The food scene in Wigan is more than just pies
- Credit: Archant
Think of Wigan in culinary terms and what springs to mind? Probably the pies that mythically dominate the local diet. The truth, Martin Pilkington discovers, is very different.
A walk around Wigan’s rather fine Victorian centre repays your sense of smell as well as sight. Yes there’s no shortage of pie shops, and heaven forbid there never will be. But stroll down some of its delightful narrow side-streets and snickelways and the nose twitches at scents subtler than meat and potato.
Take the cobbled Wiend up from the shopping centre to look at the statue of rugby legend Billy Boston, or the amazing sculpture, The Face of Wigan, just beyond its end, and you pass Gallimore’s restaurant.
If the door’s open you could well be tempted inside by the decidedly savoury aromas. ‘We mainly do what I’d call English-Continental,’ says owner Howard Gallimore, ‘Lots of bistro classics like braised lamb shanks, hummus with roasted red peppers, baked bass with fennel, and Caesar salad.’ With barely a place setting empty on a blustery Wednesday lunchtime it’s clear that Wigan enjoys finer fare than just pies.
Gallimore’s lists some vegetarian alternatives, but two-minutes away on Hallgate, another of those characterful little byways, stands The Coven, a cafe-restaurant wholly devoted to vegan and vegetarian food. It’s equally thriving - demand is such that they’ve started opening for Sunday lunch, and chef-proprietor Sue Healy is considering launching an additional vegetarian takeaway business.
‘There are plenty of vegetarians and vegans in Wigan, but we also get people pulling off the motorway or breaking their train journeys just to eat here,’ says Sue. ‘Classics like mushroom burgers are very popular, and, as vegans don’t see deep-fried foods much, they love the vegetable fritters done in ginger beer and five-spice batter with noodles, tamarind and sweet chilli sauce.’
Off Hallgate is the even snugger Jaxon’s Court, where rather than food the aroma at the stylishly simple Tap ’n’ Barrel pub is of locally brewed beer. Paul Wood decided running a brewery was more interesting, and drier, than running a building company, so in 2014 his hobby became his business.
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Now Martland Mill Brewery makes 1300 pints a day, five days a week, and his wife Delia has swapped teaching RE for running the brewery tap they opened in summer 2015. ‘It’s gone so well that we’ve recently taken on a second apprentice,’ says Paul, ‘We sell cask ales in Cheshire, Liverpool, Manchester, and all across Lancashire, as well as here at our own pub, and we’ve just started bottling beers too.’ Paul’s hoppy Clog Maker, Spinner’s Gold and Lancashire Loom are on their way to becoming Lancashire classics.
Guided by the fabulous smell from an air-vent at The Toffee Works almost round the corner you’ll find Uncle Joe’s Mintballs, Lancashire classics since the William Santus & Co business began in 1898. ‘William Santus was my great-great-uncle,’ explains joint managing director John Winnard MBE, who with brother Antony turned the business around in the 1990s,
‘My grandpa inherited it but had to be persuaded to keep it going for our father’s sake. He was a baker and not interested in sweets.’ Happily the firm’s family future seems assured with John’s son Gareth, the fifth generation, just appointed to the board.
Though they’ve modernised production, including significant investment in super-fast wrapping machinery, the product itself hasn’t changed since the start.
‘We still use the original recipe,’ says Antony. ‘Oil of peppermint, cream of tartar, and soft brown cane sugar - cane sugar gives a more rounded, treacly flavour. We use it with molasses still in it to give a better taste. We hand cook still and caramelise on the side of the pan to bring out extra flavour and change the properties of the taste, with a lot done by sight, feel and smell.’ Making Uncle Joe’s Mintballs provides employment for upwards of 20 Wiganers.
Off the M6 stands the mighty Kitt Green plant opened by H.J. Heinz in 1959, with a workforce today of 1350. ‘Kitt Green is the largest baked bean factory in the world, making around 1.5 million cans of Heinz Beanz a day to keep up with demand for what has become one of the nation’s favourite foods,’ says Nigel Dickie, a director of owners The Kraft Heinz Company.
Since taking the road from Wigan pier, where it was originally housed at Eckersley Mill, Simano Foods has boomed, continually expanding its Ince site. Maybe one day soon it will rival the bean maker.
It’s another family firm story. ‘My parents started this company in 1992, selling curry pastes,’ says marketing manager Neeta Khade, whose sister Nina is managing director. ‘They used to own takeaway businesses in the 1980s, making curry sauces in their own kitchen. Now we have a variety of natural food brands selling all over the globe – 60 per cent of our production is exported.’
Those brands range from New York Chilli, the original Pasco’s spices, pickles and pastes to Mrs Muamba’s Caribbean Sauces working with the ex-footballer Fabrice Muamba’s wife. Their success is down to inspiration and perspiration. ‘You have no idea how busy our development kitchen is! We work from seven in the morning to nine at night!’ says Neeta.
But a survey of Wigan’s food scene must surely end with pies. The oldest surviving pie maker in the country, Poole’s of Kilshaw Street in Pemberton, has been serving the Lancastrian staple since 1847, though whisper it softly, the company was bought by Yorkshire’s Country Style Foods in 2013.
‘All of the pies that we make in our business are made in Wigan, and sent to the four corners of the UK,’ says the group’s managing director, Joe Wood. Wiganers love their pies, but with a line capable of making 100,000 pies, pastries and sausage rolls an hour they need to supply those more distant markets. Joe says the products’ origin gives them culinary credibility. ‘It’s good to have a pie factory in Wigan. It’s the world capital of pies, so as a pie maker if you want to be anywhere in the world you want to be in Wigan.’