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Pork Pies, Leicestershire

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What would be your desert island pie? Perhaps steak and kidney? Maybe a proper Cornish pasty ? For me, it would be a real Melton Mowbray pork pie, truly one of life's great and simple pleasures.

When my father used to drive us in the sixties and seventies from our home in Norfolk to visit family in Stoke-on-Trent he would take the route through Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire , and call at one of the pie shops. There was more pleasure in one of those pies than four truckloads of the mass-produced plastic-wrapped chilled-to-death versions to be found, or better yet avoided, in Britain’s garages and motorway service areas. And the good news? There still is that same pleasure available to those who seek it out.

The pie in British cookery has its origins back in the days when the crust was not destined to be eaten, being a mere protection for the meat within. The Melton Mowbray version has come a long way from that though, the nature and form of the hot-water pastry being part and as it were parcel of the product’s specialness. It uses lard, giving crispness to the bite, the lard boiled with water and salt then mixed with flour to give a true short pastry.

The form of the pastry is vital to authenticity too: a Melton Mowbray pie is formed with what is called a dolly, a device like a short rolling pin around which the pastry is raised up to form a moulded beaker shape. When the pie has been filled a circular of pastry tops it off, hand crimped at the edges, the whole glazed with beaten egg to give a shine to the finished item.

Of course the filling is just as important as the covering. It must be uncured pork, uncooked, chopped by hand and this not too fine – minced pork is not acceptable – and the finished meat should not be pink, but a rather dull grey. It was the ready availability of quality pork, fed on the whey that was the by-product of Leicestershire’s cheese-making industry, which was probably the factor that determined the development and the excellence of the pie.

The filled pie is baked for a time at a high temperature, around 200 or 210 centigrade, then for much longer at 40 or 50 degrees below that. Then comes the really tricky part: a gelatinous stock, made with trotters and bones, is poured through a hole in the lid of the pie to top off the filling. The temperature of the stock and the consistency of the crust must both be right if the pastry is not to absorb the liquid and go soggy before the stock turns to the characteristic jelly.

Another mark of authenticity with the Melton Mowbray pie is that it should bow outwards like the heavy purse of a medieval merchant. If it is straight-sided, it has been baked in tin or using hoops to preserve the form, and is not what true believers would recognise as the real thing. The Melton version is baked free-standing.

Behind this simple pleasure lies a wealth of history and provenance. The true guardians of the Melton Mowbray pork pie, little more than a handful of makers in the area, are applying for Protected Geographical Indication status, a sort of appellation controlée for Europe’s best foodstuffs rooted in a particular area. If they get it travesties of the pie will not be able to borrow its cachet.

The spicing of the pie seems almost incidental, though pepperiness is part of the background to the meat. In times past anchovies, or that very British condiment anchovy essence, were ingredients to give a salty tang without any residue of fishiness – seen too in versions of Lancashire hotpot where oysters were used to similar effect, and in old recipes for steak and kidney pie.

There is something essentially 18th century about the Melton Mowbray pork pie. It is easy to imagine Doctor Johnson wolfing one or two down with enormous gusto. Doubtless health gurus will tut-tut at it. Let them eat brown rice. They may not live forever, but it will feel like it. The occasional quality pork pie, which surely demands a pint of good bitter, or even decent cider to wash it down, is life enhancing far more than it could ever be life endangering.

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