Wednesday, 14 May 2014

British Pie Awards 2014 - Melton Mowbray

To the uneducated, pie is a simple foodstuff, generally considered to be unhealthy and served in a Wetherspoon’s pub as a bowl of stew with a pastry lid, a side of steak cut chips, and peas so hard they could be fired from a rifle. A large minority, however, understand that this just isn’t the case. Pie is a hugely complex and varied food, offering an almost unlimited combination of flavours, both savoury and sweet, and requiring such care, attention, and dedication in the creation that two pies of almost identical appearance can offer a completely different taste. This is why the British Pie Awards was created. An opportunity to not only celebrate the beauty of pies, but also assess the best offerings from producers across the country. 

Hosted in St Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray, the awards are a dive into the rural heart of England. Only two hours by train, the view from the window descends quickly into a sea of unbroken greenery and intermittent phone reception. The final leg from Corby to Melton is completed at a snail’s pace, in an empty train, running an empty track, flanked on both sides by lambs, sheep, horses, and a travelling tinker or two - a place where 4G has no meaning. The town itself is classically Midlands, where some form of industry or other is no longer practised and the high street is dominated by low price beer, shops selling buckets for a pound, and the word ‘expresso’. However, stepping from the train into a large tree-lined park, the smell of cut grass, the sound of the mower, the redbrick of the station, and the church spire sparkling in the distance, this side of the town is the England that Hollywood wants to see. And very nice it is too, just don’t wander too far along the High Street.

The idea of the British Pie Awards probably conjures images of cider swilling locals in straw hats, serving an unattractive and possibly inedible skin of pastry encircling meat boiled to within an inch of its life, served with turnips. Well, the locals are there in force - my regards to the head of the neighbourhood watch - and are fiercely protective of their town and it’s produce (lesson 1 for countryside survival: don’t go to Melton and insult stilton cheese), but the organisation of this prestigious event was akin to an Olympic games. Military precision in the preparation, meticulous instructions to the judges, and clear guidelines that don’t budge. Not an ‘i’ undotted, not a ‘t’ uncrossed - every winner of these awards is worthy. There was even a man measuring pastry with a ruler. Honest to God, a ruler. 

The first comment everyone makes about the awards is: ‘you must get sick of pork pies’. While they did feature, they formed just two of the 19 categories on offer, so no I didn't. Mine was the ‘Beef & any flavour combination’ category, the ‘any flavour’ being as endless as the imagination of all who entered. Sadly, this was lacking in almost all cases. A torrent of beef & ale and beef & onion pies followed, which grew more boring with every bite. The biggest problem with cooking up a classic is that everyone can do it. These entries have to make a real impact in order to shine, whereas an original recipe, such as beef & wasabi, shines before the pie has even been tasted.  Needless to say, that example was my highest scoring pie. Gravy like treacle, sweet, with a bitter hint of wasabi, and perfectly cooked beef. I won’t read the dimensions of the pastry, but here was a pie with minimal boil out and not a trace of soggy bottom - the things that matter to a judge of pies. Others who tried to be different failed spectacularly. Pickled onions in a beef pie, for instance, is the act of a madman and the potato & beef pie had an additional flavour I can only describe as ‘damp’.

Three hours, 30 pies. Look, touch, cut, smell, taste, taste, taste, taste. By 2.00pm I was pie-blind, so they served pie for lunch. Possibly not the tonic I needed. What an experience though. A room full of pie aficionados, authorities on pastry, and not one of them the archetypal Mike Ashley look-a-like that you’d expect. Then it was over. Every pie dissected, all pastry measured, all gravy tasted, all meat chewed and swallowed. The winner was an apple pie from Morecambe. Left-field indeed, but I’m sure a flawless result given the intense scrutiny each pie received and the quality and pedigree of the judges on offer.

Keep an eye out of for #BPA15 next year. This is an event which will surely go from strength to strength; let's just hope the entrants imagination does too.

(p.s. A review of the event from fellow judges, the Pierateers, can be found here)


  1. I am amazed. Please explain what is the rule that the man with the ruler was trying to rule if the contestant had followed.

    1. If only I knew Sofia...if only I knew. ;-)