South Yorkshire’s food heroes: Wilkinson’s Butchers, Doncaster

The Wilkinson family of Doncaster have been synonymous with quality meat since 1954, when Bernard Wilkinson opened his first butcher’s shop in Doncaster town centre.  Since then, the business has been passed down through three generations of fathers and sons and expanded threefold, with the original shop in Doncaster being joined by one in Bawtry and a specialist sausage shop in Doncaster Market.

Daniel Wilkinson is the grandson of Bernard, and just like his father Trevor before him has been involved in the family business since leaving school.

“People always ask me if it was something I wanted to do or felt was expected of me, but I’ve never thought I would do anything different,” he says.  “Despite being the only son, I’ve never been pressured into joining the business, but emotionally it’s just always something that I accepted as what I would do.”

Having joined the business in 1997, Daniel has taken over the running of the Doncaster shop as well as Wilkinson’s specialist sausage shop in Doncaster market, working alongside dad Trevor to keep up the standards their customers have come to expect.

“My dad opened the sausage shop in 1988 and as it coincided with my birthday, my dad joked that it was my birthday present,” remembers Daniel.  But the young Daniel took the light-hearted comment to heart, and at the age of 19 was entering and winning national sausage making competitions.  Since then, he’s gone on to win every title of note in the sausage industry, and creating between 25 and 40 different types of sausage every week.

“We have regular sausages that are there every week,” says Daniel.  “But there are always new combinations to be made.  In barbecue season people are always looking for something different, so we’re always experimenting with ingredients.  The most popular are the traditional ones like plain pork or Lincolnshire.  The most unusual I think I’ve ever made is chocolate orange.  I think it’s safe to say we won’t be making that one again!”

Daniel’s approach to his produce is to always use the best of everything and not be limited to a budget.  “We’re a small outfit and there are three of us making the sausages, and although we can produce a fair amount we’re not mass producing,” he says.  “We only use pork from Marr Grange farm, which is only five miles from the shop, and as my granddad used to keep pigs we know exactly what we’re looking for.  We only use the best seasonings money can buy, and whenever we make a product we don’t have a budget – we make the best we can possibly make and then cost it.”

This attention to detail and careful sourcing of produce extends to the full range of meat that Wilkinson’s sells in all three shops.

“We’re a traditional butchers and we’re all skilled craftsmen who’ve spent years learning our trade,” says Daniel.  “When you come into our shop you’re entering into a conversation with an expert who can tell you exactly where your meat’s come from, what it’s been fed on and can discuss which cuts would be best for you.  It’s not just slapped on a plastic tray and covered in clingfilm.  We’re not a boxed meat butchers like a lot of others, who just get a box of meat delivered and put it on a tray in the shop.

“Some butchers buy meat from all over the world and just slice it up.  All our meat is sourced from Yorkshire and each animal has a full passport so we can trace it right back through its family and life, and when it’s delivered we get the whole carcass, not just offcuts.  We’ve been dealing with the same suppliers for 25 years so we know exactly what we’re getting.”

With celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver all encouraging consumers to respect the animal they eat and ensure that it’s lived a healthy life and every last piece of it is used, Daniel and Trevor have seen a big rise in people coming into the shop and asking for cheaper cuts of meat that they want to cook in a specific way.  Father and son are both passionate advocates of this way of cooking and eating meat, and have developed techniques so popular that Daniel has been invited to Canada to train others in his methods.

“Budget cuts are definitely making a comeback,” he says.  “Belly pork, shoulder of lamb – we do a lot of things with lamb, you can really go to town with that.  There’s a gentleman who runs a farm shop in Canada who is very interested in taking me over there to teach him how to be a lamb butcher.  Other butchers can’t break lambs up like we can.  Basically, it’s like a mechanic would strip an engine; we take a carcass and strip it right down, but you have to know how each muscle cooks and be able to prepare different things.  We’ve made steaks out of pieces of meat that most butchers would throw away, and they’re delicious and economical.”

Remaining at the top of the game doesn’t come easily, but Daniel, Trevor and the rest of the staff are more than happy to put the hours in, do the research and ensure that the service they offer is second to none.  “We attend official get-togethers with other butchers, or top restaurateurs in London and beyond who show us the sort of things they are trying, so when those new recipes filter down and people come into the shop we can give them knowledgeable advice.

“And, although I usually have a 5am start and work around 10 or 11 hours a day, I think the most important thing is to always look your best and have a smile on your face, no matter what.  That’s what makes us different – we want to talk to people, to get their feedback so we can use that to improve what we do.  Not just hand over a slab of meet and take their money.  Yes, you’ve got to keep the till ringing, but you don’t do it by cutting corners – you do it by being and selling the best.”