Yorkshire Handmade Pies: How Yorkshire pie firm went from start-up to award-winning thanks to lockdown

It’s British Pie Week so Catherine Scott paid a visit to award-winning Yorkshire Handmade Pies, where they have been researching our love affair with pastry recipes. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Apparently our love affair with pie started with the ancient Egyptians. “They had a honey filling covered in a crusty cake made from oats, wheat, rye or barley. A recipe for chicken pie has even been discovered on a tablet carved before 2000 BC,” explains James Sturdy, founder of Yorkshire Handmade Pies.

There isn’t much that Sturdy doesn’t know about pies but it wasn’t that long ago that he discovered pie making was in his DNA.

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“We’d always been aware there was a shop in the family. Some family friends did some research about the shop and found some old video footage from the 1930s some of it panned outside to the guys, including my grandfather making pies. They actually found an old bit of paper with a pastry recipe on it – although that isn’t the recipe we uses as that was more of a pork pie pastry. It’s fascinating as we have come full circle.”

Yorkshire Handmade Pies, near Ripon. Picture Jonathan GawthorpeYorkshire Handmade Pies, near Ripon. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe
Yorkshire Handmade Pies, near Ripon. Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe

He launched Yorkshire Handmade Pies during Covid lockdown when his pizza manufacturing business, Sturdy Foods, saw a slow down.

“We’d just moved into a new bigger premises and so lockdown was a real cliff edge for us. We had the old building that we’d just moved out o which had actually housed a pie maker before I took it on and we still had the kit.” He came up with a brand name, basic pie range and website within two months of the first lockdown.

"It just amazing how much you can do in a short space of time when you really have to. It is probably a lesson in how not to launch a business. We had to test them in house due to the time constraints – but luckily it worked. We launched May 2020 it struck a chord from day one,” says Sturdy, who grew up in Leeds and before moving into food manufacturing was a drummer in successful band who had a record deal with Sony .

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Yorkshire Handmade Pies are some of the best in the worldYorkshire Handmade Pies are some of the best in the world
Yorkshire Handmade Pies are some of the best in the world

"We spent a couple of years making an album and touring it was great fun.” When Sony decided not to renew their contract Sturdy saw it as opportunity to move on an explore new opportunities in his other love, food.

Ninety per cent of Yorkshire Handmade Pies business still comes from the website supplying directly to domestic consumers. They started with five pies; Steak and Ale, Chicken and Tarragon, Cheese and Onion, Steak and Kidney and a vegan Mushroom and Ale. All Yorkshire Handmade Pies – which come in a box of six – are deliver frozen and uncooked for the customer to cook at home from frozen.

“What we are aiming to do is get the customer the best quality product and the best eating experience. As soon as a pie is baked it will start to go stale s we made the decision that we were going to sell them frozen uncooked. It means the first time the customer gets to eat the pie it is like it has been freshly made.

"It was also a time when people were more open to having their food delivered through the internet. It enabled smaller producers to find a market that may not have been there.”

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Within 18 month of opening Yorkshire Handmade Pies had received a coveted top three-star Great Taste Award 2022 for its Steak and Kidney Pie – making it one of the best pies in the world.

Its Steak and Black Pudding and Yorkshire Samosa Pie won two stars and its Mushroom and Ale and Steak and Ale pies both won one star in the same year.

So what’s the secret to a great pie?

"We are big believers that it is all about the pastry,” he says. “So many pies are let down because of the pastry so we put a huge amount of effort into everything to do with the pastry. The key thing is the balance between the filing and the pastry. We did a lot of playing around with different pastry thicknesses and recipes until we got to a pastry we felt balance the filling as well as possible.”

The next thing is the filling.

"We always say a filling has to punch you in the face – if it doesn’t then we go back to the drawing board. One of the key principals is that we only use fresh ingredients – even our herbs are all fresh and not dried. We are trying to replicate how you would make a pie at home if you were starting from scratch, to give people that real home cooked feeling.”

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He is a passionate about using as many local ingredients as possible, working with Yorkshire farmers directly, including native breed beef, herb-fed free-range chicken and local cheeses, vegetables and herbs as well as other collaborations. They now have a range of 13 pies including the traditional favourites and more experimental and seasonal ones. To mark British Pie Week they have created a Steak and Filey Bay Whisky Pie.

The pie is a combination of diced heritage breed beef (Hereford, Belted Galloway, or Aberdeen Angus), shitake mushrooms, and flambéed Filey Bay Yorkshire Single Malt Whisky, combined in a creamy peppercorn sauce, and encased in a short and buttery pastry. The beef is 100 per cent f ree range, sourced almost exclusively within Yorkshire and from farms within 30 miles.

“It comes from Heritage and Rare breeds including Hereford, Belted Galloway, Angus and many more,” says Sturdy who is clearly passionate about provena nce and sustainability. “The quality of the ingredients is key as well as coming up with products and flavour combination that people can’t buy anywhere else and we are trying to educate the customer the understand why they pay a little bit more to support the famers.” Although their research has shown that Steak and Ale Pie still remains a firm favourite with pie eater with State and Kidney coming second.

Digital marketing has helped grow demand, but Sturdy believes nothing is better than good old fashioned word of mouth. He also runs a blog on the website looking at the history of pie and even it’s nutritional value.

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“We aren’t saying pie is a health food but if you look at its history over the centuries it provided people with what is a nutritious way to eat a quality meal on the go. It s about everything in moderation.”

Whatever they are doing it seems to be working. From initially making two to three thousand pies a week they now make more than 15,000 and are looking to expand to bigger premises in the next couple of years as demand continues to grow from across the country.

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