Making us fall in love with meat again

Sustainability means different things to different people. For Tim Wilson, founder of the Ginger Pig in Marylebone, London and one of the architects of the revitalised 11th century Borough Market at London Bridge, the word means traditional breeds

and natural production on a strict, commercial basis.

Wilson insists on a target performance for breeding and rearing while stock which fail to match up are culled. He has a pure bred herd of 100 Longhorn cows, 160 Tamworth, Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot and Lop Eared sows with gilts served by Welsh, Tamworth, Yorkshire and Lop boars and over 1,200 Swaledale ewes and 300 Dorset Down.

The lifting of the 30 month rule now means cow beef is on offer at the shop and the stall it runs at Borough Market. Ten-year-old cows, 800kg cows which kill out at around 60 per cent, provide the business with good old fashioned, full-flavoured lean beef. Longhorn steers and heifers have always been reared to the limit of 30 months allowing slow maturing to maximise yield and flavour.

HRH Prince Charles' initiation of a 'Mutton Renaissance' means the Ginger Pig can offer customers three to five-year-old ewe meat, hung for extra quality and taste. An unexpected boost to this trade has come from the failure of 300 Suffolk cross ewes to meet performance targets because of poor conception rate (about 50% which led to a chaotic four lambings a year and a fortune in extra staff). These have been sold on as 30-35kg mutton carcases, making £80-£90 a head compared with £12 to £15 a head for straight culling.

The Gloucester Old Spot is fast becoming a brand among shoppers at the Ginger Pig where purchases are invariably made by breed. But among pork connoisseurs, although the Old Spot is an acknowledged favourite, it is not the best tasting pork available. That honour goes to the Plum Pudding pig, so called because of its ginger colour and black spots created by crossing the Berkshire Black and the Tamworth boar. "This pork is definitely the creme de la creme," says Wilson. "It has everything wanted in fine pork."

Producing Old Spot commercially, however, requires careful husbandry. Because of its richness, small litters and body length, the breed has to be improved by crossing it with a Yorkshire boar. The same is true of the Plum Pudding pig. To remain commercially viable, Wilson expects eight pigs per litter weaned and just over two litters a year. Breeding, weaning and finishing are done outdoors and takes about six months from birth to slaughter to give the piglets time, on a low-density diet, to hit their target weight.

"Several of the traditional breeds have the genetic propensity to turn protein into fat," he explains, "and so we have to take it slowly." Wilson thinks that the stress points, particularly at weaning, contribute to this unwelcome trait, so he compensates for this by farrowing 10 sows every three weeks and keeping these families together in one paddock until weaning. This enables 90 to 100 piglets to be weaned at four weeks and housed together which helps to minimise stress.

At the shop there are three chefs who produce tureens, pies, sausages and hamburgers. They also handle bacon curing and smoking and act as a marketing tool for the business as queueing customers can see the cooking and sausage production while they wait. Sausage production includes international and national favourites like chorizo and merguez and Toulouse and herb and roasted apple. Black puddings are a specialty. At the moment, business couldn't be better. The shops turned over £1.5 million last year, employs 30 people and is this year's Observer 'Food Producer of the Year. Wilson himself was voted as Sheep Farmer of the Year by Farmers' Weekly.

The funny thing is Wilson never intended to go into farming. Even though his grandfather was a farmer and butcher, he was more interested in interior decorating and, in fact, started out in business buying and selling antiques. This led him into property development and a farmhouse in Bawtry, Nottinghamshire, that proved his "downfall".

While doing up the house, he put two British Saddleback and a boar on the three acres of grazing available on the farm. The taste of the pork produced from those pigs spurred him to try it again, for real this time. He bought Chrysanthemum, a big Tamworth although this was a short-lived experiment as she couldn't produce. She was replaced with three gilts before Wilson went in search of a boar.

He came back with Di Bando from South Wales which was an instant hit with the gilts and Wilson was hooked.

It was another accident of sorts that got him involved with Borough Market. In 1998 Henrietta Green asked him to take part in the first Food Lover's Fair at the market. Wilson was not interested but Anne Wilson and Anne Hickman who were working with him said they would go and set off in their Escort for the three-day show. At lunch time on the first day, they were on the phone pleading for more sausages as they had sold out. This was the spark that led to Ginger Pig setting up in Borough Market.

The shop in Marylebone also came about by happy coincidence. Wilson had been invited to pitch for a butcher's shop in West London. Instead, he ended up converting a nail decoration shop and a minicab office in Moxon Street into the Ginger Pig shop.

While Wilson's farms are not strictly organic, production is as natural as possible for both the rearing of the stock and growing of crops. But there is now 30 acres in conversion to organic status as the business looks to expand into free range broiler production. Tim has imported Master Gray, a French breed chicken, capable of reaching 3.5-5kg in 100 days. The good thing about the Master Gray is its yield on the leg; conformation of the breast is not so great.

Meanwhile, sales of his Old Fashioned chicken have been going well at 250-300 each week. At first, customers baulked at paying £18-£19 for a 5-7 lb bird but have been converted by the eating quality.

By offering organic chicken, Tim is gambling that customers will accept £20 per bird, especially once they've tasted it. "The market for an organic big bird is underrated at the moment. The experience of eating small, white-skinned, litter-reared broilers which do not have enough taste, texture or flavour is the reason for this. He intends to convert us by giving us chicken that tastes like chicken again.

Shop name: Ginger Pig

Location: Marylebone, London and Borough Market, London Bridge

Opening: Mon-Thurs: 8.30 am-6.00 pm. Fri/Sat: 8.30am-6.30pm. Sun 9.30am-3.00pm

Popular products: Include pies, sausages, meat cuts

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