Mmmm, pie…..

“It all started with Stilton cheese…” Thus did Stephen Hallam of Dickinson & Morris Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe begin the tale of how the famous Melton Mowbray pork pie came to be. According to tradition, in 1730 a local farm woman was making a savoury blue cheese that came to the attention of the innkeeper of the Bell Inn, in Stilton. He became a regular customer for the cheese, and because the main stage routes to London passed by the inn, the cheese soon became known far and wide.

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But what does Stilton have to do with pork pies? After all, Hallam was speaking at the Melton Mowbray PieFest, so let’s get to the meat of the matter. It turns out that one of the by-products of cheese production is whey. And farmers being as thrifty as they need to be (“tip to tail” eating is nothing new to farmers), used the whey to feed their pigs. Lots of cheese equaled lots of whey equaled lots of feed for lots of pigs, which resulted in the need to do something with the meat.

The solution arose when, in the late 1700s, the gentry of England descended on the area for hunting season. Hunting being a fall activity, the local farmers were done with their harvesting and happy to earn extra money by acting as grooms and hunt servants. Just as in Cornwall with pasties, the men needed something hearty to eat at mid-day, so the wives began baking chopped pork meat in pastry to be eaten cold, out of hand, in the field.

The hunters saw the yummy-looking parcels and wanted some. Mary Dickinson (grandmother of the Dickinson & Morris bakery founder) is credited with making a ‘fancy’ version that appealed to the upper crust, including the process of using a wooden dolly to form the dough, called hand raising.

After giving us the background, Hallam went on to give a demonstration on “how to hand raise a pork pie”.

Day 1 – Make the pastry
The pastry is a “boiled pastry”, which refers to the ingredients, not the method of cooking. They melt lard (pork fat) in boiling water and mix with flour and salt into a ball of dough, then leave it to sit.

Day 2 – Make the pie
To hand raise the dough, they place a wooden dolly (made of close-grained hardwood) into a slightly flattened ball of dough, then slowly rotate the whole as they work the dough up the sides of the dolly, spreading and thinning it as they go.

When the dough is the right height (at the top of the thick part of the dolly), they gently slide their thumbs between the dolly and the pastry and ease the pastry free. When the dolly is removed, a hollow cylinder of dough is left standing. (This type of pastry can support its own weight, even during baking.)

Uncured pork (traditionally shoulder and pork belly) is roughly chopped (not minced or ground) and mixed with white pepper and salt, then formed into a ball. The ball is placed into the dough, sealed with a pastry lid, pierced with two holes and chilled overnight.

Day 3 – Bake the pie
The pie is cooked “at bread temperature” for 30 minutes, then “cake temperature” until the pastry is done. When the pastry is done, the pie is done.

After cooling the pie, hot bonestock jelly is poured in through one of the holes in the lid. This further seals the meat from air which prevents spoiling, and adds both moisture and flavor. (The pies will last up to 8 days after baking, although these days refrigeration is recommended.)

Day 4 – Eat the pie
After cooling overnight to set the jelly, enjoy! These pies are not like American pot pies or the English pie and mash, since they’re dense and solid, so traditionally eaten cold. The crust is crunchy, not flaky or crispy.

How are Melton Mowbray pork pies different from the same pie made elsewhere? (Yorkshire, for example, claims their own version of the pork pie.) The folks around Melton Mowbray, which is in Leicestershire, feel their pies are different (and superior) enough that they applied for, and won, the status of Protected Geographical Indication. This is an EU program that “highlights regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed. The EU will only give a product the PGI mark if they decide it has a reputation, characteristics or qualities that are a result of the area it’s associated with.”

So what makes a pork pie a Melton Mowbray pork pie? Four factors, according to Hallam:
• The pie must be made in the area around Melton Mowbray
• The meat must be fresh, British, uncured pork
• The pie must be baked without support
• They must also be free of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives

Like many another traditional food, the Melton Mowbray pork pie almost died out under the pressures of industrialization and public demand for cheap food. In fact, Dickinson & Morris are the only remaining producers who operate in the center of Melton Mowbray, from premises in the same location as the original bakery founded in 1851. But the last 20 years have seen a revival of interest in “slow food” and heritage recipes, and thus a revival in the Melton Mowbray pork pie production.

Melton Mowbray, by the way, claims to be the “Rural Capital of Food”, and there are several food festivals throughout the year to bolster that claim. In addition to PieFest in July, there’s a huge East Midlands Food Festival in October, Chocfest in November and the Cheese Fair in May. All of these take place at the Melton Mowbray Livestock Market, which also hosts weekly farmer’s markets and other events.

Lots of variations on meat pies were for sale at the festival.  Most of the attendees were carrying out enough pies for the next month (including myself)!

Here’s what I brought home:

I didn’t spend any time in Melton Mowbray itself, but it looked interesting enough that if I come back for next year’s cheese festival, I’ll spend some extra time exploring the area.

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