Neale’s food pedigree may go back to the 16th Century but my side of the family also had a keen interest in food. My Grandad, was a pastry chef. He signed up at the age of 16 years to fight in the Great War by lying about his age and was promptly sent out to Mesopotamia where he was consigned amongst other things to kitchen duties. My earliest memories of food were his Madeira cake, Steak and Kidney Pies and Almond Slices, as light as air. I have been very influenced by both my Grandfather who produced traditional classics,and my Mother who was constantly striving to provide us with a healthy but tasty and appealing diet, and hopefully this shows in the recipes for Sarah’s Kitchen.
Domestic science at school followed where I mastered such classics as peppermint creams and sherry trifle, which looking back was the most stupid thing a school could have asked us to prepare – we all drank the sherry prior to the class with predictable results! Then off to university to study Biology at Kings College, London which morphed into Food Science at Leeds University. Here I met Neale, although not until the start of the second year which considering we were on the same course and in the same class was quite an achievement. Neale was the worst attendee, but as I found out he is exceedingly bright and sailed through his degree with the minimum interference from the university.
My first job was as a production trainee for the Malton Bacon Factory in North Yorkshire where I was put to work in the lairage. I worked my way along the production line through the slaughter process to the primal butchery department. It was an eye opener and I credit this time as being a seminal period. It taught me so much in terms of food production, but also animal welfare which to this day I continue to campaign for. My current pre-occupation is to see the practice of animal slaughter without stunning banned, although it seems to be a losing battle with “PC” and economic factors coming into play.
The other valuable lesson I learnt from this period was how hard people work to produce our food. The sheer physical nature of working on a factory floor with no daylight, in trying conditions with the live animals being led into the restrainer, the smell, the sheer numbers of pigs impacted me hugely. I have enormous admiration for all the factory floor staff whose work often goes unsung but without whom we would grind to a halt. The camaraderie and spirit was inspirational.
On to Haverhill Meat Products which was co-owned by Sainsburys and where I worked as a development technologist on own brand products for Sainsburys. I had a lovely boss who was the Technical manager and really enjoyed my three years there. Another invaluable experience as it was here I learnt how big business operates. There were two thousand of us working in the biggest pork abattoir in the country at the time. What struck me most was the waste in so many areas and the power of marketing. The development of the actual product had to follow a marketing brief based more often than not on a trend, rather than a product being developed by a food specialist which could then be marketed.
This again has had a significant impact on my work here at Dukeshill where we develop new products or tweak existing products because we are continually seeking the best food experience possible, rather than following trends or making bogus claims.
Finally Dukeshill, which has been the best experience of all. After marrying Neale I moved to Shropshire where Neale and I bought the company from Neale’s fourth cousin twenty years ago. We are indebted to George Morley, the founder, whose delicious range of Wiltshire, York and Shropshire Black hams had a growing fan base. George’s ham pedigree was without equal. He had worked for Marsh & Baxter, one of the best ham producers in the UK but sadly they were swallowed up by successive corporate takeovers and so the specialist, time consuming dry cured hams were dropped in favour of yield and speed.
Hence George struck out on his own from his farmhouse kitchen. When we arrived George had been running Dukeshill for ten years and was ready to retire. Neale and I set about learning how to produce the very best hams under his tutorage, for which we are eternally grateful. After the first few years my development itch had returned and so we started adding to the range. What started as three lines quickly became ten, then a year later we launched our Christmas pudding which promptly won the Gold Award at the Great Taste Awards, and whose recipe has remained unchanged ever since.
I’ve had so much fun over the last twenty years, and the Dukeshill team have been a huge part of that. Nick Trott our Master Curer has contributed hugely to the development of new exciting products. His knowledge and passion for food shine through and it has been a privilege to be able to work alongside such an enthusiastic team. My brief these days has become much more far reaching than just development of foods but every week involves me cooking, tasting, checking, tweaking our enormous range of food products, now over 500 lines! It is this constant monitoring of our standards that occupies me most. My aim is to ensure that what we offer is as good as it can be and for me Dukeshill should always represent the very best of British produce regardless of marketing or budgetary constraints. I hope you enjoy our blog and my Sarah’s Kitchen recipes.