Last Wednesday I was in St Mary’s Church in Melton Mowbray – light streaming through the stained glass windows, and a voice booming from the pulpit: “now take your control pie…”
Religious service it was not. But ceremonial? Certainly. Almost masonic, as the white-coated, straw-boatered judges shuffled into the choir stalls to listen to the rules for The British Pie of the Year Awards read from a lectern in front of the alter.
Pork pies are more than just a picnic snack in this East Midlands town, dubbed ‘The Rural Capital of Food’. They’re embedded in the town’s identity. Six years ago the local Pork Pie Association managed to secure a ‘protected designation of origin’ (PDO) status for the historic meat treats. Now only pies baked in a specific region flanked by the M1, A1 and A52 can market themselves as a Melton Mowbray pork pie. That’s as long as the meat is uncured and chopped, (not minced) and the pastry is shaped by hand (no hoop or tin in sight)…
But enough about pork pies. Although Melton Mowbray was the host town, this was the British Pie Awards and it embraced pies from every corner of our fair island, all shapes, all sizes. Amongst the 840 entrants were steak and kidney pies, pasties and fish pies. There was a class for football pies and pub pies, there were sweet Bramley apple pies and three-tiered ‘Bride’s Pies’ with bride and groom figurines perched on top. There were some pies which went big on pastry lattice work, and others which stuck to a simple glaze. Some tiny two-bite pies, and some which you wouldn’t want to drop on your foot.
With so much variety, the trickiest part of judging across all the categories was maintaining consistency. Hence the ‘control pie,’ to make sure we were all on the same page. The judges were divided up among the twenty different classes, and then split up again so that three of four judges hunkered over every identical ‘control pie.’ A fairly average-looking specimen sat in a foil container. The poor thing was about to come under serious public scrutiny. “First you should look at the appearance” boomed the voice from the pulpit, belonging to Ian Nelson, chairman of The British Pie Association. “As you can see, this one has got quite an uneven glaze, so it’d drop a couple of points,” he explained. A murmur of agreement rippled throughout the nave as judges ran a latexed finger over the uneven pastry lid.
And so the critique continued. After appearance was ‘baking': flipping the pie over to check the state of its undercarriage – turning to Mary Berry’s trademark phrase of a ‘soggy bottom’ to indicate an undercooked specimen. Then it was cut in half to inspect ‘pastry thickness’ along the sides as well as the top and bottom, and then the lid was removed and cut into strips for the judges to check ‘taste and texture’ – ruminating whether the pastry was crumbly or greasy, or if it had a bland or over-salted taste.
Next was the filling. First, the generosity: points were deducted for empty space beneath the lid, whilst the pies which crammed in hunks of meat were applauded. After that, an examination of the gravy’s consistency, and then a mouthful to check the seasoning and flavour combinations of the filling. Finally the marks were added up, and a brief report was be written on each pie, praising its strengths (“structurally sound”), and highlighting its weaknesses (“uneven pastry”).
And so, with the ‘control pie’ out of the way, judging continued. I was put in the chicken and vegetable or herb pie, which was a major coup as I figured the filling would count towards my ‘five a day’ – more than could be said for the beef and ale, or steak and kidney category. Veteran judges had warned me that pacing myself was the key. But it was getting on for midday before the first pie arrived. My tummy was rumbling, and I don’t have much restraint when it comes to a good pie. It was hard not to have another taste of the pastry, and a second mouthful of the chicken and mushroom filling.
As the judging went on, my appetite didn’t fail me, but I found myself becoming increasingly picky and opinionated, particularly about the pastry. Of course, I knew there’d be a huge disparity between good pastry and bad pastry, and I’d expected that there would be different varieties – maybe shortcrust and hot water crust. But I hadn’t anticipated how wildly different each would taste. The gravies varied from thick and gelatinous to thin, and the chicken from chunks of breast to pulled thigh. Surprisingly, no two pies were remotely similar.
Luckily, I was placed between expert and veteran Frances Slade – former national chair of Ladies In Pigs, an industry group for women involved in pig farming or butchery – and also Tim Coleman, a star judge and pie connoisseur who’d had the Supreme Champion Pie in his class for the past two years running. Two safe pairs of hands to guide me. And so we trudged on: chicken curry pie, then chicken and mushroom pie, then chipotle chicken pie, then chicken, leek and champagne pie.
Forty-one pies later, our team had worked through the lot and we’d agreed unanimously on the winner. A beautifully neat pie with pretty trim and lovely glaze, delicious pastry and filled to the brim with chicken, mushroom, English mustard and cream. Delighted by our decisiveness, we patted each other on the back and made our way past trestle tables of desecrated pies to the vestibule for lunch. Pork pies. I’m not even joking.
I dozed off on the train back to London, warm and happy with the sun on my face and a tummy-full of pastry and gravy. Before I pulled into St Pancras though, I checked The British Pie Awards website, to see who had been announced Supreme Champion Pie out of the twenty different classes, and there it was: Chicken, mushroom, English mustard and cream pie by Great North Pie Company. A hat trick for my fellow judge, Tim Coleman – a lucky charm on the pie-making scene.
Photographs by Martin Elliot