Pies ready for judging in the Pork Pie Awards (Credit: Paul Dishman)
I lift the pie lid on one of the country’s oldest food awards and find out what it takes to be a true pork pie connoisseur…
As spectator sports go, pork pie judging doesn’t have the petrol-head thrill ride of Formula One, or the nail biting backhand smashes of Centre Court.
But at the annual Pork Pie Awards, held at The Old Bridge Inn, in Ripponden, West Yorkshire, there’s enough passion, sportsmanship and competitive spirit to rival the finest sporting fixture.
“It’s surprising that a bunch of men contemplating pork pies attracts such a big crowd, but there’s always a huge turn out,” affirms Peter Charnley, 66, founder member and pie judge at The Pork Pie Appreciation Society, which hatched the idea for the awards 23-years ago.
“But then again, it’s only here you can sample a slice of the wining entry – and get a side of mushy peas to go with it,” adds Peter.
Attracting nearly 40 entrants and twice as many spectators into a snug 14th century pub – what started as a Saturday night get together has grown into an annual event that attracts bakers, ‘pork pie fanciers’, and even the odd celebrity chef.
So why do people put so much faith in the pie judging skills of this small band of pub punters from Ripponden? Easy. They’ve got their fingers in so many pies.
Since the Society was founded in 1982 – when the Ripponden residents decided a workout at their new health club would be best rounded off with a pie and pint at their local – Peter, now Society secretary, and his male buddies have eaten their way through 2,000-plus pork pies and have become (and quite rightly so) the self-appointed experts of this very British of skills.
“When we first started meeting, the pub didn’t serve food, so the wife of one lad used to pack him up with a pork pie,” recalls Peter. “We all thought this was a wonderful idea and over the following weeks offered to buy pork pies for the group and, with the landlord’s blessing, it became a Saturday night ritual.”
The pie buyer soon became known as the ‘fetcher’, and it quickly became a matter of pride as to which fetcher could bring the best butcher’s shop pies from the vicinity – safely stored in an old tea chest. It wasn’t long before talk turned to quality.
“In the last half hour everyone would say a few words about that week’s pies, and give them a score out of ten, and I began to note this down on the lid of the tea chest,” says Peter. “I guess you could say The Pie Appreciation Society was born! The landlady has reserved the same spot in the pub for us ever since.”
Earning a crust
It was 10 years later, in a bid to raise money for local charities, that the Society hit upon the idea of an award event, and in 1992 encouraged 20 or so enthusiasts and butchers to enter their best bakes for judging.
Aside from Peter’s new laptop, for compiling results (a 21st century improvement on the tea chest lid), 23-years on, the awards have little changed. The pies continue to be judged on paper plates and trestle tables, alongside a pint of local ale.
Freshness remains a prerequisite of entry into the competition, which means the pies hail mainly from Yorkshire. But this hasn’t stopped entrants from as far afield as Southampton and Scotland trying to get in on the act – though they are rarely winners. “If a pork pie is in a car too long – the jelly just isn’t right,” says Peter.
Each pie goes through three rigorous rounds, and by the third round they’ve been slowly munched down to 10. And once the winners are selected, there’s an auction of the best to raise funds for charity – “I’ve seen a £1.50 pie go for as much as £20,” says Peter – and then the rest are served up with mushy peas.
“It’s no good judging them at this stage, of course – even a sub-standard pie will taste reasonable with a pile of mushy peas,” he adds seriously.
Secrets of success
So what makes a perfect pork pie? Or at least, one as good as the undisputed current pork pie champions, Bolster Moor Farm Shop, Huddersfield? Its butchers have scooped top prize seven times over the years.
“Freshness,” says Peter categorically. “They’re all served at room temperature so they need to be crisp and firm. Then, they’re scored on appearance – golden brown and nicely filled. While I don’t mind a few gravy stains or burnt bits, other judges do.”
The quality of the jelly – made by boiling down gelatinous parts of the pig such as the trotters and skin and injecting it into the pie while it’s still warm – is part and parcel of their moreishness.
“It should have a thin layer all the way through, and a thin, crisp pastry case,” says Peter. “Medium to coarse ground meat with a little spice is good, as long as it’s not too overpowering. The key to a good pie is that it’s tricky to make it just right, but it doesn’t look like it!”
Indeed, a medal-winning pork pie can be as hard as a devilish consommé to cook.
“It takes a lot to get the right technique,” affirms Richard Grange, from E&R Grange butchers in Slaithwaite, an early entrant in the awards and this year’s winner in the Artisan category for a pie layered with pork, chicken and sage and onion stuffing. “Get the jelly wrong and it can swim right to the top like a swimming pool, and the hot water crusts needs good measurements too. Some do a full boil crust – where they boil the lard in water and add it to the flour, others just par-boil the water and add this to the flour.”
And Richard should know: he was a chef before he became a butcher. “Even with experience, things can go wrong,” adds Richard, who, like all pie makers is not prepared to reveal his ‘secret’ family recipe. “You’re often left scratching your head wondering what you did to make it slump or crack or spill out. You’re always striving for the perfect pie.”
Even celebrity chefs have had to eat humble pie. “When Brian Turner came with BBC One to make some on camera they were wonderful, but I won’t tell you the shortcomings out of politeness! He knows that practice makes perfect when it comes to pork pies.”
Peter and his crew have certainly tasted some clangers. “We once bought pies from a market stall for 4 for a £1 and they were so greasy we considered using them as briquettes on the fire,’ says Peter.
At competition level, there’s been ‘cathedral tops’ – The Pork Pie Appreciation Society’s name for lots of empty space below the lid – and ‘rat runs’ when the meat doesn’t fill the pastry case. New fangled recipes such as black pudding and chorizo didn’t past muster at first either, but having seen their growing popularity the pie experts are now embracing them in a new ‘Artisan’ category.
“Anything can go in that category as long as it starts with pork,” says Peter, though he draws the line at pickled onion. He adds: “On the side is very nice, but a pickled onion inside is just not right.
Slice of the pie
And it’s not just the artisan category that’s different – there are other changes afoot in the pie appreciation pipeline.
“We’d like to shake the awards up a bit,” says Peter. “Tastes are changing so we’re thinking it’s time to encourage more amateur pie makers to have a go. It’s great to encourage this skill and tradition in the young.”
The Society is even toying with the idea of stepping outside the confines of the pub snug, to host a festival of pies outdoors. They may even consider female members.
“We don’t currently have any lady members, but we’d love some,” says Peter. “That said, the women tend to sit in a different corner and only join in when we’ve stopped talking about pies!”
So does he or his fellow judges ever get sick of pie eating? “No, we only have one a week, and at the awards it’s just a thin sliver of each pie,” says Peter. “The rule is to never start off an awards’ day hungry as they all taste so good you’ll want to eat the whole thing! It’s the reason we have so many judges – there would just be too many pies for one person.”
Above all, perhaps the Pork Pie Appreciation Society can help reclaim the pork pie as a gourmet treat, not the greasy, forecourt snack for which many inferior pies are destined.
“Most people eat pies at picnics or from the garage, they’re something filling to eat and that’s it. Not many people look at pies in such a professional capacity,” says Peter. “The standard of pies has really gone up over the years – and, yes, we put that down to us!”