Newmarket: Getting under the skin of Musk’s sausages

Chris Sheen, owner and managing director of Musk Sausages,

Chris Sheen, owner and managing director of Musk Sausages, - Credit: Archant

Musk, which this year celebrates its 130th anniversary, makes a Newmarket sausage of distinction, designed to play a starring role at the Sunday dinner table or at the barbecue. SARAH CHAMBERS spoke to the business’s managing director and owner, Chris Sheen, about his unashamedly upmarket product which has an EU accreditation putting it on a par with Champagne and Melton Mowbray pies.

Throw away your preconceptions about the humble sausage as a scrag-end product, the archetypal British fast food fat-fest.

From a factory in East Anglia’s horse racing heartland at Newmarket, Chris Sheen makes top pedigree sausages fit for a queen.

In fact, Her Majesty’s household tops an illustrious customer list which also included the late Queen Mother.

In 2012, the Newmarket sausage was granted a European Union accreditation called a Product Geographical Indicator (PGI), but Chris believes it’s a racing certainty that Musk Sausages’ royal fan-base is of more importance to his business than this (its first royal warrant was in 1907).

However, he was instrumental in achieving the sought-after EU status for an elite stable of Newmarket sausages, which includes his own product, through a painstaking and lengthy process which he started in 2002.

“It’s something to talk about. The Newmarket sausage I think is a premium product and a lovely product and why should we not be on a par with top cheese and champagne?” he says.

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“In the old days the stables used to have pigs to snuffle around the stables to clear up after the horses. There were lots of butchers around. It’s a racing man’s sausage. We supply the Jockey Club and Tattersalls.”

It’s the type of sausage that race-goers love to pick up on their way home from the races, he adds.

Today, Chris’s team produces 25 tonnes of fresh sausages a month, which go out mainly to East Anglia but also through internet orders to destinations from Scotland to Cornwall, and it also supplies Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

This September, as Musk marks its 130th anniversary, there will be an exhibition of photographs at the town library in celebration of the sausage.

Five years ago, Chris, who is 65, added some more sausage heritage to the business with the purchase of the Braughing sausage in Hertfordshire. As a result, its production, previously in the back of a butcher’s shop in the picturesque village of Braughing, moved to Newmarket.

“Richard White, son of Dougie White who set it all up and ran it, wanted to retire so we bought it because it was a well known Hertfordshire brand,” explains Chris. “The family house is a grade II listed building. There was (at one point) an abattoir at the back. Braughing is a delightful village with a ford and a brook. We have got a shop there which sells Braughing sausages. They are sold around Hertfordshire. The recipe hasn’t changed at all.”

The same goes for Musk sausages, which are made using a blend of spices which remains a closely-guarded secret. What Chris can say is that it’s made from 100% pork shoulder, and no beef or lamb crosses the threshold.

It’s a 75% meat product, and the pork comes from Tulip in Linton. It also uses bread from local bakers (seven white to one brown loaf) rather than rusk, which is the more commonly used ingredient. The complete recipe, though, is securely stowed in a locked safe.

“We only use pork shoulder meat because that is the best muscle configuration for making sausages and we can control the amount of fat that goes into it. These are a comparatively low fat, unashamedly high class sausages. With cheaper sausages, fat is going to run out of them. The meat in our sausages is good enough for Sunday lunch.”

The history of the sausage is as racy as the town in which it was created. A certain James Musk worked for a butcher by the name of Drake and the Drake family had two shops, one in Stetchworth and the other in Newmarket.

Mrs Drake, who had two sons, was widowed, and in 1884, James, who was eight years her junior, whisked her off to the capital to tie the knot.

“It was probably not well regarded around Newmarket, because they ran off to London to get married. That’s where we date the sausages from,” explains Chris.

“He left £25,000. He did well for himself. He married the boss’s widow and got his name on an extended product.”

Over the decades following his death his stepsons, the Drake brothers, continued to run the business until the last 1970s.

Chris, who is originally from London, bought the company in 1999. He can recall calling in at the butchers’ on the way up to his wife Caroline’s family in north Norfolk.

The brothers wanted to retire and closed the shop and auctioned off the sausage recipe. One of its many fans, Amanda Clarke, bought it at a sealed bid auction at the end of the 1970s and hired a manager to run the business.

Both the business and the shop carried on through the 1980s before being purchased by Lord Ronaldshay, who lived locally and loved the sausages. He built the factory where the sausages are now produced, and sold off the shop to George Vestey of Dewhurst fame.

Towards the end of the 1990s Lord Ronaldshay was called back to run the family estate in Yorkshire, and decided to sell the business.

Chris, then a chartered accountant by profession, was in a pub one evening in Hertfordshire when he learnt of the sale. He had spent many years working for food companies on the finance side and was immediately interested.

In his early career, Chris, who has lived in Colchester for 37 years, joined food investment firm Fitch Lovell, which owned Farmers’ Table Chicken based in Witham, wheer he became finance director.

After it was sold, he became finance director at Starfish Seafoods, a Martlesham-based food firm, working alongside David Sheepshanks on sales and his brother, Rick Sheepshanks, on production.

After it was sold to Christian Salvesen, which owned Dawn Fresh Seafoods, Chris joined Willis Faber in Ipswich, where he headed group finance. “I worked for three or four years but it wasn’t me,” he says.

He decided to go self-employed and helped a geese company to sell its products around the country as well as becoming finance director of the British Bobsleigh Association.

He purchased the sausage company, and since then has been building on its reputation. He applied for a royal warrant from the Queen which the firm received in 2005.

At the Suffolk Show one year, he met a woman, who told him that there were no sausages for coeliacs, who are unable to eat wheat. He saw an opportunity for some new product development and came up with a gluten-free sausage substituting long grain rice for the bread which is normally used in the sausages.

“If imitations are the sincerest form of flattery, then lots of people have imitated us,” says Chris. “We took it along to Waitrose and it was successful.

“Subsequent to that we have done a pork and leek and a pork and Aspalls cider sausage and the last couple of years we have been doing a Christmas chipolata.”

The factory at Newmarket employs seven people and along with the shop at Braughing the business has about 20 staff.

Although sales saw a bit of a downturn when the financial hit, they are now climbing again.

“There aren’t many companies around the place which have 130 years of history and a heritage and a story,” says Chris.