The town of Melton Mowbray is known by many for its pork pies, but at the British Pie awards taking place there this week it has been the vegan category that has attracted the most entries.
“It took people a while to accept the vegetarian class, but the vegan class? In the home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie? That was a bit of a challenge,” said Matthew O’Callaghan, the chairman of the town’s pork pie association – despite being a vegetarian himself.
“We wanted to make the pie awards inclusive. I know it’s a bandwagon, but I think a lot of butchers and others are entering the vegan class to test new recipes and flavours. But I don’t think the classics are going anywhere. Steak and ale is always in the top three.”
Delayed from March owing to the pandemic, a collection of 150 judges travelled to the Leicestershire town on Wednesday to painstakingly sample and mark 800 pies across categories ranging from beef and ale to dessert, fish pies to the classic Melton Mowbray pork pie.
This year’s vegan category featured the some of the most innovative entries, with pies including spicy jackfruit, mushroom and ale, and bombay potato. When a vegan pie won the top prize in the 2019 competition it ruffled a few feathers, but the organisers think attitudes are changing.
“This year, vegan is the most popular class with nearly 70 entries – it’s bang on trend. I think once upon a time it was all about meat and two veg, but we’re more travelled and better read than we’ve ever been. We’re more adventurous with our food,” said Stephen Hallam, a former managing director of Dickinson & Morris, the oldest makers of Melton Mowbray pork pies.
After the pies were blessed by the Rev Kevin Ashby – “we pray that none of the pies here today will suffer a soggy bottom” – judges split off into pairs to mark the entires based on factors such as appearance, pastry thickness and filling taste. Each pairing contained a expert judge such as a chef or baker and an enthusiastic amateur, who had to pace themselves as they launched the mammoth task of sampling dozens of pies across the day.
Each table was equipped with lime juice to help judges cleanse their palate in between entries. “Everyone thinks it’s the most exciting job in the world, but the pastry indigestion for the rest of the day is a delight,” said Malika Andress, a former chef and one of the judges in the vegan class, jokingly.
The awards can pack quite a punch in the industry, and previous winners have been greeted by queues of customers snaking down the street after winning a coveted trophy. Amy and Philip Smith, a pie-making couple from Twyford near Reading, visited the awards on their honeymoon. After winning seven awards last year, this year they submitted 15 pies – including a vegan and vegetarian pie for the first time – and said they had endured some sleepless nights in anticipation of the results.
“The buildup for this year has been unreal. We entered for the first time last year and didn’t think we’d even get noticed, never mind win anything,” said Amy Smith. Their business, Rural Pie Co Ltd, has gone from strength to strength despite the pandemic, and last year they upgraded their market stall to a shop and cafe.
“It’s not necessarily about winning something and the publicity, it’s about the appreciation for what we do,” Smith said. But what is it about the humble pie that excites them so much?
“It sounds a little bit cliche, but it’s traditional British food,” she said. “You can play with it and be creative but it’s just proper comfort food. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who doesn’t love it.”