Neil Fraser on creating vegan pies and surviving lockdown
I came across Neil Fraser of FNK Pies in the Hampshire Farmers Market recently and was struck by the originality of his vegan pie fillings. With the market now closed for COVID-19, I got in touch with Neil to find out more about the development of his pies and how his business was being affected by the lockdown. Their new online shop is now live here if you’re gagging to try some of the pies by the time you finish reading this.
SD: How did you come to switch from being a chef to starting your own pie business?
NF: It came about by chance actually. I was a chef and my partner was an architect. Then her son became ill and we had to stay at home to look after him. We were forced to think about what we could do at home. It was while visiting local farmers markets that I realised there were very few pie makers. The Hampshire Farmers Market only had one other pie maker. I saw the opportunity and went from there. Fortunately, my partner’s son got better again and she was able to go back to architecture, but I continued with the pies.
SD: What was the most valuable thing you learnt from your time as a chef?
NF: My favourite aspect of working in restaurants was working in sauce section. It’s where the flavours really come to life. I have been able to use much of what I learnt making sauces for creating pies that are juicy and full of flavour.
SD: Your pies are surprisingly heavy. Do you think there isn’t enough of an emphasis on how to make filling meals with vegetables?
NF: I would say so. There is so much you can do with vegetables. I’ve spent the last three and a half years experimenting with vegan pies. It’s much easier to be creative with vegan pies because typically the people who eat them tend to be more experimental than those that prefer meat fillings. It’s enabled me to incorporate lots of different styles of cooking from my time working abroad: African, Indian, Asian and South American. Combining their strong flavours with a nutritionally balanced range of vegetables including a base of protein-rich lentils and beans, produces pies that are both tasty and filling.
SD: You clearly draw a lot of inspiration from your time abroad. Do you think other cuisines are better adapted to vegan cooking?
NF: Yes, they tend to make greater use of herbs and spices such as cumin, galangal and lemon grass giving them a much broader range of flavours to play with that can help bring out the best of the vegetables. British cuisine is often still more reliant on creating jus from meat leaving the vegetables to complement the meat instead of being the main focus.
SD: Have you been working on developing any new pies recently?
NF: Actually rather than developing more pies, I’ve started to create four or five recipe fillings that can be sold as ready meals alongside other things that aren’t necessarily pies.
SD: I know that creating a vegan pastry has been challenging. Can you explain how you came to one you were happy with?
NF: It has taken a lot of experimentation. I didn’t want to just make a plain pastry, but what I found was that if I used a vegan margarine it was too wet, while using wholemeal flour made it too dry. Now I use a mix of plain flour, wholemeal flour and palm-oil free vegan margarine. Finding the margarine was not easy. I’d been searching for about 18 months to find it and the nearest place I seemed to be able to source it from was Canada! I was sure there must be somewhere closer to home that would make it. I try as far as possible to source my ingredients locally. It wasn’t until, by chance, I was doing a vegan festival up in Horsham last year and came across a man making palm-oil free vegan margarine. We started talking and I discovered he only lived down the road from me. He makes the margarine just how I want it. It was a perfect partnership. He was looking for a pie maker and I was looking for a margarine producer.
SD: What has been your experience of sourcing locally, even sometimes from allotments? Do you think there is a future in sourcing from allotments?
NF: I’ve always been keen to source locally. I’ve found that so long as you are willing to adapt to what is available, it’s relatively easy. Sourcing from allotments was a natural development of this because I live in Rowlands Castle and a lot of people have allotments there. They grow things on request for me and I also use a couple of farms from the farmers markets where I sell. This makes logistics very easy because I can pick up goods at the same time as selling my pies.
I do think there is an opportunity to source more from allotments, because a lot of people that have allotments find they are growing too much for themselves and end up giving a lot away. Now I let them know what I’m looking for so they can grow more of that. If they have more than I can use, I might also buy them to blanch and freeze. A lot of the herbs I grow myself in our garden. The recipes are seasonal and I basically plan to what’s available. There are some staples such as lentils and beans, but the rest are seasonal vegetables. My recipes tend to evolve over time. The Saag Aloo with Mushrooms and Dahl pie started off as just a Dahl and then became a Mushroom Tarka Dahl, but speaking to someone who had loads of potatoes led me to add Saag Aloo to the mix. Normally in India you see Tarka Dahl and Saag Aloo as separate side dishes, but mixing them together to create a single filling worked really well. It’s one of my favourites at the moment.
SD: How has the farmers market worked for you and how has your business been affected by COVID-19?
NF: The first couple of weeks were very negative, because it was really difficult to source flour. Then all the farmers markets stopped. Fortunately I had been talking to Yumbles shortly before the lockdown and was able to get set up with them. I’ve also started working with other online supermarkets like Crazy Bean and Vos, which is starting soon. The crisis made me look at different ways to get my pies to market and that was really helpful. I don’t think things will go back to normal. I think people will carry on shopping the way they are. People are much more comfortable with shopping online now. I will go back to farmers market when it reopens, though, because I have regular customers who come and many of them are emailing to ask when the market will reopen, but obviously we’ll have to see how it goes.