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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.

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

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.