When you think about pork pies many people’s minds will turn to the famous pies made in Melton Mowbray that have been given protected European status. But the most popular pork pie in the UK is in fact made in another Mowbray much closer to home.
Vale of Mowbray has been making pork pies since the 1920s, but its history goes back much further as staff have just discovered and it, too, takes its name from its location.
The Vale of Mowbray is sometimes mistakenly referred to as the Vale of York and is the stretch of low-lying land between the North York Moors and the Hambleton Hills to the east and the Yorkshire Dales to the west. To the north lie the Cleveland lowlands and to the south the Vale of Mowbray becomes the Vale of York proper.
The vale takes its name from the family who were granted the rights to the land after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Robert de Mowbray, whose family had a stronghold at Thirsk Castle, was given the land by William the Conqueror in 1086.
A brewery was opened on the site of Vale of Mowbray pies as far back as 1795 by Henry Plews. But when it closed in 1925, it was bought by the Rider brothers, who started making pork pies in 1928 alongside bacon, gammon and sausages.
In 1960, the factory was sold to Harris Bacon and a young John Gatenby started working there. He would become the managing director and then lead a management buy-out in 1995.
His son Mark has just taken over after Covid made John, now 75, realise it was time to take a back seat and hand the reins over to his son after 40 years heading Vale of Mowbray.
“He’d been talking about retiring for years. He had started to step back more and more and he was leaving the day-to-day running to me, but he really didn’t want to let go. I think he’d still be here if the pandemic hadn’t happened,” says Gatenby. “Even after Covid hit he was still coming in as we continued producing throughout.”
Gatenby is no stranger to the business having started work there in 2005 and climbed his way up the ladder, spending time in virtually every part of the factory. He was operations director before taking on the role of MD. But he knows he has big boots to fill as his father (who will become chairman) was synonymous with the Vale of Mowbray brand and he has huge respect for what he has achieved over the years.
A new man at the helm has also meant a new look for the pies, with £250,000 invested in market research that resulted in rebranding in a bid to appeal to a younger market.
The landscape Yorkshire valley image has gone to be replaced by a new text-only “contemporary and clean” company logo, accompanied by the wording “Established in 1795” to reflect the company’s heritage.
The Peculiar and Preposterous Pie Competition, which was aimed at getting young people to design their own pork pie, attracted some wild and wonderful entries from across the country and also heralded a new target audience for Vale of Mowbray.
The company continues to introduce new products, including a vegan plant-based pie, as well as looking at ways of reducing its reliance on plastic packaging and if possible becoming plastic-free. It is also looking at breaking into a more premium market. Gatenby would also like to take on the firm’s old rival – the Melton Mowbray pork pie.
The Melton Mowbray pork pie is named after Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire. The uncured meat of a Melton pie is grey in colour when cooked; the meat is chopped, rather than minced. As the pies are baked free-standing, the sides bow outwards, rather than being vertical as with mould-baked pies. The Yorkshire pork pie uses cured meat which keeps its pink colour when cooked.
In 2008, the Melton Mowbray pork pie was granted protected geographical indication by the EU, which means that the name Melton Mowbray can now be applied only to uncured pork-filled pies made within a 10.8 square mile zone around the town.
Just how much customers know, or even care about this is open to debate, but within the pork pie world it is clearly a bone of contention. The confusion isn’t helped by the similarity between the two names, although the pies couldn’t be more different.
“We’d like the option to be able to make a Melton Mowbray pie,” says Gatenby, although he doesn’t say whether there are any plans in the pipeline – or what it would be called.
The current Vale of Mowbray premises in Leeming Bar were opened in 2003 after a fire destroyed much of the old brewery. “It was a Saturday morning and there was just a small crew on when one of the ovens caught fire,” recalls Gatenby.
Polystyrene tiles caught alight and the entire place was destroyed, but fortunately no one was injured. At the time of the blaze, the factory was on two sites and incredibly with a lot of planning the company was up and running again within three days.
The firm built a state-of-the art production facility on the site of the old brewery which allowed it to break the one million pies a week target.
Today, Vale of Mowbray produces a huge number of pies, including making Morrisons’ own brand, and employs some 234 people, mainly from the local community, and it is looking to take on more staff. That’s 80 million pies per year heading out of the Leeming Bar factory, supplying the likes of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Co-op and Booths, as well as wholesalers.
The factory is an impressive place which has an interesting balance between modern automation and a good old traditional bakery.
Mary Peacock who has worked for Vale of Mowbray for 35 years, is responsible for putting the pastry into the moulds for the mini pork pies. She makes it look easy and I swear can do it quicker than any machine.
“There are some jobs that just have to be done by hand,” says Gatenby. “Automation does speed things up but it doesn’t have the flexibility that we need.”
A second expansion in 2017 saw the company double in size from four thousand square feet to eight thousand square feet, increasing the number of pies the factory was able to produce to 1.5 million a week – which at Christmas and other busy times can go up to four million.
There are now 18 different types and sizes of Vale of Mowbray pie, including a bestseller which has a hard boiled egg in the middle and the award-winning caramelised onion pork pie.
Plans are afoot to reintroduce sausage-making and even black puddings into the Vale of Mowbray range. And while Gatenby has his eyes clearly on the future, he doesn’t forget the past.
Managers were recently reminded of that when they were contacted by Maurice Rider, whose family took over the factory and started making pork pies in the 1920s.
“He’s 91 and just contacted us out of the blue,” says Gatenby. “We invited him over and he was astonished by what we are doing here now.”
The company was so moved by Mr Rider’s interest that it has decided to name a new pie after him – a perfect example of the past and future of Vale of Mowbray coming together.