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Pork pies - uniquely English

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"The thing I can't resist is a pork pie. That's my idea of a lovely treat."

Delia Smith

My granddaughter and grandson, who both go to the same Primary school are having a cultural day and they have to dress up in the costume of a particular culture and also take a lunchbox of that country's food. My granddaughter has chosen English and heaven knows what she will wear as a costume - a raincoat? Anyway I was asked to make suggestions for the lunch box and it actually became quite a long list - beginning with the suggestion that she could go multicultural because England has always been a nation of immigrants. However, even though I had thought of it, I actually forgot to add the pork pie to my list at first, and had to send a postscript suggestion to add to sausage rolls, sandwiches, cornish pasties and ploughman's lunch. And I'm sure there are other things too. The English after all love picnics and the sort of food you eat at a picnic is the sort of food you put in a lunchbox. I gave her my Jamie's Britain, and Jane Grigson's English Food, so I'm sure she will find something.

Anyway it made me think of pork pies - something I really miss from England. And when I go back there - which has been very rarely - maybe four or five times since I left - I always make sure that I get in at least one pork pie. I was going to call this post something along the lines of where are the pork pies, until I discovered that both Coles and Woolworths have them, and so if they do I can certainly buy better quality ones elsewhere. Nevertheless they are not ubiquitous. In terms of pies the Australians seem to have settled for the meat pie which is a quite different beast. I wonder why the pork pie is not as popular? Is it because it's English?

So I have 'researched' and learnt a few things.

First of all this is a purely English thing. Not Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even Cornish. The general opinion seems to be that it comes from the Midlands, and specifically from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire - a town which is so proud of its particular version that it gained official status from the EU in 2008 - a sort of appellation contrôlée - so if you get a Melton Mowbray pie then it absolutely has to be from there. A pork pie does not.

And how does a Melton Mowbray pie differ from a pork pie? Well apparently the pork in a Melton Mowbray pie is uncured, the bacon is unsmoked, the pies are formed by hand, and there is a bit of anchovy essence in there too. Why Melton Mowbray? Well because they had a lot of pigs fed on the whey from the locally made cheese (Stilton and Leicestershire cheese). That's what they say anyway. They also say it has an association with the local fox hunt:

"Reportedly, farmhands in the Melton Mowbray region would tuck into these rudimentary pies from time to time; when the upper echelons of English society descended on the area to take part in their pastime of choice, foxhunting, they spotted the farmhands-turned-grooms eating their rough pastry-wrapped pork and wanted a literal slice of the action. In this way, pies gradually became associated with "picnics, high teas and shooting teas" Lauren Cocking -Serious Eats

Most commentators, though, seem to think that this is one of those legends rather than historical fact. Maybe it was just because somebody in Melton Mowbray was particularly good at making them, or maybe someone was particularly good at marketing them, but the truth is that this kind of pie has been around since the Middle ages, leading to one authority - Sarah Pettegree to comment that:

"Still medieval in our palate, the British are unique in their affection for savoury pies, and hot water crust pastry."

And it's the hot water crust pastry that to me is the defining thing. That and the jelly surrounding the meat. Nigel Slater, like me had never made one:

"It has never really occurred to me to make my own pork pie. I mean, why would anyone want to, with so many good ones around in the shops? You can't walk more than a hundred yards down the average high street without coming upon a perfectly acceptable version.

Well, let me tell you why. Rarely have I enjoyed making anything quite so much: the bubbling stock, with its grotesque peeping trotters; the soft, warm dough to mould into shape like the potter I always wanted to be; the proud moment of prizing the huge, heavy, porky thing from its tin. Secretly I probably just fancied the challenge of making one to see if I could do it. What I hadn't expected was to end up with something so stonkingly good." Nigel Slater

His article is worth looking at if you are considering having a go as he gives a few good tips for how to deal with the pastry. I think you would have to be feeling enthused though because it's a bit of a process - and, as he says, why would you when you can buy perfectly good ones in the supermarket? Well maybe not here in Australia, so maybe when you've got nothing to do, or another lockdown strikes this might be a worthwhile activity.

Be warned though - if you are doing it properly you have to hand mould the pie shape, rather than just lining a mould of some kind. If you haven't got one of those natty mould things shown here, an upturned glass or mug is suggested.

When I started to look for recipes I was surprised to discover that some very English cooks did not have recipes - well not very traditional ones. If you want traditional Delia Smith gives it a red hot go, as do the Hairy Bikers, although there was no picture of their version of the genuine Melton Mowbray article. The website Pies and Fries gives an adapted version of Jane Grigson's recipe and Dan Lepard has a recipe for Hand raised pork pies which is pretty authentic. The Australian Women's Weekly is also pretty authentic, although they go for one big pie rather than individual ones, which is fine but not what most people eat. To be truly authentic you could probably do no worse than checking out Great Food Club, which has a recipe from a Melton Mowbray maker, though you would have to wonder whether he has given away all his secrets. Surely he has held something back?

But not Nigella or Jamie and Felicity Cloake has not had a go at making the perfect pork pie which is intriguing. Is she too, put off by the apparent difficulty - the pastry and the jelly? Traditionally the jelly is made by making a stock with pig's trotters and suchlike, so a few cooks took a short cut and just added some gelatine to a stock.

Then there are those who have slightly inauthentic recipes but which are still pretty good I suspect. These include Coles Magazine (no jelly) and Jamie Oliver's easy pork pies.

And then, of course there are those that meddle and Tony Naylor of The Guardian has a few choice words for them:

"The vogue for adding dried or alcohol-soaked fruit to the mix, fresh apple, prunes, apricots, chillies and such, or topping the pies with onion marmalade or chopped plums, is bizarre. Not because those flavours jar per se – although some do – but because you, the consumer, are perfectly capable of adding those flavours as accompaniments, mainly in the form of chutneys, and crucially in the quantities you wish, rather than having a manufacturer make that decision for you in ways that may throw your whole pork pie experience out of kilter." Tony Naylor - The Guardian

And then as a last thought I wondered whether Heston Blumenthal had done something weird or actually produced the ultimate recipe. Well wouldn't you know - he did something weird and here it is. It might look like a pork pie but it's ice-cream!

"The ‘pork pie’ was actually apple and date ice cream, with raspberry sorbet treated with liquid nitrogen. "

Now that's truly weird.

One last thing - well two actually - that I learnt about pork pies. One that traditionally in the Midlands pork pies are eaten at Christmas for breakfast. I had no idea about this. For me, growing up in England, they were a thing you ate with a salad in the summer or took on a picnic. They were a real treat, and, as I said eaten in spring/summer when you could venture into the open air.

"Foods that taste fine in July do not need special treatment in December. The pork pie is already perfect." Tony Naylor - The Guardian

Second thing - apparently Yorkshire also lays claim to the pork pie - although Tony Naylor mentioned that Yorkshire claims everything. Anyway they eat it hot - sometimes with mushy peas. Ugh. Definitely not on. No - eat pork pies at room temperature, or cool - not really cold straight from the fridge - and yes do eat with something spicy like chutney or pickles or sauce.

And one final thing that I should have mentioned when I was talking about variations. There is also the Gala Pie, which has hard boiled eggs in the middle. Which is a thing the English often seem to do. Hard-boiled eggs in the middle of things that is.

And why should a lie be associated with a pork pie? Well because it rhymes - no other reason.

"a lie. Cockney rhyming slang. Often shortened to porkies. Are you tellin' me pork pies?"

Next time I go to the supermarket I'm going to look for one. And if I find one, next time I have one of those casual lunches I might do a sort of Ploughman's lunch with pork pies.

The English do some things really well and they are not as simple or basic as people seem to think.


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