This week I was judging in the British Pie Awards in Melton Mowbray. This is always a highlight of the year even if the demanding pace of tasting means that Rennies are really missing a trick in not sponsoring the event.

I thought people might like an insight into how these events are judged. I’m sure many may have cynicism about award schemes but this one at least is a genuine event that manages to minimise both subjectivity and bias in the judging.

So, for the awards a pie is defined as “a filling wholly encased in pastry and baked”, and there are some 23 categories defined by filling (Steak Pie, Speciality Meat or Game Pie, Melton Mowbray Pork pie etc) or by producer (Small Producer, Public Sector etc).


Judges are briefed at St Mary’s Church, Melton Mowbray.

Judges – mainly industry insiders and other food producers – are allocated a category and work in pairs to assess submissions against a clear marking scheme. Pies start with 100 points – 20 for overall appearance, 15 for bake quality, 5 for pastry thickness, 15 for pastry taste and texture, 5 for how well filled and 40 for taste of filling. Judges remove points for where pies fall down. There are plenty of explanatory notes unpacking the criteria, plus at the beginning of judging the chief judge takes all judges through an example judging of a “control pie”, explaining why points might be deducted for overbaking, uneven pastry, under or over-seasoning, poor balance of meat/gravy and so on.

Pies are delivered to our table – hot if appropriate – and we get stuck in with the visual assessment before cutting the pie in half, tasting the pastry and then the filling. Each pie has a code number – so judges are unaware who made it, we simply have a list of the primary ingredients and allergens. Forms are duly filled in and a final score arrived at, and the remaining half-pies of three top scorers are delivered to the senior judges who confirm the class winner and also select an overall supreme champion.

No system is going to be perfect but with the measures put in to bring about some level of consistency and transparency (makers get to see judges marks and comments) this is at least a genuine attempt to get to the best pie.


The end of an arduous judging process

This year I had the “Pub Pie” category , I assume meaning made either by or for pubs. The majority were steak and ale but there were a few outliers such as smoked bacon and brie. Overall the quality was high – my judge pairing had no real clunkers – with a fair few pies awarded bronze (70-79 points) and silver (80-89 points) awards. We were waiting for a real star though and it came with the very last pie of the day – a stunning boeuf bourguignon effort with beautifully made pastry and a remarkably flavoursome filling with tender beef and all elements in balance. If that was served up in a pub you know you’d know you were in a special place.

*Friday 8 March, 3pm: The award winners have finally just been announced and I’ve discovered our winning pie was from The Bell Pie Shop at the Bell Hotel in Winslow, Bucks. It appears they won the category last year too. I hope that doesn’t seem suspicious  – hopefully the above explanation should assure everyone concerned that the best pie won.

Pheasant, partridge, mallard, snipe etc

Yesterday was quite a day for me. Firstly, City went top of the league  – even if only for two hours – after a fifth win a row. Then there was a lovely sunny morning out at the East Midlands Food Festival. I came back with a bag full of bread from King’s Rd bakery,  cheese, pistachio baklava, wild roe deer steaks, goat, pheasant and one of those very heavy Woll saute pans.The venison I dry-fried in the  pan last night with great success. The pheasant may serve for Sunday lunch today  – it was boned and stuffed which the regular habuitues of Melton’s market may welll consider a bit mimsy but I’m not sure I’ve got the knife skills or the patience to do all that stuff myself.

Very pretty battenberg fudge

It was great to earwig so many conversations from people who had made exciting new discoveries –  and were taking such pleasure in it.  Great, too, to see so many people carrying and reading Great Food magazine, which had struck a deal with the organisers to give a copy – including a festival guide – to everyone at the gate.

Happy shoppers

Just for you, Tara Chakraborti

And finally, there was a nice start to the day, discovering the Leicester Mercury had produced an excellent food themed issue of their Saturday magazine and had listed me as one of thirty-odd Leicestershire food heroes. I’d responded to a request a while back to help suggest a few names for this list (most of which I’m glad to see were taken up) but hadn’t really believed I would be included too. Very honoured to be in that company anyway.


The Sanctuary

June 15, 2012

One of the nice things about being involved in some small way with the restaurant business is that the friends you make often end up opening new places and you get a great excuse to go and see them. I found out yesterday that fellow Great Food columnist, top photographer, blogger and inspired homecook Hazel Paterson has got herself a head chef’s job at Hollingshead in Melton Mowbray. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights she’ll be knocking out stylish dishes such as grilled peach and goat’s cheese salad with blackberry dressing, watercress, red onion, balsamic glaze and violet flowers or ballotine of free range chicken breast stuffed with wild mushrooms and garlic served with buttery mash and porcini sherry sauce .

I hope to go over soon. The modern brasserie approach of her menu is along similar lines to another friend’s venue that I was able to go and visit this very lunch time. Kerry Mathie has a good pedigree in the business having managed London restaurants for Anthony Worrall Thompson, made television  programmes for the Food  Network, and run the  restaurant PR business Big Table. Late last year she took the plunge and opened her own venue  – The Sanctuary in Upper Saxondale, just off the A46 between Nottingham and Newark.

The Sanctuary

It’s a very sympathetically converted old Victorian asylum that several people have tried and failed to make a go 0f. But Kerry knows her stuff and has recruited a high quality team front and back of house.Crucially she knows how to promote and market a place too.

It’s not a fine-dining, destination venue. It’s a smart, stylish bar restaurant that looks after locals, engages with its community, but also draws in people from surrounding villages and the commuters moving up and down the nearby A52 and A46.

Anway the food – I started with a light and airy stilton mousse, paired with figs given a wafer-thin brulee of sugar and a salad including a nice crunch from hazelnuts and acidity from mustard dressing. I had a nibble of Kerry’s ceaser salad – an authentic version of a much-debased dish. For main, I went for Derbyshire longhorn sirloin steak, and it was great.  A classy cut, well-seasoned and cooked and beautifully presented with big fat hand-cut chips, field mushroom, grilled tomato, cress and a mild peppercorn sauce. It was precisely what you would hope for ordering this kind of dish at this kind of restaurant. Desert was a punchy parfait of strawberries and champagne from Southwell (err, that’s the strawberries, not the champagne).

Longhorn Steak

Throughly enjoyable food then in a stylish but far from intimidating setting,  this is definitely worth a visit if you’re up that way.

More cheese

June 6, 2011

Quick update on the cheese situation. Congratulations to Steve Parker who wins a copy of Tom Aikens’ book Cooking Creatively with Cheese, produced to mark the centenary of Long Clawson dairy. Happy cooking.

Other disappointed fromage fans might like to console themselves with a trip to Melton Mowbray this coming weekend and the first annual Artisan Cheese Festival. Held at the cattle market on the edge of the town centre, the event gives you chance to taste and buy from a range of specialist makers, many of them from our region and there will be pies, bread and wines available too.  Apparently  the event has attracted 21 delegates from the Japanese Imported Cheese Promotion Association – don’t know how big the UK’s Imported Cheese Promotion Association is but 21 sounds like a good turnout, so well done Japan.

The event runs Saurday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm and entry is £1.

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