In celebration of 21 years of one of Borough's favourite butchers
Twenty-one years. It’s a big birthday for anyone. But for Tim Wilson of The Ginger Pig, this week marked the coming of age not of one adult, but an entire company. “We had an old van, parked over there”—he points to where Hook and Sons stands now—”and people queued for sometimes two hours just for a quality joint.” He smiles, reminiscing.
In some ways he still can’t get over the Market surviving the 21 years, let alone his Ford Escort turned stall, turned flourishing business comprising several shops, butchery classes and forthcoming restaurant thriving alongside it.
It’s quite the achievement—especially given Tim’s start point, which consisted not of a fully-fledged business plan, but of three pigs and a medieval farm house in Nottinghamshire. “I didn’t even buy them to eat them. I just bought them to fill the place up—there’d been animals when I bought it and it looked horrible without them, really empty and derelict.”
It was a retired pork butcher who, in passing, told Tim his pigs needed slaughtering “or they’ll start shagging each other, and they’re siblings”. That led him, via Borough Market, to The Ginger Pig. “He butchered them for me and I gave bits to friends and family, but I had loads left over, so I started making sausages.”
A food fair
When word got out round the village that he was selling them (he wasn’t) he started a tiny Saturday farm shop. A lady called Henrietta Green called, asking if he’d like to come to a food fair in a wholesale market in Borough, London. He’d never heard of it, and dismissed it entirely initially. “But the girls working with me insisted. So they loaded up the van and drove down Thursday night.”
At 10am Friday morning he received a phone call. “They’d sold everything within two hours,” he recalls. “I thought they were joking.” Yet when he came down to stock up for Saturday, the same thing happened. Yes, Tim was just selling sausages and bacon from “a polystyrene box out the back of a grubby van” but these were sausages and bacon like no one in London had seen or tasted for a very long time.
On paper, Tim’s tale is one of serious grafting. Each weekend he drove down from Nottinghamshire with a van full, and back up the following day. “I used to start at half three in the morning. There were foxes running around, and if you left your eggs out they’d take them and hide them in sacks of potatoes,” he remembers.
He learnt how to make sausages from a Liverpudlian butcher, who taught him in exchange for Tim writing off a sizeable debt. “It was very much trial and error at first,” he smiles, launching merrily into the story of shooting his mum with the sausage machine. “I didn’t realise there was an air pocket in there so I kept turning. There was an almighty bang and sausage meat flew straight into the back of her!” he chuckles.
It wasn’t easy. Yet when we ask Tim if he ever felt liking giving up on his pig project and returning to the antique business he started out in, he is unhesitant in his response. “The food market is a doddle compared to the antique business, because demand is there. Sell a man a nice chair, and you won’t sell him one next week.”
Sell him a good rasher of bacon and you’ll have yourself a weekly customer, he continues—one who will, if properly looked after, go on to buy not just bacon, but cuts he’d have balked at previously.
“In the early days some people would say, I’m not sure about a pork chop with that much fat on it. So you had to persuade them. I’d say, ‘I’ll sell you this chop for £2 instead of £2.80, but leave the fat on. Don’t eat it, but cook with it on and see what you think’. It was a re-education. But at a time when people were up for it, it was easy.”
Butchers were a dying breed, mass production ruled and the public idea of meat had very much been shaped by supermarkets. But the vastly superior quality of The Ginger Pig’s meat spoke for itself.
Our favourite treats
Next year the bakery, currently based on the farm up north, will move to London to further improve the freshness of our favourite treats. A restaurant will come with it, boasting slow roasts and a meat cooking school. Is Tim surprised at how far the business has come in 21 years?
“Only in the last five years have I really thought about it as a proper business, with development. I’ve been full-time feeding pigs, doing what needed to be done rather than planning,” he muses. “We’ve lived by the skin of our teeth.”
He’s proud of the way they’ve changed the industry, inspiring organic practices and artisan butchers. But he’s most proud of his staff. “People like Tom, who we recruited as a kitchen porter and is now responsible for the Borough Market shop, The Ginger Pig HR, and running London shops as a whole. He couldn’t speak English. Now he’s fluent, married with kids,” Tim beams.
“I’m barely needed these days. Everyone in the office, at the farm, the butchers…” he trails off proudly. “That’s what’s made The Ginger Pig. I just had the idea.”