Our daily pastry: pie-makers, judges and the hungry at St Mary's Church, Melton Mowbray. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA
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All rise for the blessing of the pies

As a judge of the “beef and ale” category at the British Pie Awards, Felicity Cloake goes in search of fluffy suet pastry and rich, dark gravy.

A reverent hush falls over St Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray, as the man in the pulpit begins to speak. As the chairman of the town’s Pork Pie Association, Matthew O’Callaghan seems up there with God among the congregation, a ragbag assortment of chefs, bakers, farmers and the odd hungry journalist, gathered here today for the sixth annual British Pie Awards.

O’Callaghan’s description of the church as a “cathedral of pies” seems somewhat less fanciful when its rector, the Reverend Kevin Ashby, pops up to perform the blessing of the pies, a solemn ceremony that concludes with the immortal lines: “We’re excited to taste them but judge them we must./We can’t wait to find out what is under that crust.”

“Amen,” we all boom in response. It feels like a plea to the Almighty – deliver us from soggy bottoms, perhaps.

Behind us sits a bevy of tanned beauties, awaiting the attention of the judges of the coveted Class 1, the Melton Mowbray pork pie (those produced elsewhere are banished to the second table). To make it as a judge on the so-called top table is the dream of everyone I speak to but as this is only my second year on the job, I haven’t got a hope.

Standing around awaiting our fate, we debate the worst that could happen. Although Class 10 – the scarily non-specific “Other meat pie (hot)” – is a strong contender, it’s “Chicken and other protein” that really sends shivers down my spine.

Thankfully it turns out that this year I’ve graduated from steak and kidney (you can tire of the flavour of urine) to the beef and ale category; a definite step up. Sixty-one pies have been entered in Class 5, of which I and my fellow judge Andrew Cooper, Melton’s town bailiff, must get through at least 20 without collapsing.

We’re helped in our mighty task by an army of catering students who ferry pies from the oven to an insulated box beneath our table. As time wears on, we begin to open this with a sinking heart, but for the first couple of hours the arrival of each fresh contender is a bit of a thrill. (Our spirits are momentarily dampened when a lad approaches the table with something that appears to have exploded in the oven. He whispers simply, “I’m so sorry,” before backing away from the bubbling brown mess at speed.)

But the show must go on. We mark each pie on six criteria, ranging from appearance (“Does the sight of the pie excite or disappoint?”) to sound (“Hear how the pastry cuts,” the chairman of the judges, Ian Nelson, exhorts us) to the quantity and quality of the filling. I’m in charge of dissection, while Andrew keeps the score: an increasingly sticky business, with so much gravy around.

Odd comments float in the hallowed air – “You’d be disappointed if you got that one for dinner!” I hear someone say forcefully – and at one point a gaggle of suits passes down the aisle. It’s the minister of food, apparently, who has come to inspect his fiefdom. “What’s his name?” Andrew asks one of the judges trailing behind. He shrugs his shoulders and hazards, “Minister?”

Once we junior judges have gratefully peeled off the catering gloves, the winners of each category slug it out in front of a panel of real experts for the revered title of supreme champion. I reckon the fluffy suet pastry and rich, dark gravy give our favourite a decent chance of glory but the 2014 crown goes to a Bramley apple number served at the home ground of the Shrimps, Morecambe FC – a team apparently rejoicing in catering as brilliant as its nickname.

After four pastry-packed hours, I stagger towards the door, taking a quick detour past the judges’ buffet. Broken I may be but there’s always room in my pocket for a pork pie. Just call it getting in training for next year.

 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

ED THOMPSON / LUZ / EYEVINE
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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage