BARBECUES: GET ALL FIRED UP
There is something about cooking in front of an open fire that seems to bring out the pig in all of us. Chloe Smith reports
Barbecues are renowned for their ability to bring out the inner caveman in everyone. There is something about charred meat, flames and the unpredictability of the elements that encourages people to gather round the fire and feast. Perhaps this is why the latest catering phenomenon is the hog roast. What better way could there be to share food with friends and celebrate a special occasion than feasting on a whole animal, cooked for everyone to enjoy together? A rare luxury and a stunning visual spectacle, the hog roast is perfect for big birthdays and weddings.
This is good news for butchers, and some are taking the opportunity to expand the services they offer in order to cater for such events. The money is good - some butchers charge £600 for spending the day cooking the hog at the event, then carving and serving it up in bread rolls with apple sauce - and it can be done as a sideline to the main business of running a shop.
Richard Fagan, foodservice development manager at BPEX, says he is impressed with the profitability of the hog roast: "It's very good money," he says. "I researched it last year and I saw guys making a hell of a lot of money for what is not costing them a lot of money - a pig."
If you're thinking about it, you will need a spit-roaster. Dave Haggett, a butcher from Devon, has been doing hog roasts for over 25 years. He used coal-fired roasters until about six years ago, when the popularity of hog roasts really took off. Fed up with humping a heavy roasting machine in the back of his truck, he designed his own, which hooks on to the back of a vehicle. He hasn't looked back.
"It's getting very popular now. Last year, just our shop alone did 40 weddings and garden parties. We charge £500 a time; it's a fixed price whether they have 50 people or 150 people. We go there, carve and provide a professional service. Everything's got to be spotlessly clean and appearance is important as well. We all wear dickie bows, white coats and trilbies."
Dave's galvanised steel roaster is gas-powered and relatively easy to clean, he says. Interest from other butchers and caterers led him to team up with an engineering company and manufacture copies of his original to sell. He has now supplied over 80, for £3,850 each, plus VAT, to caterers keen to take hog roasts to private parties, rugby matches, local fairs and sporting events. The appeal of hog roasts is easy to identify, says Dave: "It's not stuffy. It's something different and it's a social event. The whole concept of seeing the pig going round is beautiful and the crackling is something else. We even converted a couple of vegetarians because the crackling got to them in the end!"
Of course, to get stunning crackling, a pig needs to be roasted for a long time - six to eight hours - depending on its size. Michael Beaumont, a butcher from Cambridgeshire, who has been doing hog roasts since 1992, got round that problem by offering a slightly different hog roast service: "Our roasters are totally insulated, so we don't have to sit on-site to cook a pig. We cook it and then travel to our destination and then just light it up again to keep it ticking over, but when we arrive on-site, the pig is cooked."
This means Michael and his team of butchers can man the shop at the same time as cooking a pig out in the yard. He even sells a ready-cooked hog in an insulated box for £320 that people can take away and carve themselves. For a full hog roast party, Michael charges £6.75 a head, with a minimum of 100 guests. Like Dave, Michael has seen the demand for hog roasts grow recently and has expanded his operation to deal with it. "We can now handle up to 1,500 people. We've got three roasters now and they'll take two pigs each. "We do the Cambridgeshire show, where about 10,000 people turn up and probably 1,500 eat, which we supply. At the moment we've got six or seven weddings and eight reasonably sized corporate events as well as private parties booked this year," says Michael.
There can be pitfalls if you're just starting out, and charging too little is one of them: "You can sell it too cheap," says Michael. "You've got to take into consideration the price of your gas; also, your time is worth something. It could easily become a labour of love if you're not careful."
It is also easy to let it take over your life: "The main months for it are May to September and you have to bear in mind that you can tie yourself up every weekend through the summer. You've got to work out what times you can actually do it and the time you can spare away from your family and private life," says Michael. You must also ensure you comply with the law, says Dave. "The legislation is that your machine has got to be CE-approved or else you're not insured and, obviously, basic food hygiene comes into it.
"You have to have hot, fresh water there to clean your utensils and you've got to temperature-probe your pig as well. Get a guest to sign to witness the temperature of the pig, just to cover yourself," he advises.
Michael agrees: "When the HACCP came out, we did several tests on our roasters to make sure they did the job properly. It's just a matter of making out a HACCP plan and following that. You're on a big learning curve all the while and I think you'll find most EHOs are helpful," he says. So does catering to these events conflict in any way with running the shop? It doesn't have to, says Dave, and you can even drum up more business for the shop at hog roasts. "It has just enhanced the butcher's shop really. Everywhere you go, you hand out your business card, so people get to know where your shop is."
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