As invitations go, it was extremely enticing. I received a message asking: “Would you be interested in judging at the British Pie Awards?” What a treat! This is the second year that Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire – home of the pork pie – has hosted what might be described as the pie Olympics. Though there are several food awards on the calendar, this event, held on May 19 by the bakers and butchers of the Melton Mowbray area, takes some beating for single-minded dedication to pies. Rarely in the history of marketing can there have been a more appropriate sponsor – with the awards being supported by Colman’s mustard.
More than 700 pies of all shapes and sizes were laid out on tables stretching the length of the nave in Melton Mowbray’s 12th-century St Mary’s church, with its vaulted roof and stained glass windows. The judges’ briefing was held in the choir stalls and the pies were blessed from the pulpit by a priest, setting a serious tone for what was to be a hard-fought competition.
They take their pies seriously in Leicestershire: the awards’ 13 categories included the traditional pork pie (pork in a baked pastry case), the savoury pie (hot and cold); pasties (Cornish and “others”); steak and kidney pies; British apple pies and fish pies. There was even a category for “football pies”, each of them affiliated to a soccer club and sold at matches.
It’s not often that Britain is a culinary world leader but in this department, it has no equals. The pie is more than just a convenient and portable meal; it also gives great scope for different combinations of flavour and texture. As fellow judge Tamasin Day-Lewis says in her book Tarts with Tops On, there is a pie for every occasion.
But pies weren’t always lovingly crafted and delicious. In medieval times, they had hard sides made with thick huff paste (a mix of flour, suet and boiling water). This pastry was completely inedible but excellent for protecting the contents in transit. Indeed, a tendency for pies to be merely boxes for fillings persisted into the 1800s.
In this year’s awards, there was a special class for one of England’s most prized delicacies: the Melton Mowbray pork pie. In 1998 a group of butchers and bakers from the area formed the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association and they applied for “protected geographical indication” status, a European certification along the lines of the French appellation contrôlée system for wines. The PGI enshrines the principle that anything labelled as a Melton Mowbray pork pie should be made in or around the town. To qualify as “Melton Mowbray”, a pork pie should be baked free-standing without the use of hoops or supports; it must be made with fresh uncured pork (which is naturally grey when baked, rather than the pink colour common in factory-made pies, often down to the use of anchovies, which, oddly, give the meat a rosy tinge). The meat content should be at least 30 per cent; there’s a list of acceptable ingredients (which doesn’t include anchovies) and the pie must be made within an area bounded by the River Trent to the north; Wellingborough to the south; the M1 motorway to the west; and the A1 highway to the east.
And what about this year’s Melton Mowbray pork pies? The 15 entries in this category were judged by chef Phil Vickery and Day-Lewis. A pie made by Leicester’s Walkers Charnwood Bakery, and produced for supermarket Tesco, was the winner. With a rich, crisp crust and a meaty filling, each bite delivered waves of flavour, with just the right amount of pepperiness.
I was part of the team that judged “pork pies, not Melton Mowbray”. The six judges were headed by Alan Stuart, one of Scotland’s champion pie-makers, and included BBC Countryfile presenter Julia Bradbury. We gamely slugged our way through the 76 entries, ranging from classic pies with traditional pastry to more “modern” interpretations – including a pork pie with a seam of cheese and pickle lying under the lid.
There was broad agreement between the pie experts and the mere foodies that the reason the old-fashioned pork pie has endured so long is because it works so well: meaty filling lubricated by a rich jelly and crisp hot-water pastry. Our winner (a decision that was pretty much unanimous) was the “Henry Walker large pork pie” also made by Walker’s Charnwood Bakery: with a crisp crust, and perky meaty interior, it was a magnificent pork pie.
To see 60 judges working their way through 700 pies and savouring each mouthful was an uplifting experience. How refreshing that such an important part of Britain’s food heritage was for once getting the attention it deserved.
Charles Campion’s most recent book is ‘Eat Up! Seeking Out the Best of British Home Cooking’ (Kyle Cathie, £16.99)