Melton Mowbray is to the pork pie what Newcastle is to brown ale and Champagne to sparkling wine. Place and product go together and have done, in the case of Melton and its pies, since 1831, when one Edward Adcock despatched the first batch to London by stagecoach. This early venture into mail-order is marked by a blue plaque at the centre of the Leicestershire town justifiably proud of its pork-and-pastry pedigree.
Pride has been mingled with increasing agitation in recent years as the Melton name has been routinely attached to pork pies with no connection to the place. Look, for instance, at the wrapper on the Marks and Spencer version. Directly below “Melton Mowbray” is a reference to cured pork.
“That’s a contradiction in terms,” says Matthew O’Callaghan, leader of Melton Borough Council. “A proper Melton pie is made from fresh, uncured pork.”
Councillor O’Callaghan is also chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, which is seeking protected geographic status from the European Commission. No surprises there. What has raised an eyebrow or two in pie-making circles is that the man pushing their interests hasn’t touched pork since being struck down by a particularly virulent bout of food poisoning in Bangkok eight years ago. “I don’t eat meat, but I support the local economy,” as he puts it. The local paper put it rather
differently: “No porkies: top pie man is a veggie.”
He recites the headline with some relish. “At least I don’t favour one manufacturer over another,” he says, grinning gamely from under a leather-bound Stetson-style hat as we seek shelter from the rain in the ancient premises of Dickinson and Morris. Marketed on the Internet as “a shrine to the pork pie”, this shop is the sixth most visited tourist attraction in Leicestershire. The visitors’ book carries comments from around the world as well as from the President of the English Custard Society, from the once-notorious “madam” Cynthia Payne (“Your pies deserve my luncheon vouchers”) and from a resident of Bolsover, north Derbyshire, who wrote: “Not bad”. Like their MP, Dennis Skinner, Bolsover folk are not prone to effusiveness. Not bad, indeed! The pies are lip-smackingly good, fulfilling every criteria of the Melton Mowbray distinctiveness. Coarsely chopped uncured meat, the colour of roast pork, is set in a thin rim of natural bone-stock jelly and both are encased in crunchy pastry which has been hand-raised without a supporting hoop or tin. The result is a rounded, slightly bow-sided shape, like a pastry parcel. “There’s something about that that says ‘eat me’,” drools D and M’s managing director Stephen Hallam, gazing lovingly on one of his creations.
“Look at that,” he goes on, pointing to a little patch, the colour of mahogany, on the side of the pastry. “That’s where there’s been a bit of boil-out and the juices have run down. Lovely. The thing about pork pies is that the whole is greater than the parts.”
Forty-five Germans have called off their visit at short notice, so I am the solitary audience for his pie-making demonstration today. The new pastry he’s working on looks like a child’s Play-dough which has been round the kitchen floor a few times. “It’s that colour because we use boiling water and the lard added to the flour is pork fat,” he says, before inserting a “dolly” and working the pastry up the sides like a potter manipulating clay. Pork pies are in his blood. They were made behind the grocer’s shop which his father iowned until the early 1960s. Today, Hallam wins trophies for his craft. One desk in his office upstairs is covered by silver cups. On the side of another desk is a pink china pig which could be a symbol for the whole area. Excpt that his pork pies are no longer made from local pigs.
The boneless pork — “shoulder for firmness, belly for succulence” — is imported from a supplier in Norfolk. “We’re not butchers; we’re pie-makers and this is the best meat for our product,” says Hallam when I point out the irony.
He remains a keen supporter of the association’s campaign for protected status. After all, Dickinson and Morris is now the only pork pie-making operation in the middle of Melton. Thirty years ago there were several, and dozens more in the surrounding borough. Just six remain, and three of those are owned by the same parent company.
“If we don’t act now, our pies will be replaced by factory-made products from outside the area,” says O’Callaghan. “The Ministry of Agriculture have been through our application and translated it into Euro-speak,” he adds. It has just been sent off to Brussels (late October/early November), together with a petition from townsfolk and interested parties elsewhere. If their wishes are granted, it will become a criminal offence to label a pork pie with the name Melton Mowbray unless it has been made according to a traditional recipe and within roughly 25 miles of the town centre. “We’ve gone for the historical boundaries within which people would have travelled to sell their pies at Melton Market,” says O’Callaghan.
Within those boundaries lies the Vale of Belvoir, home of Stilton cheese, which is itself a beneficiary of geographical protection. The two products have been linked for centuries. One of the bi-products of cheese-making is whey, the watery liquid that separates from the curd.
Finding themselves with a surplus, the dairies began to keep pigs to feed off it. Before long, there was another surplus — of pigs. Here was the raw material for what would become a thriving food industry.
Pie-makers like Edward Adcock saw a potential market among the wealthy folk who travelled up from London to chase foxes acros the East Midland countryside. This is hunting country and, for those who came to ride with the Belvoir or the Quorn, the pies became the ideal snack to stuff into pocket or saddlebag. “They were the first English take-away,” says Mr Hallam. But for those who prefer not to eat on the hoof, he recommends removing a Melton pie from the fridge and leaving it for an hour to regain room temperature. “It goes superbly with beer or a Rioja that stands up to the peppery seasoning,” he says. “Then again, pork pie and champagne go well together.”
And by that he means real champagne from a designated area of France.
Chris Arnot is a freelance f& w journalist
Photo: Dickinson & Morris site