fresh out of the oven. They go like the proverbial hot cake!”
I try and cast my mind back to The Great British Bake Off was there ever a pork pie day? If so, they would do well, once Covid is better controlled, to visit Vale of Mowbray.
So, that’s the how to get the best our of a pork pie but what about the ingredients, the process and of course, the other big emotive subject – the jelly.
If Mark hasn’t been enthusiastic already, his eyes light up when we start chatting about the process.
“First things first. Most of our pork comes from Germany or the Netherlands purely because of availability. There isn’t enough pork in the UK to meet the country’s needs. Flour is predominantly English from Gainsborough but because last year was the worst harvest for 40 years the millers have had to source grain from Germany and Canada.
“Process is the key. It may simply be mixing ingredients together, but it is also down to monitoring temperatures and getting the consistency right. Consistency is key to a good pastry product. People say the pastry is what makes the pie.
“You can have the best filling in the world but if the pastry is poor!”
“Some of them are soft, some hard and some have too much jelly.”
Now we are on to the jelly, which causes more consternation than you might think
Is there too much? Not enough? Mark points out someone is either part of the ‘I don’t like the jelly’ or ‘I really like the jelly’ brigade.
“An old friend of mine, who is no longer with us, used to get into my ribs by saying it didn’t have enough jelly in it, week after week after week, always the same message. As a joke I once made him a pie and took all the meat out filled with the jelly.
“The pork gelatine and salt are required because it would be like having a steak pie without the gravy
“Even if you can't see it, it's still there because it's in the meat.”
What then separates the Vale of Mowbray pork pie from its competitors?
“The differentiation between our pork pies and what others would say is it is a northern-based product. Meaning the meat is cured. When you cut into our pork pie it is pink.
“It's pink because it usually made with bacon and gammon. If you go down to Melton Mowbray and cut a pork pie open it's grey and more peppery. We're more salt and savoury and that's a northern thing
“In Melton Mowbray they don't use the cure method. That's the Melton protected recipe; you can only make it within so many miles of Melton Mowbray.”
Vale of Mowbray make between 1.5 to 2 million pork pies a week.
As you enter the factory you come first to the pastry production department where the lid and the base are made as two separate components.
The pastry is portioned into tins and rested. From there it goes to be made into a pie which takes place in the same production hall. It goes down the production line where the billet of pastry in the tin is formed into the outer case base and the sides. A machine puts in the meat fill and the lid on top, crimping and cutting it into shape, followed by an egg glaze and into the oven for anything from 40 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes depending on the product.
(L-R)Maurice Rider whose father was one of the founding brothers who brought pies to Mowbray with Mark Gatenby
Once finished it is cooled, taken out of its tin and then more cooling to below 30 degrees Celsius. At this point the jelly is added, after which it is further chilled down to 5 degrees or less.
It’s more labour intensive than you would think, which according to Mark, is to do with the pastry.
“Probably more so than if you were making a steak pie. With a pork pie the meat fill is quite solid and so it is hard to work plus there are two different pastries a hot water hot fat pastry which is different from the typical flaky pastry found on a Cornish Pasty or sausage roll.
The business is doing well, and the growth projections are healthy.
Current turnover is £24M and Mark has plans to grow it to £30m then £40m over next 3 to 5 years which will involve bringing new products to market. Plans included sausages and the current on-trend product, black pudding, which is part and parcel of the company’s history.
Also, ready to be launched is the premium range: The Heritage, Highland, Gatenby and Rider pies the last two are names synonymous with the company.
“Our plans also include considering exporting to the big expat market. But we must look at how we get the pies transported abroad."
The company has fared well despite setbacks like the fire of 2002 when everyone pulled together and the production restarted within 3 days and got to 70% capacity within 14 days, although the company was smaller then.
Brexit has not been a major issue for supply chains, as Vale of Mowbray, hauliers and processors were well prepared.
“There were a few problems at customs, but we never really had any shortages. Even in the early days of Covid with some plants needing to shutdown we kept production going.”
However, it is around labour shortages where Brexit has had an impact. The company employs around 250 people and a large make up are from Eastern Europeans. Some are now choosing to return home.
“Brexit and people returning home didn’t show itself until March / April time last year but then there was the Covid fight, so the recruitment issue passed by under the surface until it got to a critical point as it is now across the country.
“Recruitment is now a big issue for us, as for everyone else. We are always looking for people to come and work at a fun and interesting pork pie factory.”
If Brexit and Covid have thrown up challenges, Vale of Mowbray has responded to the public policy issues such as obesity and salt content. Mark tells me they have developed a plant-based product coming to the market soon. But as Mark points out, a pork pie is a treat and everything in moderation. The team is also looking for an alternative to salt that appeals and will give the consumer confidence.
“We don’t try to make it something it isn’t.”
One thing is for certain you can guarantee that at any buffet you will always find a pork pie, but the question will always remain:
What condiment will you have to accompany a Vale of Mowbray pork pie: brown sauce, mustard, or Piccalilli?
Vale of Mowbray has been baking pies since 1928 but their story starts much earlier – you could trace its history all the way back to 1066, when William the Conqueror was crowned King of England and his subsequent appointment of Robert de Mowbray as Earl of Northumbria in 1086.
Vintage Photo Vintage photo of the pie room
Fast forward a few centuries to 1795 and the brewing of beer begins in the area, now known as Vale of Mowbray. Located between the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors in Leeming Bar, the Vale of Mowbray Brewery was established, taking its name from its land. As a brewery its history was fascinating but sadly it closed in 1925, before being purchased by the Rider family and pork pie production officially began in 1928, as well as gammon, bacon and other pork products.
It was sold to Harris Bacon in 1960 and shortly after in 1965, John Gatenby, the current chairman of Vale of Mowbray, joined the business and led its management buyout in 1995 but the turbulent story doesn’t stop there. A major fire broke out in 2002 destroying much of the brewery. John was able to move much of the production elsewhere on site, keeping the entire workforce. In 2003, rising from the ashes, John oversaw a complete state of the art production factory built on the site of the new brewery. It was a landmark year with 1 million pies baked a week.
Vale of Mowbray has gone from strength to strength from there – over 90 years baking pies, now producing 80 million pies every year and becoming the UK’s number one pork pie brand in 2021