I’ve written at length in the past about pies, reviewed pies, looked at particular types of pies, or pies by area and I write about loads of other stuff too but then you’ll have to go elsewhere for that as this blog is solely about pies.
I’ve also bemoaned certain events, some but not all which were out of my control but essentially resulted in my decision to write a book about pies into something of a mini-disaster.
Still, I wrote a book about pies which is what I set out to do and nobody can take that away from me. Moreover, one of the perks of doing this, in fact – by far the best benefit of doing this – is that it has opened doors to other things, one of those other things being an invite to become a judge at the BRITISH PIE AWARDS.
I can give no greater accolade than say that this is one of the most wonderful experiences anyone can have in life. Fair enough, I have a young family and not a limitless pot of money, so there are probably people out there who travel the world and have exotic and expensive hobbies that could easily trump being a humble judge at a pie contest.
I’d still argue back till I’m blue in the face though, as it is a really enjoyable celebration of something that is very close to the hearts of British people (and indeed across the world)
It was my second year at the awards and once again, I found a real spirit and camaraderie amongst my fellow judges and it is a great opportunity to mix with people from different walks of life.
Not that the event is a light hearted affair. Pies are serious business! It is organised with military style precision by the Melton Mowbray event hosts, Dr Matthew O’Callaghan and Stephen Hallam and I can’t even imagine how much work goes into preparing for it.
Of course, as judges, we are also duty bound to take our own responsibilities seriously. Let us not forget that bakers up and down the country have invested time, expense and effort to produce their pies and deliver them to Melton Mowbray. In some cases, reputations and livelihoods are at stake on the outcome.
Big mass producers of pies will generally shrug it off but smaller businesses can grow off the back of it, as was the case a few years’ back when The Pie Kitchen in Suffolk, who were literally working in their residential kitchen, collected a host of awards, and had to think about “going full-time”.
The judging is sensibly done in groups of 2 or 3 so as to eliminate bias and ensure that no one individual can have sole responsibility. I was working with Tim Heeley, who is the PR Manager for East Midlands airport and hopefully we complimented each other well. Sometimes, we would immediately reach the same conclusion and on other occasions, we might be some way apart and have to meet in the middle with our scoring.
I will happily admit that I am by no needs a food or pastry expert. The whole premise around my book was simply based around me eating pies that I like. I know from speaking regularly with the chaps at Pierate, who I caught up with yesterday, they often have a different view as to what makes a perfect pie, perhaps a bit of North/South preference.
I barely hide my sub-conscious bias when it comes to what I want in a pie. My favourite pie is the sort of lardy treat I grew up with on the terraced streets of Wigan, a sloppy minced meat and potato filling in a soft shortcrust pastry which you could smell baking in the shop from 300 yards away.
I’ve learnt about the concepts of soggy bottoms, under and over-baking, ratios and proportions of fillings and boil out subsequent to writing my book and why they are all important factors in finding the perfect pie.
The “boil out” concept is an interesting one. Historically, I’ve always found it quite appealing to find a bit of filling escaping out of the top of the pie.
It’s a subtle teaser as to what lies inside, and it’s great to see that the best Wigan pie makers like Galloways and Bowens continue this fine tradition. I do, however, have to compromise my own beliefs in order to maintain a common standard throughout the competition.
As for the competition, this year I was chosen the judge in the free from / gluten free category. It is another marvellous twist to the day that the judges don’t even know what they’ll be judging until they get there, and all part of the magic for me.
Being completely honest, I was perhaps guilty of pulling my face initially upon hearing this news but in reality, it was a masterstroke. You see, the beauty of being in this category is that you get to taste all manner of different pie flavours; hot and cold; savoury AND sweet! What a triumph!
This time last year I had to munch my way through 30 steak and kidney pies, this year I got to taste all sorts!!
Our first challenge as judges was how to treat the “gluten free” aspect. I’ve had a few gluten free pies in the past (all in the interest of research etc etc) and the pastry has been awful. Unsurprising really, given the absence of wheat and flour in its construction.
The initial view from our team was that perhaps we should compensate on pastry scoring somewhat, due to the added difficult of making a gluten free pastry. However, ultimately we discounted this because “all pies must be equal” and the challenge for the entrants must surely be to try and make the best pie (and pastry) they can despite the absence of one or two ingredients.
We also had a judge in our group – Colin Rich, a Salford lad – who owns The Pastry Room who runs a gluten free pastry business, so he certainly knew what he was looking for.
To be fair, the multitude of pies put in front of us were all of vastly different shapes, sizes and textures confirming that there was great research and creativity behind their construction.
I’ll be careful what I say here in the interests of professionalism and not hurting feelings but, yes of course, some were awful pies, whereas by contrast, there were, as ever, some amazing pies on display. Some of them however, are so bad, you wonder why they would ever bother considering entering a pie competition.
Our feedback was always considerate and constructive, as we are advised to be. Like most of the judges, I love pies and it’s not my natural reaction to be harsh about matters when I have a pie in my hand!
In particular for the free from section, some of the pastry was like cardboard, or flimsy or just plain terrible, and the challenge of trying to bake a pie which holds together must be threefold compared to a normal pie, but we judged consistently and of course, at least half of the marks available were on offer for flavour and filling, which is arguably even more important than the pastry.
During the course of our judging, we had one or two real stars early on, then a disappointing lull, followed by a mixed bag, with one or two more high scoring pies.
Once we had finished marking our 20 or so pies, we then reviewed with the other half of the team and applied a consistency review to the 42 pies in the whole category to decide our Class winners.
As the results have not yet been released, I perhaps can’t divulge any more but I am eagerly awaiting them to see who produced the stars of our category, and also to see how many of my favourite pies have fared across the other categories.
For me, it was then a trip to the Pork Pie Shoppe to pick up some pies and ale, then a quick pint with my Pie At Night co-judge Chris in the Anne of Cleves (it was my birthday after all! then back up north with a full belly.
Martin Tarbuck is the author of Life of Pies, one man’s quest to find the perfect pie. You can buy online here