The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader The Ginger Pig
For some big companies, commitment to sustainability can seem like a bit of an afterthought—something that sounds good in the annual report: a solar panel here, a roof garden there. For the Slow Food accredited producers at Borough Market, however, sustainability is often the very lifeblood of the business.
Take The Ginger Pig, for example. Its story began, quite literally, with leftovers, after founder Tim Wilson had to butcher his pet pigs on the advice of a passing butcher. After giving away the prime cuts to friends and family, he started making sausages to sell. “I just had so much leftover,” he explains. Wastefulness, he thought, would be a tragedy.
Soon he was running a local farm shop, then venturing to a fledgling retail market in Borough. As the business grew, Tim’s ability to look beyond appearances to the true value of every part of his animals remained. He used it to convince his customers to buy the less glamorous cuts, playing with the prices until they were convinced. He continues, even now, to use trim in his mince, burgers, pies and sausages. And when it comes to those bits he can’t easily sell—bones, for examples—he treats his customers’ dogs, or gives them to chefs to use in stock and soup.
He looks after his farmland—all 3,000 acres of it—with the same care and attention, creating woodland, restoring endangered dry stone walling and hedgerows across the region and growing his own crops and grass (and, by extension, silage) as feed. “We are extremely conscious of our responsibilities both in what we feed our animals and how we produce that, but also with regards to the impact we have on the local area,” Tim’s colleague Arabella, explains.
Rearing native breeds
But Slow Food is not just about sustainability: the welfare of the animals matters too. And if that isn’t there, the taste won’t be either. Rearing native breeds—animals accustomed to the cool North Yorkshire climate—on natural diets, and keeping them outside as much as possible, is vital for ensuring the “slow, unhurried maturation essential for depth of flavour and quality”.
“The slow growth period allows for intramuscular fat to be laid down evenly to produce beautiful marbling in the meat,” Arabella continues.
Take cattle as an example: the increasingly rare native breeds of longhorns, shorthorns, herefords, belted galloways and riggits which roam the Yorkshire moors and pastures. The average animal is taken to slaughter at around 30 months—a good 10 to 16 months older than your intensively reared beast.
Slaughter is as stress-free as possible: “It’s very important that the meat is dealt with properly so that the benefits of ‘slow’ rearing are not wasted.” Tense, anxious animals do not make good steak, so the slaughter house is located as near as possible to the farm. After slaughter, the process continues at the same slow, deliberate pace.
First, dry ageing—the hallmark of any good butcher. Over about 28 days, the beef is hung in the cold room, under the watchful eye of the cold room manager whose job it is to judge exactly how long the meat needs. Fat cows hang longer, and some cuts benefit from being aged for weeks on end—up to 80 days in the case of a good rump. Meat needs to lose water and tenderise if the flavour profile for which The Ginger Pig is renowned is to be reached.
“If short cuts are taken in this process—by slaughtering the animal earlier, using growth promoters, wet ageing or not ageing at all—the end product will not be very good and most importantly the animal risks not experiencing a natural and happy life,” says Arabella, pointing out that being ‘slow’ is not just about flavour, but about the animal’s health and happiness. “We believe in taste, quality, welfare and service, and our approach to everything reflects that,” she states.
It’s even reflected in the methods used by the butchers, whose training is rigorous (Tim learnt his craft off a veteran Liverpudlian butcher and passes on everything he knows to his team) and whose approach to a carcass really is nose to tail. “If a customer wants a particular cut which isn’t in the counter that day, then we know that because we have the whole carcass to butcher and the skilled butchers to do it, we can provide exactly what the customer wants,” Arabella explains.
It’s also reflected in The Ginger Pig’s commitment to resurrecting the regional specialities of different breeds of animal in the face of industrial hybridisation.
It’s reflected in their crop rotation. It’s there in their commitment to the communities surrounding the farm and The Ginger Pig’s shops: the training and employment offered to local job hunters, the butchery classes for keen amateurs. But above all, as anyone who has experienced the visceral pleasure of biting into a fresh, steaming hot sausage roll on an icy winter morning, it’s reflected in the unrivalled quality of their meat.