Proudly produced right here in Essex, Collett’s Farm Pies and Totham Bangers are winning the hearts (and stomachs) of customers across the county. Anna Lambert talks to two women who changed careers and rolled up their sleeves to help keep us well fed.

Great British Life: Sophie in actionSophie in action (Image: Collett's Farm)

Sophie's pies

Sophie Gurton has always needed cows in her life – and, fortunately, she’s always had them. She grew up in a small farm near White Colne, where her mum bred Longhorn cows (eventually becoming president of the Longhorn Cattle Society) and aged 19, Sophie even sold her horse to buy a Longhorn of her own. ‘I guess it’s in my blood – I just liked the look of them,’ she says. ‘I wanted to take care of her, and to enter her for local shows’. These days, though, for Sophie and her husband Tim, who met at their local young farmer’s group and are now parents to 11-year-old Henry and Isla, who’s nine, it’s less about showing their pedigree cows, and more about eating them: ‘Longhorn meat has real depth of flavour, helped by the marbles of fat that run through it and the fact that we dry-age it for 28 days,’ explains Sophie. The couple are based at Collett's Farm, Wormingford, near Colchester, a 120-acre farm that they took over as tenants in 2010. Their farm shop opened nearly six years ago and from here they sell their meat – not just beef, but grass-fed lamb and outdoor-reared pork, too - plus the delicious pies that Sophie makes by hand in her kitchen. ‘We hadn’t initially intended to produce finished dishes ourselves, but it’s extremely hard to make money just as a small-scale farmer,’ says Sophie. ‘Tim was working flat out, and I was still working in my day-job as an area sales manager for an electric fencing company. We’d started off with three longhorns, and by that point had 28 of them, plus ewes and pigs, too, so we were producing plenty of meat - but we knew if we were to turn things round financially, we’d need to come up with something else. Plus I wanted to do something farm-related that would enable me to work around the children.’

Great British Life: Collett's Farm offers meat boxes Collett's Farm offers meat boxes (Image: Collett's Farm)

In 2014, Sophie rolled up her sleeves and turned to her nan’s steak & ale pie recipe (‘legendary in our family’) and started baking. Her rough-puff pastry pies are filled with a very simple mix of Collett's own Longhorn steak butchered at Clarke’s, over the border in Bramfield, and gently simmered for three hours in rich, Hobgoblin ale. ‘Basically, beyond salt and pepper, that’s it – no frills - the flavour of the meat’s so good you don’t want anything to mask it.’ The early days were labour-intensive, with Sophie cooking all the pies and sales taking place at farmer’s markets throughout the county. ‘After extensive tasting session with family members, I was ready to hit my first market, just down the road at Nayland. I’d made 30 pies – all by hand - and sold about seven, but the feedback from customers was really good, so I felt I was on to something.’

Today, Sophie only sells pies at one farmer’s market – Bures, where, she says, ‘the atmosphere is lovely, with so many regular customers’ - and sells meat at other markets around Essex. Meanwhile, the shop is open seven days a week and from there she sells around 150 pies weekly. ‘These days, I don’t cook them, the customer does, so of course that means they can be frozen. Someone comes in to help me make the pies, too, which makes things a whole lot easier.’ And there are other varieties on offer – chicken and ham and sausage and tomato, made from Collett's Farm’s own pork. ‘It’s all about provenance and traceability – our customers know exactly what they’re getting and exactly where it’s come from.’

Great British Life: A classic steak and ale pie, made to Sophie's nan's recipe A classic steak and ale pie, made to Sophie's nan's recipe (Image: Collett's Farm)

Another key part of the business is the raw milk that the couple began selling back in 2018, ‘When Tim, who’d always wanted to farm-dairy, suggested we get into it milk, I said, on one condition: it’s got to be Jersey’s. My grandfather farmed them, and his milk was so good, it used to be sent up to patients at Great Ormond Street hospital. Many of our customers feel our raw milk is similarly beneficial to their health – great for people with allergies, or who have skin conditions such as eczema.’

With milk, eggs, meat and pies all on offer from the shop, Sophie says it’s really been a game-changer in terms of seeing Collett’s Farm enjoy a steady stream of income. ‘And if it hadn’t been for Nan’s pie recipe, it might never have happened.’


Great British Life: Lou at a local farmer's market Lou at a local farmer's market (Image: Totham Bangers)

Lou’s sausages

Lou Griffiths has a wealth of experience to share when it comes to running a successful small-scale food business. ‘Whatever you’re producing, it’s worth remembering that, just because you like making it, it doesn’t mean you have to inflict it on everyone else!’ She and her husband John certainly haven’t had to inflict their premium sausages on anyone – customers have been more than willing recipients since 2002. Lou began making her Totham Bangers from her home in Great Totham in a bid to do something ‘totally different’, giving up her established career as a graphic designer to do so. ‘As a student, I’d waitressed and helped to prep in kitchens and watched professionals, so I was always interested in food,’ she says. ‘It reached a point, years later, when I knew I wanted a change; I saw a gap and wanted to fill it.’

Lou certainly isn’t impressed with the majority of commercial sausages on the market: ‘many are pappy - full of bread and water. I wanted to come up with something better – for a start, ours contain far more meat and far less rusk – around 10% as opposed to the 40% you can see in other sausages.’ Months of reading up on sausage-making (‘chef Hugh Fearnley Wittingstall had a basic recipe that was really good’), testing among family and friends and ultimately investing in a small mincer and sausage-making machine led to her very sensible initial approach to sales. ‘I would make up a batch of sausages and take them along to the toddler groups I went to with my then-small sons [today aged 21 and 25],’ says Lou. ‘People would try them and then order, so I was only making the amount I was sure of selling.’

Farmers markets followed, with a pitch at a Cressing Temple Barns fair proving a turning point: ‘it was really well organised, a big event – great for getting to meet both customers and other suppliers.’

Great British Life: Totham Bangers in all their glory - just crying out to jump into the nearest frying pan Totham Bangers in all their glory - just crying out to jump into the nearest frying pan (Image: Totham Bangers)

Totham Bangers today makes around 25 to 30 different types of sausage: everything from standard pork to venison, Port & rosemary (using Essex venison that Lou butchers herself) and South-African-style boerewors, plus sausages at Christmas flavoured with date and cranberry, and Lou’s own favourites Cumberland & black pudding and pork, leek & apple. Although originally Lou used her own-reared pork from the Gloucester Old Spot and Berkshire pigs she reared, it wasn’t sustainable. These days, the meat – always grass-fed and traceable - comes via butchers such as Humphreys at Rank’s Green. Casings come from Associated Casings in Haverhill’s: ‘Theirs are traditional hog or lamb casings - not the collagen ones, which I think are horrible.’

In 2007, Lou’s husband John took voluntary redundancy from his career at BAE Systems in Chelmsford to join her in the business and the two of them used his redundancy money to purchase a metal shipping container, meaning the sausage-making operation could move out of their kitchen and into their garden. ‘We’ve always been realistic – the council were involved, of course, from the beginning and I took the approach of, ‘this is what I want to achieve – please can you help me achieve it?” This, I think, is far more effective than ploughing on and then waiting for the council to catch up with you and tell you how things have to be done legally.’ She says it’s also essential to price realistically from the get-go, ‘and I’m always amazed when people with small businesses think they can’t afford an accountant – you can’t afford not to have an accountant. Stick to what you’re good at and let professionals handle the other areas.’

When the business began, Totham Bangers got through around 20k of pork in a week; these days it’s between 75 and 200kg. ‘I’m pretty good these days at guesstimating how much we’ll sell,’ says Lou. ‘And what we don’t sell goes into the freezer.’ This is then used at a later date to make Scotch eggs, or at the catered events the couple offer: ‘We’ll do faitas, paella and barbecues at parties or school fairs – that kind of thing.’

These days the couple are looking to change their pace of life a little – hardly surprising given how hard they’ve been working over the years. Stopping work anytime soon, though, certainly isn’t on the cards. ‘Neither John nor I want to work as hard as we did when we started, but I know I’ll always be making sausages and on the look out for new flavour ideas – that’s what excites me. I think it’s an entrepreneurial thing: I get bored very easily and that’s something I always want to avoid!’