York-born Ged Dillon was holidaying in Cuba when he was invited to visit the family with his friends. Little did he know then that he would go on to run The Hog & Apple Food Company which specialises in hog roasts.
“We were uncertain as to whether we should go because we just thought they were trying to get money out of us. We were also advised not to go by others, but when we got there we found that the man was a farmer and his family were wonderful people.
“He’d killed a pig for us and had marinated it with gorgeous spices. I’ve always had a passion for cooking and was so interested that I spent the full day just with him. We spent hours turning this pig so that it was cooked to perfection and he told me what he had done to it. We all left full and yet he didn’t ask for a penny from us.
“Something clicked and I thought I would have to have a try at this. I continued working as I had done from leaving school on small agricultural works such as fencing, landscaping and civil engineering groundworks, but I went out and bought a pig and put on a hog roast for a family party in Fulford.”
The party was a success and led to Ged being asked to put on a hog roast for a family friend at a wedding in Oxford.
“I told Nick (the intended groom) that at that time I’d put together the first hog roast on a whim and that I had no equipment but his brother James (Garvey) agreed to do it with me and we hired an oven. I bought another pig from the same source, put a load of extra bits on, hired a van and we were on our way, and as it turned out in more ways than one. The success also inspired James that we might set this up as a real business.
“I knew then that this was something I needed to be on. We spent the next year researching the entire industry from pig production to presenting hog roasts. We checked out what pigs people were using; why they were using them; and where was the best source.
“We ended up having a lot of meetings with farmers and became struck on rare breeds. The whole ethos of them is that they are a dying tradition because people don’t want fat anymore. We’ve all been brought up on lean pork that is commercially reared and may be okay if you don’t want to pay a lot of money out for your meat but has no crackling on it.
“Rare breed pigs have a much better fat content providing greater flavour and that’s what James and I realised was for us. You could argue that from a business standpoint I’m an idiot because you don’t get the same mark-up that you would with what I would term lesser quality pork but for me it’s all about the passion I have for providing something that people taste and go wow!”
Ged had visions of having his own smallholding and rearing the pigs that he would use for hog roasts.
“I wanted to do it all but as you look about and realise you haven’t the money you soon find out that’s a dream that’s not attainable, at least for now.
“I settled on the next best thing for my research. My sister has a decent-sized garden and she let me pen part of it off. We set it all up properly and bought three pigs from Natalie Rose of Rosewood Farm in the Lower Derwent Valley to see what growing pigs the right way for what we needed was all about. They have a lovely little farm. We purchased Maureen, Doreen and Gertie who were a Saddleback, Oxford Sandy & Black and Gloucester Old Spot.
“By keeping them we then had a better idea of what we wanted. We’d found Charles Ashbridge who runs Taste Tradition and farms near Thirsk earlier in our research when a well-known chef in York recommended we should visit. Charles was growing his business in rare breed pigs and had just won contracts with some major outlets and must have thought I was barmy.
“I told him that we were going to do a lot of work with him and that we’d had a go ourselves at rearing so that we now knew what we were looking for. I asked him for a pig that would have around an inch of fat and that would suit our needs. We now use a Welsh X on nearly all of our hog roasts, crossed with either an English White or an Old Spot. The fat is perfect, the taste unbelievable and Charles just has it spot on.”
Sourcing the right pigs was one element ticked off their list, the next was cooking so that they were standing out from the crowd.
“What we learned straight away was that you can cook a pig in six hours but that it was generally rubbish if you didn’t give it more than that. The process we came to harks back to being in Cuba.
“We cook long and slow anywhere between 15 and 20 hours and that’s when you get amazing crackling, a carvable hind end with the rest all pulled.
“We also inject the pig with marinade on one side a day or two in advance of when the pig is delivered to the site and before cooking.”
And in a final Carribean flourish: “We use Cuban and Mexican marinades such as mojo sherry and spices.”
The Hog & Apple Food Company, now based at Grimston Bar has developed further with Ged taking on full catering for weddings and special events and he and James have a team of 30 chefs and other staff they can call on.
“Among the people we work with are Papakata who supply their own unique Papakata teepees for special events. We’ve recently signed a contract with the National Trust for supplying catering and hog roasts at East Riddlesden Hall, near Keighley; and Newburgh, Priory, Coxwold. We also work with Harewood House, Ripley Castle, Aldwark Manor and I’ve just had a meeting with Rise Hall in the East Riding.”
They are also now buying beef, notably Dexter and Longhorn, and lamb, Kerry Hill.