Making the cut

Categories: Features

Pioneering farmer Tim Wilson tells the story of how an antique dealer from Nottinghamshire became one of Britain’s most respected producers

Portrait: Joseph Fox

The sweet metallic tang of flesh and blood; warm banter and expert advice; and the thwack and thud of sharpened steel on wood—a visit to a good butcher can be a deeply invigorating experience. And few are as captivating as Borough Market’s The Ginger Pig, where on any given day you’ll find a team of expert butchers cutting and crafting everything from silverside to salmon’s cut, jacob’s ladder to forequarter flank, and feather blade to top rump.

The story of The Ginger Pig is, in a word, remarkable; an entrepreneurial triumph fuelled by the passion, whim and nuts-and-bolts graft of its founder Tim Wilson. But had it not been for a chance encounter with a man called Brian, The Ginger Pig may never have been.

The son of a Nottinghamshire antique dealer, Wilson initially followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an expert in early furniture. His love of all things old later extended to houses, when in his early thirties he began buying run-down period properties to renovate. “In 1990 I saw an advert in the local paper for an 18th century farmhouse in the Nottinghamshire village of Harwell,” says Tim.

“It was completely run-down but it had a lovely little pigsty, some stables, a chicken shed and a pond full of ducks—there were animals everywhere. I was enchanted with the place and bought it with a view to turning it into an idyllic country house. But when I visited the property to start renovation, it had become a boring, horrible mess. I realised it was because the previous owner had taken all the animals—they were the life and soul of the place.”

A neighbour called Brian
His solution was to buy a few ducks, some chickens and three pigs. As Tim worked away at the house, the chickens laid their eggs and the pigs grew and grew. “I was faffing around in the yard one day when a man appeared at the gate and shouted: ‘Oi, you know those pigs... they want killing.’” That man, it later transpired, was a neighbour called Brian—who happened to be a trained butcher.

Sadly, for the pigs, Brian proved to be a harbinger of death; they were swiftly sent for slaughter at a local abattoir, before being butchered and turned into sausages. This field-to-fork encounter inspired Wilson to invest in three purebred Tamworth sows called Milly, Molly and Mandy. The final piece of the puzzle was locating a purebred boar, which Tim bought from a breeder in south Wales. A beast of a pig, Wilson nicknamed him Dai Bando, after the boxing coach in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley.

“The breeder offered to drive the pig over to Nottinghamshire for me and we agreed to meet in the nearby town of Bawtry,” says Tim. “As I arrived I spotted an old, beaten-up Land Rover driving down the road with two burly-looking brothers sporting big ginger beards. But they weren’t siblings; it was the breeder and Dai Bando, who was sat on the passenger seat just like a dog. They’d driven all the way from south Wales like this.

“Dai Bando was so chilled out that I was concerned he wasn’t up to the job, if you catch my drift. But when we got him to the farm he stepped out of the Land Rover, walked straight through the electric fencing I’d just installed and got straight on the back of one of the girls. Within a matter of months, three sows produced 24 piglets—and I inadvertently became a farmer.”

Cows at The Ginger Pig farm

The art of bacon curing
Tim set to work teaching himself the art of bacon curing, sausage-making and butchery, with the help of John Seymour’s seminal book Self Sufficiency (1973). He was a quick learner and his butchery skills flourished. “The first pig I butchered with was the hardest,” he says. “After the job was done, I proudly went over to Brian’s house to boast that I’d butchered a whole animal between seven and nine, to which he replied ‘two hours isn’t bad at all’. I said no, I started at seven in the morning and finished at nine in the evening.”

Undeterred by his sluggish skills, Tim continued to rear and butcher his own purebred pigs, selling his homemade sausages and bacon to locals from his front door and occasionally venturing to local farmers’ markets. His big break came in 1994 when he was invited by food writer Henrietta Green to take a stall at Borough Market’s now legendary Food Lovers’ Fair. Like any true countryman, Wilson declined. His wife Anne, however, agreed and drove down in a Ford Escort van brimming with sausages and bacon. The stock sold out in a matter of hours. Tim has been here pretty much ever since.

“At this point in my life I was too busy to butcher the meat at home before bringing it to London, so I started driving down with whole carcasses and would then cut them up in front of customers. I think it was a bit of a shock for some people. In London, butchers simply didn’t do that; everything was always pre-portioned and neatly packed. People just stopped and stared. I look back at this time extremely fondly. If it hadn’t been for Borough Market, we would never have got this far. In fact, The Ginger Pig may never have existed and I might still be working as an antiques dealer.”

It’s been more than 20 years since The Ginger Pig was launched, and the business has since grown to encompass 3,000 acres of pasture across three farms, in the beautiful Vale of Pickering in North Yorkshire. Here Tim rears an impressive array of native British breeds, all slowly reared outdoors.

The Botterill family
As for geese, turkeys, ducks and 100-day old chickens (the latter of which has been described by chef Stevie Parle as “one of the most truly delicious things [he has] ever eaten”), these are sourced from the Botterill family farm on the Belvoir Estate in Leicestershire, where they are reared free-range and without the aid of additives.

One of the keys to The Ginger Pig’s success has been Tim’s insistence on quality provenance. Despite the success of The Ginger Pig in London, he continues to live at Grange Farm in the small village of Levisham, where he can keep a close eye on the welfare of his animals and the sustainability of his farming methods.

“I can summarise my philosophy in four words: live animals come first. How does this translate into the real world? I would never expect any livestock to have to travel longer than an hour before slaughter, which is why we only use one abattoir—it has very high standards and is also extremely close to the farm. I would also never send an animal to the open market, where I don’t know what will happen to it afterwards. And I always ensure that the person who raises the animals is the same person who drives them to the abattoir, to ensure high quality welfare at every stage of production.”

They put in a tremendous amount of man-hours and have a very high ratio of workers to farm animals. During lambing, a shepherd stays with the sheep night and day and when the pigs are farrowing (giving birth), there is not a minute that they are not with at least two people.

Sheep at The Ginger Pig farm

A livestock county
“I’m blessed with the help of some of the best farmers in the country,” he adds. “North Yorkshire is a livestock county and it’s full of skillful and caring people, who are interested in and knowledgeable about all kinds of animals. There would be no point trying to do the same thing in, say, Lincolnshire, because it’s all arable.”

Passionate staff and well-looked-after animals aren’t the only secrets to The Ginger Pig’s success. Behind every cut of meat is a natural diet of home grown grass, silage, fodder beet, barley, wheat and oats, sustainably grown on-site through careful management and crop rotation, leaving the ground nutritious and fertile—one of the reasons the farms are brimming with flowers, wildlife and gloriously unkempt hedgerows.

“What makes British meat the best in the world is a combination of excellent grass, pedigree genetics and amazing husbandry skills,” says Tim. “If you go to the Continent after May, there’s barely any grass for livestock to eat. Here we have it all year round. Our breeds are also the envy of the world, which is why countries like China are using British breeds to produce their pork.”

You get the feeling that Tim quite likes Britain, particularly God’s own county. Indeed, in 2013 he was quoted as saying that the last time he left Blighty was seven years previously. “That was completely true,” he admits. “In fact, I didn’t get a passport until I was 47. I was just too busy looking after all the animals. Thankfully, I do get away more these days. In 2014 I went to Corsica for a fortnight. Having said that, someone called me to say there was a shop to rent in Barnes, so I came back a week early.”