They're heart attack inducing wedges of stodge, aren't they? Not at
all, say the Pork Pie Appreciation Society you just have to know where
to find the good ones. Peter cossins joins them down the pub in
Yorkshire for a night of tasting.
You either love them or hate them. We’re talking pork pies.
Irresistible to some with a lump of cheddar and a dollop of pickle,
derided by many more as fat-soaked containers of the worst bits of a
pig, encased in slimy jelly and artery-clogging pastry but, according
to the men of the Pork Pie Appreciation Society both camps are missing
the point-which is that most people are unqualified to pass judgment on
the British pork pie because they have never had a proper one.
And what are the society’s credentials? Simply this: that its members
have eaten their way to expertise through running their own tasting
regime for more than two decades, so that today they constitute a sort
of pork-pie parliament.
Every Saturday night, the
society meets at its operational base in Ripponden, West
Yorkshire-specifically in the Old Bridge Inn, one of the oldest pubs in
the county to discuss world events and the more pressing matter of what
makes a good pie.
For a start, all supermarket-supplied pies are dismissed as the Austin
Allegros of the pie world, failing to meet the society’s most basic
requirement of being freshly baked. What the tasters are looking for is
a pie at the Rolls-Boyce level-one that looks appealing, is clad with
freshly made pastry, is complemented by delicately flavoured jelly and
contains a meaty heart that tastes hammy. And one that has not been
chilled to the bone, but is sold and served at room temperature.
All this began when a group of friends joined a gym opposite the Old
Bridge Inn in 1.982. Exercise over, they would head across the road to
the pub for a restorative pint. “Because the pub didn’t have a licence
to serve food on Saturday afternoons, we couldn’t buy anything much to
eat there,” explains founder member, Peter Charnley, a pharmaceuticals
salesman. “One of the group used to bring a pork pie and share it with
us, then one week he couldn’t come and we decided that we’d take it in
turns to bring pies.” As with most things involving men, he says,
pie-buying soon became competitive.
Each week a designated member of the group, “the fetcher”, went off
before the gym session to buy the pies, which were tasted and rated
that evening. They sought out pies from every corner of Yorkshire, then
from across the border in Lancashire, and eventually from any butcher
or baker who made glorious claims for his pies.
More than 20 years on,
they are still at it. The gym across the road has long since closed,
most society members are now in their 40s and 50s, hut they still meet
every Saturday night looking for perfection in pies. Several of them
have been sampling so widely and for so long, they can identify a pie’s
maker just by the look of the pastry.
In Yorkshire, the meat tends to be pink and pies are often served with
mushy peas. The meat in pies from Melton Mowbray, the Leicestershire
town strongly linked with pie making, is greyer. Staffordshire pork
pie meat is very fine and peppery; in Cromer, Norfolk, the pies are
very sticky; in Scotland, they are sometimes known as “crackers”. Some
years back, the experts tried a pie from Harrods. Verdict: “Rubbish and
In 1992, the society began putting its expertise to wider use by
inviting butchers and bakers across the country to enter their best
pies in a contest. Every year the numbers grew.
The result is the National Pork Pie Competition, which is about to rack
up its 12th anniversary with about 60 pies contending for the low-key
prize (£100) this Saturday at the Old Bridge. The judges include TV
chef Brian Turner, the Yorkshire Post’s food critic, Robert Cockroft,
and local pastry superhero Pork Pie Man, aka builder and society member
Stuart Booth, in a pie costume left behind by a former competitor.
One regular contest entrant is David Lishman, owner of Lishman’s of
Ilkley, a national sausage making champion who has also been commended
for his pork pies by the Ripponden group. As a member of the Rare
Breeds’ Survival Trust, he uses meat from the likes of Saddle-backs and
Gloucestershire Old Spots in his pies. “The flavour from these
old-fashioned breeds is far superior:’ he says. “By creating more of a
market for them, the idea is that eventually they won’t be rare breeds
What makes a good
pie from the butcher’s point of view? “We use shoulder pork in our
pies, which has a good flavour. We can’t disclose too much about the
spices we add, although there is salt and pepper there and a little bit
of mace,” he says.
“Yorkshire is the real centre for pies, though they’re very popular in
the Midlands as well. Down south, they are just something served up
cold at Christmas. There are a lot of differences between pies.”
The variations are underlined by prize-winning Wolverhampton butcher,
Michael Kirk. “I base my recipe on the traditional Melton Mowbray-style
pie, which doesn’t use cured meat like most Yorkshire pies,” he says.
“You wouldn’t roast pork and expect it to come out pink, and mine looks
much more like roast pork, a greyish colour. But it’s all down to
personal taste. That’s just how we like them here.”
With this week’s championship in the offing, I joined the society’s
regulars at their tasting at the Old Bridge. What, I wanted to know
makes their ideal pork pie? “Well, for a start it shouldn’t come out of
a fridge,” says the society’s chairman, Kevin Booth, a lorry driver. At
a stroke, that relegates most of the pies produced commercially in
Britain. Because only a pie that is freshly made and quickly sold in
that happy state has no need of the fridge storage that produces the
chilly, leaden brick that is all most of us know of a British pork pie.
Kevin sets out the key criteria for the ideal pie: “We look for
freshness, the pastry should be crisp and the pie should be served at
room temperature. The meat should be chunky, lean but with some fat not
too much, though. The jelly should be seasoned like the gravy in a meat
And the taste? “It should be hammy,” says Charnley. “Each maker has its
own secret spices, but you should at least be able to taste salt and
pepper. Supermarket pies are no good at all. They make the pastry very
short to extend the shelf life, and that means they can’t compete with
a local, freshly made pie.”
Other suggestions on what make a good and bad pie come from around the
table. “Presentation is very important because it gets you in the right
frame of mind,” says Stuart Booth, this evening’s fetcher.
Then to the serious discussion of Booth’s fetch. “They were heavy, a
real man’s pie,” says Bob Letven, another founder member. “There was
lots of jelly, it was very well filled, one of the nicest I’ve had in a
long time.” He gives the pie eight out of 10.
“These are the first pies for ages that look like they’ve all been
cooked on the same shelf at the same time,” says Mark Travis. “They had
good meat, with a nice bit of after burn.”
The fetcher’s privilege of passing the final verdict went to Booth. “It
was a full pie with lots of jelly, full of meat, a championship-winning
pie, it was fantastic.” He reveals his fetch has come from defending
national pork pie champion Hinchliffe’s of Netherton, near
Huddersfield. The pies rate an average of 7.9 and easily avoid the fate
of some less well favoured fetches, which have been cast under the old
bridge and into the swirling waters of the River Ryburn.
The Guardian 24/03/04 (Pictures: Peter Cossins)