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?

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era