An unassuming industrial unit behind Doncaster College is where some of England's most successful pork pies are made. As a setting, it isn't especially glamorous, but who wants glamour from a pork pie?
One man who does is Roger Topping of Toppings Pies, the pie manufacturers based in the unassuming unit. Roger took over his father's butcher's firm in the late 1980s but was forced to diversify after the BSE crisis caused sales to drop by a third.
"We were on the front line," he tells me. "We were the ones that had to answer all these stupid questions because of all the rubbish that was being spoken in the media."
Topping turned to pork pies. It was his wife Maggie who came up with the first recipes, a job which has now fallen to son Matthew.
"We were always messing about in the early days," Roger remembers.
Toppings is now a pork pie superpower, with a range of hand-made pies in all sizes and with a mind-boggling combination of fillings and toppings. Their pies can be seen in counters from Selfridges to the Fenwick department stores.
Pork pies are big business in Yorkshire, especially in December. Walk past the Toppings counter in Doncaster's Frenchgate Shopping Centre and you can see just how big: quiches, hot pies, and a plethora of pork pies are all piled high. Although Roger might want otherwise ("Pork pies are like puppies, they're not just for Christmas!"), the festive season is his busiest time. In the week before Christmas, that stand will take around £15,000 just on pies.
"It'll be 20 people deep. Everyone and their dog in Christmas week wants a pie. It's just crazy," he says.
Though many customers want a family-sized "cutting" pork pie (think: as big as your head), smaller pies in festive flavours are on the rise, and this is where Toppings excel. All their pies are hand-crafted but the layered, intricate Christmas ones are more time-consuming.
"They are the fiddliest pies we make. These take forever, absolutely forever," Roger says.
The first Christmas pork pie the company made was a pâté and cranberry variety. The number now is almost uncountable. As well as "dinky" pies topped with various fruits, vegetables, and cheese Toppings sell ones with fancy fillings: pies of apricot and poultry, game meat, poultry, and the headline speciality "Christmas" pork pie, which features cured pork meat, chicken breast, diced apricots, and cranberries.
Cutting into the speciality Christmas pie and seeing the thick, multi-coloured layers is fun enough, but take the first bite and you get a taste of Christmas. The pies stuffed with fruit (apples, apricots, cranberries) have a moistness uncommon to regular pork pies.
"We're always looking for new ideas or improvements," says Roger. "Because you've got to. You've got to say one step ahead of everybody else. We've always said that we would never knowingly copy anybody—and we haven't."
It's an outlook shared by Matthew, who works as the company's sales director.
"Don't ever go, 'That's not going to work.' Ever. Let's always try something different, let's always be a bit more unusual," Matthew says.
One notable absence from the Christmas pie is turkey. Have Toppings thought about giving it a go?
"We have tried turkey but chicken is a bit moister and it looks a bit nicer. Not everyone likes turkey," Matthew explains. "We've used turkey [in two pies] on purpose, but because it's mixed with other flavours it works."
Their rich and dark game and poultry pork pie recently won the "ready to eat" category at the 2016 Yorkshire Taste Awards. With that their awards number into the forties. It sells like "crazy" at Christmas.
"It took mum and me nearly a year to get that right," Matthew says. "A lot of people are saying, 'When can I buy it, when can I have one?' You've got to wait till December. Make them wait."
Although you might not eat these pies with a traditional dollop of brown sauce or mustard, there's plenty you can have with them.
"You might put a cheese with it, or an ale. Cheese and booze are the biggest things we tend to put with a lot of our pies," Matthew says. "We'll say to our customers, 'Why don't you have half of that, half of that, and half of that? and make yourself a pie board, with a nice bit of chutney.' Beer as well, beer and pies, especially on Christmas Eve."
Toppings will no doubt make more pies with more fillings, win more awards and, as Matthew puts it, continue to educate the southerners on what a good pork pie is.
All photos by Sarah Campbell.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2016.