YOU CAN TELL Melton Mowbray is a food-obsessed town from the moment you arrive. "Welcome to Melton Mowbray," proclaims a sign at the station,"Rural Capital of Food Home of Stilton Cheese Melton Mowbray Pork Pies." Although not, clearly, home of punctuation.
There's plenty more evidence, too – of the food thing, not the punctuation – in the centre of town. I've arrived early, so I slip into the Half Moon for a pint of (impeccable) Bass, where I overhear four blokes – proper pub regular types – discussing the merits of a new restaurant. One shrugs that it was alright. One dissects his dishes with Gregg Wallace-esque terminology, while another nods his agreement. The fourth rolls his eyes at them."Well, I'm not going back," he announces. "I mean, fooking ciabatta?"
Quite which establishment they're discussing is hard to fathom. About every third shop in Melton Mowbray seems to be a pub, bar, café, restaurant or other food outlet. Sure, some are the ubiquitous ones – and it's slightly depressing to see a Greggs in this, the'home of pork pies' – but, happily, most are independent, and the busiest of all of them appears to be the Dickinson & Morris shop – which is where I'm heading for a lesson in the fine art of making pork pies.
It's a good place to start, agrees assistant bakery and shop manager Andy Sharpe, as he deftly assembles the ingredients and kit for the lesson. Founded in 1851, D&M is the oldest remaining baker of the authentic Melton Mowbray Pork Pie (which I'm going to call an MMPP from now on), the recipe for which was finally granted a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 2009.
Andy explains the basics."The first thing," he tells me,"is that an MMPP is made with uncured pork. The second: it must be baked-off unsupported, so no tin or tray. And finally, it can only come from this area."
The vicar's blessing of the pies is an amusing, rhyming address, but the mood soon turns very serious
The making of an MMPP is a three-day process. Happily, Sharpe has started before I get there, but he explains the process starting with the'hot water pastry'. "You boil water and lard," says Andy,"and then mix in strong flour. Then you chill it for 24 hours." It needs the rest so that it can be worked properly, but in the meantime you can prepare the filling."We use pork shoulder," Sharpe says."It's uncured; it's chopped, not minced; and the only thing we add is white pepper."
For the classic pie, you take an 8oz ball of pastry and push a dolly into it – a wooden device, like a short, squat rolling pin with a longer, thinner handle. The initial pressure pushes the pastry upwards, and it's then"hand-raised" – exactly how it sounds – to create a perfect looking'cup' of pastry, into which Andy then places the pork. He puts a disc of pastry on top, expertly crimps it shut, before squeezing it into Dickinson & Morris's eight-point design, and then it's chilled for another 24 hours. The following day it will be baked for 90 minutes."Then we poke two holes in the lid," says Andy,"and pour the bone stock jelly into one hole. The steam escapes from the other and once there's some seepage, we know it's sealed." After all that, they chill it again.
The results, though, make the whole laborious process worthwhile, and, possibly with a pie or two in my bag for later (for, er, research), I stroll through the town to prepare for day two and the main reason I'm here: judging at the British Pie Awards. Yeah, I know – I get all the rubbish assignments...
Somewhat fittingly for a town where pies and food are part of the fabric of life, the judging takes place in the spectacular St Mary's Church. Frankly, they had to find a big venue because there are a staggering 830 pies to be judged, across 20 categories including Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, Chicken Pie (Hot), Brides Pie and Football Pie.
It is a "cathedral of pies", as chairman of the British Pie Awards Matthew O'Callaghan describes it from the pulpit, before handing over to the Reverend Kevin Ashby for the blessing of the pies. It's an amusing, rhyming address –"We pray that as pastry and filling co-mingle, our saliva will dribble and taste buds will tingle" – but the mood soon turns serious. Very serious indeed.
How to make a Melton Mowbray pork pie – in pictures
Following an earlier briefing from head judge Ian Nelson, we – that's me and more than 100 fellow judges from as far afield as California – get to review the (somewhat) complex scoring system as a group with a 'control pie', an expression that makes me giggle more than it probably should.
Again, before we're let loose on our designated class – which, for me, is Class 2, Pork Pies to give it its full title (i.e. not the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie) – the head judge for each class runs each smaller team of judges through the first couple of entries, explaining our responsibilities as they go.
Judging is anonymous, with each plate having an ID number rather than a producer's name. Each pie starts with a perfect score of 100 but will lose points based on six criteria: appearance (15 points); baking (15 points); pastry thickness (10 points); pastry texture and taste (20 points); filling (including jelly, gravy and sauce) (10 points); and filling texture and taste (30 points). We're also encouraged to give some constructive feedback, if we can, on each entry.
The expression 'control pie' makes me giggle more than it probably should
The repetition is useful as it takes a while to get used to the system, but as we're split into pairs and head to our table, my fellow judge and I are feeling pretty confident. The class has an impressive 72 entrants but, thankfully, we're only judging 26 of them.
Even so, it takes us three hours to get through all of the pies and, sadly, we don't score anything particularly highly, hitting a run of great pastry with terrible fillings, or great fillings with terrible pastry – so much so that we wonder if we can give feedback like"entrant 1234 should make the pastry for 5678". But apparently, we can't...
Still, it's a fascinating experience – although you have to wonder what the lunch caterers were thinking when they decided to serve two massive platters of pies. Perhaps they'll realise for the 2016 competition, given that the fruit plates were the first thing to go (no, I've never seen that happen at a buffet before, either).
The following day, we discover that the Outdoor Pig Company has won the class, and that there's also excellent news for Dickinson & Morris, which has picked up the Class Champion award in the MMPP category. And, when I can finally face a bite a couple of days later, I'm not at all surprised... ■
Follow Neil Davey on Twitter at @DineHard