A rare breed pig for a wedding present grew into a winner for Jon and Charlotte Clarkson. Michael Hickling went to see them.
Jon Clarkson stoops to release a strap on the rear of a 40ft sea container parked rather improbably inside a barn on his landlocked farm on the Yorkshire Wolds.
The door swings open and out into the chill air of an unseasonably miserable and wet afternoon comes a delicious waft of the warm south.
Step inside the container and you discover the reason: racks of chorizos, the highly-spiced pork sausage which originates in Spain, are being air-dried in special cabinets. It seems doubly exotic because we are in the heart of traditional farming country and this one has been run as an arable and sheep operation by the Clarkson family for five generations.
How chorizos – and salamis – came about was due to the three little pigs. It’s not a fairy story, although in recent months it has started to look like one.
Once upon a time farmer Jon and Charlotte, whose family had a smallholding, met at a party in Hull and eventually decided to get married. As the big day approached, a neighbour asked them if the wedding present he had in mind would be acceptable. It was a pig called Mavis.
Who could resist? Especially as Mavis was an attractive rare breed called a Berkshire which typically has a black body with white stockings on each leg. They also have personality and can be fun to be with.
The other wedding presents were useful for a couple starting out in married life but less memorable. Charlotte tries to think back. “We had a cooker, a toaster, a blender – all the standard kitchen stuff really. But we were delighted when Mavis was offered. She thought she was a cat or a dog and liked having her tummy tickled.” When their first son, Dylan, was born he used to ride on her back.
As it has turned out, Mavis was to be their most valuable wedding present. Her arrival gave them the germ of an idea which is now taking off. The Clarksons acquired a partner for their new pig, who also enjoyed a privileged position in the household. But these two had to get bigger before they could breed from them.
So the Clarksons bought three other little pigs as fatteners and Jon built a pen from straw bales in the barn to keep them in. The piglets promptly jumped over the bales and scarpered. Once Jon had collared the escapees, he made the compound walls higher. They still got out, so he added electric wire on the top.
At this point the fun-loving tendencies of three Berkshire piglets wore a bit thin. With a running leap and they continued to hurdle the barrier and head for freedom. “They were up and out and in the garden and all over the place,” says Jon.
But at least it suggested a name for the new pork business the couple were preparing to set up: The Flying Pigs. After further thought however they revised their idea and came up with what they thought was a more durable name, The Three Little Pigs.
Mavis and partner were pets. The rest were not. When the first fatteners of the new enterprise came back one night from the abattoir Jon and Charlotte couldn’t wait to find out what they had got.
“We bunged some in the Aga and had some on the kitchen table, says Charlotte. “On its own, nothing else. It was the best tasting pork ever.”
Shortly after they had a family party where everyone had set to and cooked something out of every bit of the pigs they had reared.
“My mum made brawn out of the head,” says Jon. “I made pate and terrines out of the livers. We used everything but the squeal.”
It almost sounds like a celebration from a distant rural past. And this kitchen, in a farmhouse which dates from the Georgian period, looks just the place for it – battered quarry tile floor, oil cloth thrown across a long table, an Aga at the back. Close your eyes to the walk-in Smeg fridge and the stylish fittings and you might be in an interior from Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.
There’s quite a bit of history around here. They are almost beside the track of the famous Kipingcotes Derby, the oldest flat-race in England, started by Henry VIII. Jon’s parents, now in their 70s, are still on the farm, the house is divided into two. From a domestic point of view that’s handy for Jon and Charlotte because in addition to Dylan, now seven, they have Zack and Jethro aged five and two.
The Clarksons successfully bred from Mavis who has since died of natural causes. That was good news on its own because there are not many of her sort about. Berkshires are currently in the “at risk” category of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
People always seem to have had a soft spot for them. The Empress of Blandings, the pride and joy of Lord Emsworth in the PG Wodehouse stories, was a Berkshire. The PG Wodehouse Society sponsors a trophy for the champion of champions. But Berkshires, which pre-1950 had been much sought after, were eclipsed by the rise of the “pink pig”. Berkshires were no longer commercial, or not unless you went in for some lateral thinking.
British farmers were advised to stick to three main breeds and farm them intensively. There’s nothing wrong with mainstream pig farms these days. British welfare standards are now the highest in the world and British producers have to fight tooth and nail to beat off foreign producers with lower standards to get their meat into supermarkets at bargain prices shoppers are prepared to pay.
But as niche producers of a premium product, the Clarksons go a different way. They reason that slow-growing pigs that have led happy lives make better eating. The progeny of Mavis are outdoor-reared in small family groups, straw-bedded and with the freedom to root around and play in the mud.
“It lets them follow their natural behaviour,” says Charlotte. “And you can see how intelligent they are. They have drinkers which they have to press to get water. The pigs are smart enough to press them for long enough to make an overflow. It makes the ground waterlogged for them to wallow in.”
One other advantage is that Berkshires as a breed are hardier than commercial pigs.
The Clarksons needed to build a reputation for their fresh pork and took their purpose-built trailer on the road, setting out their wares at farmer’s markets and food festivals.
“We had a great following, Goole was the best,” says Jon. “If we weren’t open by 8.30am they started knocking on the hatch. We were trying to create a brand and it helped being visible on the market. And it gave us confidence.”
But being out on the road takes up a huge amount of time when you are running a two-handed business. So they put on their lateral thinking caps and Jon went back to the kitchen.
He had never really left it – he’s a foodie as well as a farmer – but now he wanted to develop a few ideas that had come to him during his wanderlust years.
Jon circumnavigated Australia in a campervan, worked on a cattle station (where they round up the livestock with an aeroplane) and paid a lot of attention to what he was eating. “I was cooking for myself over a little methylated spirits stove and I got pretty good at it.”
During those singleton years when things were quiet on the farm at the back end of the year, he would take off for three months to places like India, Thailand and Nepal.
He developed eclectic culinary tastes and particularly enjoyed the products of a kitchen of a Thai restaurant he worked in, especially their house speciality which was an air-dried, small pork sausage.
The combination of fermented, air-dried pork and chillies was one which especially appealed to him. PM (post Mavis), he invented intriguing products for sale along with the fresh pork. One was a Cuban rum salami, using three types of chilli brought together with Cuban oak-aged rum. “It’s tricky in the Yorkshire weather and needs a little refining,” he says.
He bought on eBay a refrigerated shipping container which he parked in the barn, converted to comply with hygiene regulations and commenced making his version of chorizos.
He thought he must be onto something when these were a hit with the Spanish. At a farmers’ market near Harrogate, a young man who came up to sample their wares turned out to be a Spanish student at York University.
“His parents at first were reluctant to follow him,” says Jon. “But when they did their eyes lit up. It turned out they came from Extremadura where our La Vera smoked pimenton (paprika) comes from.” Demand grew and he now has three linked sea containers, one of which used to ship bananas from the West Indies.
They have about 120 Berkshires on the farm at the moment. They are slaughtered in Goole and the butchery is done by Jon, a skill he taught himself. Quantities of chillies like Scotch Bonnet are also required and his dad grows these in a polytunnel. Winning a couple of golds in the Great Taste Awards last year gave that side of the business lift-off. It also helps that they just happen to have the perfect upmarket showcase in the same village.
The Pipe and Glass, which Michelin rates as the best pub restaurant in the country, is run by James Mackenzie who puts the Clarksons’ products on his menus. It’s a foodie trail which has brought London food writers to their door
This year they started working through a wholesaler which takes some of the pressure off. But they are still stretched. The next big question is how should they expand?
“I love making that stuff,” says Jon. “At the moment I feel like I’m in a bubble, working 18 hours a day, either in the butchery or on the farm.”
Maybe some of the first of the five generations of Clarksons who have worked the 480 acres of Kiplingcotes Farm since 1928 would be surprised at the turn things have taken here.
But that’s the power of lateral thinking for you. Farmers these days are all looking for “value added” ideas that might fit with what they grow or raise.
They know if it’s a good one, customers are ready to pay handsomely for a speciality food with a strong link to a lovely part of the country like the Wolds. In this case it’s £8.99 for one horseshoe-shaped chorizo.
The Clarksons will be selling their new award winning products, Triple Sec and Spicy Fennel salami, today at the end of the York Food Festival and also at the Beverley food Festival in October
And no doubt will do very well out of it. Thank you Mavis.