BBQ

 

True Stories: Voakes FreeFrom
Winners of the the Best FreeFrom Food 2015 in the FreeFrom Food Awards

When Coeliac Disease threatened to end Laura McGowan’s love of pork pies, her boyfriend and his family had other ideas. Laura spoke to Hannah Lawrence about weddings, awards and pies that could break windows.

Joining a world of unlimited pork pies would be a dream come true for many people.

Nearly ten years ago, Laura McGowan started dating Nick Voakes. Nick’s family have been farming for generations, and his dad, Andrew, was also a butcher and owner of Voakes Pies. 'Nick’s dad started making pork pies the year I was born, 1987.', explains Laura. 'Growing up, Nick would sometimes work there on weekends, and then go to school smelling of sausages!'

Sadly, it soon turned out that Laura couldn’t eat the family’s prized pies anymore. A long struggle with illness had shadowed much of her life. 'For many years, I wasn’t very well. I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome through most of my teenage years, and then by my early 20s, I was really ill. Every time I ate, I had really bad stomach cramps. There always seemed to be something wrong with me! Nick was there supporting me the whole time I wasn’t well. I kept going back and going back to the doctors and eventually they diagnosed me with Coeliac Disease [in 2010]. When I started eating a gluten-free diet, I instantly felt so much better.'

While it was a huge relief to finally be diagnosed, Laura found the prospect of not being able to eat some of her favourite foods quite alarming: ‘It took me a while to get over the initial shock: ‘I’ll never be able to eat a pork pie again, but that’s what Nick’s family does!’

However, what seemed like a huge problem eventually turned into a golden opportunity:
' On the back of my diagnosis, the family started thinking about bringing out a gluten-free product. Nick’s dad said, ‘Why don’t you try and make yourself a pork pie then?’, so we tried and we tried. Every weekend, we were trying different recipes. The first one, you could literally break a window with it; it must have taken about 50 attempts to get it right! But eventually we took one to Nick’s dad and he said ‘Let’s do it!’'.

So, Nick and Laura set up Voakes FreeFrom in November 2012. It was a real labour of love; they worked their old jobs by day – Laura as a sales assistant, Nick as a construction manager – and made pies all night. Within a year, things had got so busy that they’d both quit their day jobs to concentrate on Voakes FreeFrom full-time. They’re based on the family farm in Whixley, North Yorkshire, alongside the original Voakes plant and have their own, entirely separate factory with their own machinery and processes to guarantee that all their pies are totally freefrom. Their pies have been rapturously received, with their original pork pie taking the grand prize at the 2015 FreeFrom Food Awards.

BBQHaving started with just six core products, Laura and Nick now offer 25 different goodies, including (of course) the original pork pies, plus quiche lorraine, steak and ale pie, cheese and onion pasties, and Laura’s personal favourite, the pork & chilli chutney pie. Everything is gluten-free, and the majority of the range is dairy-free and soya-free too. There’s also a good choice of egg-free, vegetarian and vegan products, and in the future, Laura aims to introduce Voakes FreeFrom goodies that are free from the top 14 allergens.

Voakes FreeFrom are one of many small producers, bringing more and more variety to the gluten-free and freefrom market: “[When I was diagnosed] six years ago, the choice of products was so much smaller, the gluten-free industry’s really grown since then. You never used to have a choice, there was only one type of each product. I dread to think what it must have been like 20, 30 years ago! Now it’s like the days before I was diagnosed, where I had loads of products to choose from.'

Life’s changed a lot for the pair in the six years following Laura’s diagnosis; they both now work running Voakes FreeFrom, producing around 2,250 pork pies a week (and nearly double that at Christmas). Nick’s up baking every morning from 4.30am, while Laura handles the paperwork, invoicing, packing and shipping. 'We’ve just moved to the family farm, where we have our factory and it’s made our lives so much easier. We used to finish work at 11pm, then it was a half hour drive each way, and then we’d still have to be in first thing!'

So, what’s next for Laura and Nick? 'We’re getting married on October 1st this year, it’ll be ten years to the day that we’ve been together. We’re getting married on the farm where the factory is; obviously we’ll be having a pork pie for our wedding cake!'

You can find Voakes FreeFrom pies at their online shop; their website also has details of shops and food fairs where you can find their range.

 

For the winner of this year's FreeFrom Food Awards, see here.
If you’ve got a story to tell about your freefrom products, please contact hannah@foodsmatter.com

May 2016

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