The judgement of Melton Mowbray

Last Tuesday the saw me bound for Melton Mowbray and the first ever British Pie Awards. The region makes a good claim to be the epicenter of pie making in the UK, being home to the now PGI protected Melton Mowbray Pork pie. Indeed so keen are the fathers of the town to promote its food heritage that the town bills itself as the rural capital of food, a strap line I think it actually deserves.

The competition was held in the parish church of St Mary’s, the spring sunshine streamed in through the stained glass windows and caught the bunting brilliantly; you couldn’t have asked for a more vivid portrait of the heart of England. Before things kicked off the Rector of the church, Peter Hooper, blessed the pies. And then with a loud clap from the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Assoc. Chairman Matthew O’Callaghan the judges were off. Doing the tasting were Sheila Dillon, Phil Vickery, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Xanthe Clay, Sophie Conran, Louis Massarella, Simon Majumdar and a host of retired and serving butchers and bakers who brought some local colour and experience to the proceedings.

The 38 judges armed with knives, folks and spoons were all set to work there way through the 511 entries from all corners of the UK, with over 300 of them being judged hot. The logistics of getting the right pie and it’s accompanying paperwork to the right judge all in a consistent flow down in no small part to the skill of the organizers and the students from the local catering college who were press ganged in to help.

From my interviewing of the judges the problem of soggy bottoms were hampering most results. I saw rather too much raw or undercooked pastry for my liking and entries for next year would be wise to ensure a firm base of any pie they submit. There were also a lot of pie that had boil over (not always a bad thing in my opinion – see video above), and I even saw one or two pies that were submitted with burnt bottoms and in one case a burnt top.

The day wore on and by 5pm we had a winners list. Matthew called the assembled judges and competitors to order and we all took a pew in the church and listened to Rachel Green read a short ‘ode to the pie’. Then Sheila Dillon took to the pulpit to announce the winner.

You can see the winners list here, and it makes interesting reading. You’ll notice that pies available in the supermarkets did rather well, including the champion of champions produced for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range by Walker’s Charnwood Bakery. A closer look reveals it isn’t so much wins for Sainsbury’s or Tesco but Samworth Brothers who own Walker’s Charnwood, Ginster’s and Dickinson and Morris. So for pork pies at least it seems that the supermarkets (which are only resellers remember) are indeed sourcing well-made tasty products for their premium lines. Scotland too did well, taking gold in a number of catagories, including best football pie by MacDougall and Hastie for the tiny club of  Clachnacuddin FC in Inverness; a true case of giant slaying worthy of an FA Cup 4th round.

Afterwards we all decanted to the pub, where I had a chat with the winning master pie maker Ian who’s worked at Walker’s Charnwood for over 20 years. In a town like Melton Mowbray there’s a fair amount of rivalry around pies and I voiced the opinion that the very worst the region can do now would be to descend into infighting and local spats about who’s in best. Just as there’s no one definitive champagne, there is no one definitive pork pie. Yes Ian’s won this year, and all credit to him as he made a really good pie by all accounts, but each of the producers both large and small have their subtle differences. It’s all down to taste and preference and they can all work together to take the pride and heritage out to a wider audience.

Britain has few food successes that make it into permanently the national consciousness, let alone beyond our borders. The modern pie – like the sausage – is a product for the masses and as such is produced to a set unit price. It has been debased and reduced to a poor imitation of it’s former pre-industrial glory. But when made well, a pie is a thing of beauty and is one of the few foods popular through out the British Isles. I really do hope these awards grow and that the event becomes something like the Great British Bear festival, a celebration of the joy of pies.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
April 2009

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