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The upper crust
In the wake of the horse meat scandal, Ruth Campbell talks to a pie maker who stopped selling to supermarkets because he refused to cut quality. Anthony Sterne reveals how his passion for home baking began when he was a young boy, helping out in the family kitchen
ANTHONY Sterne has been baking since he was a boy of ten in his family kitchen, turning out bread, croissants and flapjacks. Now he bakes with his stepsons, Luke, 11, and William, eight. And they love it just as much as him.
When TV’s Great British Bake Off featured an all-male final recently, you would have thought from the press coverage that we were witnessing a seismic moment in the history of gastronomy. But it’s no surprise to Anthony that men have been turning off the football in their thousands to tune in to the popular cookery show instead.
Men have always baked, he argues, particularly in professional bakeries and restaurant kitchens, where the head pastry chef is usually male. Now they’re just enjoying doing it at home as well.
Anthony, 36, has turned his love of baking into a commercial success story, establishing a company selling good quality pies, using local, natural ingredients, nine years ago. After just 18 months, he was supplying Harvey Nichols in Leeds and six months later won the coveted Waitrose Small Producer of the Year award.
Using Yorkshire Dales beef and lamb and eggs from a local village farm, he was soon supplying Morrisons and Booths stores too.
But last September, Anthony decided to stop selling to supermarkets: “There was always a pressure to try to reduce prices by any means possible. The supermarkets wanted the product on the shelf at a certain price, but I wasn’t prepared to compromise our brand to make it cheaper.”
Convinced there was a huge appetite for good quality convenience food, he decided to concentrate on sales to restaurants, gourmet pubs, delicatessens and farm shops. His hunch paid off.
His company, I’s Pies, now supplies more than 10,000 pies every week to customers all over the UK. This includes 1,500 pies a week to the Giraffe restaurant chain. “They told us recently that our pies are the best-selling thing on their menu,” says Anthony.
He admits pies have an image problem.
“There are too many stodgy pies full of all the rubbish found in processed food. But we know just how good our ingredients are. We are on first-name terms with all our suppliers, from Stanforth’s butchers in Skipton to Ian Taylor’s farm at Burton Leonard.
“It’s about doing something well and producing something we’d want to eat ourselves.
If you haven’t got time to cook for yourself, someone who cares as much as you do should.
And it shouldn’t be someone purely motivated by profit.”
In his small factory unit in Melmerby, near Ripon, the smell of cooked meat and baking pastry fills the air. There is a huge pot of bones, ready to roast off and make stock from scratch.
Then the meat is tenderly stewed and flavoured with spices fresh from a pestle and mortar. One of the few concessions to factory processing is the 1950s pie blocker for the bases.
Anthony started out making his pies here alone in 2003 but his company, which has a turnover of £1.2m, now employs 12 people.
There is someone in every day from 3am to start making pastry, the rest start work at 6am.
And it all began with Anthony’s passion for home baking, nurtured by his grandmother and mother, who produced homely fare for farmworkers on the maternal family farm at Birstwith, in Nidderdale. He still refers to his grandmother’s handwritten cook book, full of family recipes handed down through the generations.
“They were both very good cooks.”
The second of four brothers, Anthony was conscious of trying to carve out a niche for himself in the family. The I’s Pies name comes from his brothers’ nickname for him: “I was called Indy, short for independAnt, as I was the odd one out,” he says.
Although he helped out with his father’s butchery business, Anthony, who grew up in Alne, near Easingwold, wanted to do more cooking. He got holiday jobs in local hotel and restaurant kitchens and, after Ripon Grammar School, went on to do a degree in food marketing at Newcastle University.
It was his year’s work experience in an Australian meat company, as part of this degree course, which particularly inspired him.
He helped develop recipes for soups, sauces and meat dishes. “That was a real eye-opener.
They made things from fresh ingredients to a really high standard. I learnt a lot about the process of developing recipes and recording things.”
The pies being sold from small bakeries amazed him. “In the UK, we had boring, stodgy pies made with poor ingredients. But Australia was something else. They had so much fun with wholesome ingredients and exciting fillings, making things like Moroccan tagine or kangaroo in prune. It really got to me.”
That is when the seed for I’s Pies was sown.
“Sydney was going through pie mania. They have such a hot climate, but pies were still very popular. I thought, if people love pies in this heat, why not back home?”
When he returned to the UK, he worked as a development chef with Pret a Manger, in London, where he created the company’s best-selling goat’s cheese and roasted pepper wrap. “It showed me there was a demand for quality, interesting food and that it was possible to make it on a large scale.”
Following an illness, he returned home to North Yorkshire to recuperate and started to experiment with the pie recipes he had been dreaming up since his time in Australia. “That was a bit of a catalyst. I baked pies all day long,” he says.
He took out a loan and started developing his core range, trying out new recipes – from Moroccan lamb, made with fresh coriander, spices and chick peas, to chicken with fresh lemon and herbs, spinach and Yorkshire feta and beetroot, horseradish and Wensleydale cheddar – on staff at his father’s butchery business. “They seemed to like them, they all went down well,” he says.
A Yorkshire Forward food starter business initiative enabled him to move into his ready-made factory production unit at subsidised rates in 2003.
“I really enjoyed the product development. That was fun.
“But in the initial stages it was all keeping our heads above water. There were many difficult times, when the overdraft had to be extended. It took a great leap of faith, but I never thought of giving up.”
Winning the Waitrose Small Producer Award was, he says, a real high point and he took on more staff to cope with increasing demand. When he first started supplying supermarkets, he had a staff of two. “We couldn’t keep up with the orders, couldn’t cool the pies down quickly enough to deliver them,” he says. “We learnt a lot in those early days.”
He has since taken on a business partner and, three years ago, bought the renowned butcher’s and pork pie shop, Appleton’s, in Ripon. “We haven’t changed it at all. It is such an institution,” he says.
But he is still as innovative as ever with I’s Pies, getting much of his inspiration from his travels abroad, in countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
He returned from a recent holiday in Spain with a recipe for a roasted mixed vegetable pie with black olive tapenade. “There were such delicious little nuggets in the tapas bars,” he says.
Others he is working on include spiced lamb with butternut squash and tomatoes and a wild mushroom with truffle oil. The company has also started producing English butter puff pastry for the restaurant market. He is developing ideas for pizzas.
Anthony’s favourite place to eat out in Yorkshire is the Bruce Arms, at West Tanfield, near Ripon.
“The chef there loves his food, he is so passionate about it,” he says.
But, he admits, he generally doesn’t get as much enjoyment out of eating out as he once did: “I always find myself evaluating everything.”
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