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 write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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

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Why so-called lesbian films make me nervous

The upcoming Cate Blanchett vehicle, Carol, is already being feted as a lesbian blockbuster. I should be excited, and yet it just makes me feel sweaty.

An odd thing has started to happen to me in the build-up to new lesbian blockbusters: I sweat. I’m quite sweaty as it is, but I’m probably at my sweatiest when the entire internet – or so it seems, in my panicked state – is going on about Cate Blanchett gaying up for her latest role.

And, no, this isn’t a sex thing. Yes, I have eyes; I realise Blanchett is extremely attractive (and talented, and what have you… yes, feminism). In fact, I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I’ve been told that my “type” is blonde, patrician and spikey (so, the exact opposite of me and everyone I’m related to). I can’t account for Blanchett’s spikiness, although she definitely plays spikey well. I’m also so unsure of whether Australians can be posh, that I just Googled “can Australians be posh?”. But, Antipodean or not, she has that “former captain of the Roedean lacrosse team” thing going on, right? And, yeah, she’s blonde. So, on paper, her playing a lesbian should make me sweaty for sex reasons.

But – here’s where I implore you to suspend your disbelief – that isn’t it. Along with “vigorous cheese grating” and “talking to people”, I’m adding “having to pretend to be excited about a straight woman playing a lesbian” to my list of things that make me sweat. All the hype around Carol, which looks set to be the biggest lesbian film since Fucking Blue Is The Fucking Warmest Colour (actual title) and hits UK cinemas this week, is propelling me into a frenzy of panic the likes of which I haven’t felt since I got this inexplicable pain in my nose and convinced myself it was nose cancer.

Disclaimer: I realise lesbian visibility is important. Any given lesbian can talk about the sorry state of lesbian representation in film and TV for seven solid hours. If you want to see filibustering at its finest, just ask a gay woman what she thought of The Kids Are All Right.

So why the sweat? Yes, straight actors get to put on gayness like a gorilla suit, every time they feel like having an Oscar lobbed at their head. Blanchett did “mental” in Blue Jasmine (very well, actually) and now she’s doing gay. Why panic though? Lesbian blockbusters starring almost entirely straight women are better than nothing. But lesbianism in films is cursed with being a big deal. When’s the last time you saw a film about, say, some bounty hunters who just so happen to be lesbians? (note to self: write that screenplay). No, not “lesbian bounty hunters”, I mean “bounty hunters… who are in a relationship, and both of them are women, I guess… and what’s your point?”

The panic comes from the lesbian aspect of any mainstream film being the driving force behind a hoo-hah of epic proportions. The tremendous fanfare that heralds the lesbian blockbuster is enough to give me palpitations. And this absurd pomp wouldn’t exist if lesbian representation were slightly less concentrated. Years pass without any lesbians at all then, all of a sudden: “CATE BLANCHETT IS GAYING IN A FILM AND IT’S GOING TO BE STUNNING AND BREATHTAKING AND YOU’RE GOING TO CRY SEVENTEEN TIMES AND IF YOU’RE NOT HYPERVENTILATING RIGHT NOW YOU HAVE NO SOUL AND YOU’RE NOT EVEN A PROPER LESBIAN”.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen Carol yet, so I’m going to have to reserve judgement. Perhaps I will cry seventeen times. I have seen the trailer though and, complete with a moody vocal jazz track and a woman gazing mournfully out of a rain-spattered window, it’s already starting to tick “every lesbian film ever” boxes.  

It’s all the hype, accompanied by knowing that I’m going to have to have #opinions about Carol and probably every other lesbian film, until I die, that makes me sweat. That and also knowing that, in order to be aforementioned “proper lesbian”, I’ll have to find someone to take with me to see Carol on a date, except neither of us will really know whether or not it’s a date, and, during the sex bits (of which I’m sure there are… some) we’ll have to look at our shoes and cough, and sweat.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.