Piebury Corner: A Love Letter To Arsenal's Cult Pie Shop...
It says something about a place when, the day you go to review it, the Evening Standard has beaten you to it. Husband and Wife team of Paul and Nicky Campbell opened The Pie Deli Piebury Corner on the bustling Holloway Road in November 2012 and haven’t looked back.
The hard working pair, who live on the corner of Gillespie Road and Avenell Road, a goalkick from the much loved and much missed Highbury, saw a gap in the market for good quality pies. “With the growth in popularity of farmers markets and locally sourced products, added to the lack of real quality in terms of football catering we decided to start making our own pies on matchday” said Nicky.
The pair first sold the pies from the front of their house to passing supporters before and after games. “We even had permission from the council to change the road sign on matchdays to Piebury Corner” revealed good natured Paul, a native of Ayrshire. “A local Tory councillor complained but she was overruled”. The sign is now an iconic part of local folklore not to mention an integral part of their branding.
With hard work, fresh ingredients and quality cooking the pies soon began to become popular. “We are passionate about what we do, there is nothing contrived about our food”, said Nicky enthusiastically. “We have put everything into it. I haven’t drawn a wage since we began and we work 100 hours a week to make this a success”.
Having tasted a selection of their offerings I can attest to their quality and see why they were placed at an impressive 23rd in the recent Time Out Cheap Eats guide covering the whole of London. Not a bad ranking considering the amount of food places and options that are required to feed nearly 10 million people on a daily basis in the capital.
I had a Steak and Ale Pie, roast potatoes and lashings of home-made gravy. The pie crust was just the right consistency of crispy and soft, the tatties were light and fluffy inside and baked to perfection on the outside, with a delicate but crunchy texture, and displayed a marvellous golden brown colour. Inside the pie were generously apportioned cubes of high quality steak complemented by a hearty ale gravy that was – unlike some so-called gourmet pies I could mention – never cloying or overpowering. In short the pie was perfect and I would heartily recommend it to one and all.
But there is so much more to the intriguing Piebury Corner than that: Where to start?
Well for a die-hard Arsenal fan like myself all the pies are named after Arsenal legends. For example the wonderful Steak and Ale pie is known as The Tony Adams, (“well he did like a drink in the past”) The Dennis Bergkamp, made of chicken ham and leek, (“he was too scared to fly on a plane” explained Paul. I must have looked blank for a second. He soon helped me. “Some people would have called him chicken…”). You’ve got the Ian Wright consisting of Lamb and Mint – “cos he’s such a mint geezer ” said Paul, adding proudly “Ian Wright tweeted that he loved it”.
My matchday staple is usually of The Charlie Nicholas, which is a classic Scotch Pie made from 100% Ayrshire minced beef, but if your pallet is a little more refined than mine you can always opt for the far more sophisticated Thierry Henry (venison and red wine). There is even The Viera’geterian, crammed with that Gallic combination of cheese, onion, garlic and potato.
The terrific home-made gravy is even known as “Me Julies gravy”, in honour of Nicky’s best friend and co-worker Julie who makes the accompaniment using a secret recipe. It is also testament to the egalitarian nature of the enterprise that kudos is shared between all. There is even a serving hatch to cater for passing trade known as the “For Your Pies Only Window”.
Inside the shop as I ate I took a look at the tiled walls. To my delight it was an Arsenal love fest. There was a menu from the far-off days of the Arsenal restaurant in the Art Deco East Stand (“Pies 6d”) along with a cover shot of the Official Arsenal Handbook from the 1948/49 season (A year, incidentally, that saw the deadly rivals from N17 beaten 3-0 in the Cup. There were no league games between the two as the Lilywhites plied their trade at a level below the Gunners. Plus ca change).
The display also showed pictures of the North Bank being built, huge black and white crowds milling outside Highbury, and, in a nice nod to the club’s history, the front of a programme dating back to Arsenal’s first season at Highbury in 1913.
But this is not a place solely for Arsenal fans. As Nicky clarified: “Of course it’s great that so many Arsenal fans like us, but we are based on Highbury Stadium rather than being on an Arsenal themed pie shop”, adding “away fans are welcome too. In fact we welcome all true football fans”.
Even Spurs fans I ask?
Long standing Arsenal Season Holder Paul answered with a twinkle in his eye. “There’s an estate agents next door. Spurs fan. Took him six months to come in and order something. Still don’t think he’s told his mates though”.
What did he have?
“Chicken Ham and Leek”. Paul’s answer was proof of something every true Gooner knows: that Arsenal’s North London rivals have always secretly savoured Dennis Bergkamp.
To my delight there are even four turnstiles used as tables. “W.T. Ellison and Sons were Engineers from Salford and built them in 1938” Paul tells me. The only slight disappointment of my day is when he admits truthfully that he can’t verify 100% that that were ever used at Arsenal. Sensing my regret he tells me “in all likelihood we believe that two of them may have been used at Wembley and/or Arsenal. It’s just that we can’t properly prove it”. His honesty is admirable.
Yet like many things at Piebury Corner they still have an intriguing story. “We picked up one set that was lying in an old couple’s back garden. Another was at an auction in Chesterfield. It had been painted blue. Turns out it had been used in that Brian Clough film the Dammed United and had been coated that colour to look like a turnstile at the Baseball Ground apparently”.
Warming to his theme Paul continued, “Bane of my life they were”. Through the merest of smiles he added, “The work I’ve put into them - I’ve had to shop brush them, sand them, clean them and paint them.” But his pride stems from a working man’s satisfaction at a job well done. It’s not surprising as Paul, a qualified shopfitter by trade, also runs his own joinery business called Brushplanes.
At Piebury Corner you don’t just get great food and turnstiles that have appeared in films. What you also get is good old fashioned conversation and a warm convivial atmosphere too.
I ask about the Kenny Sansom incident. Nicky tells me with genuine alarm. “The poor man. Hadn’t taken his medicine that day. He was walking past our place when he collapsed on our doorstep. I didn’t realise who he was till much later. He was literally blue. His heart had stopped. I thought he was going to die there and then. Luckily the Ambulance men came extremely quickly - god bless them - and put him in recovery.
“But the strange thing was it was snowing that day. Freezing cold it was. We put the awning up to stop the snow from falling on him. But he looked so cold and blue. So I rushed upstairs to get him a cover. Well, the first thing I picked up was my daughters pink blow up bed. It was the only thing I could get my hands on quickly as I was in shock. It wasn’t funny at the time but the sight of this poor man lying there with a child’s pink Barbie cover must have looked a bit strange…”
Thankfully the rotund but legendary ex-Arsenal and England left back made a full recovery, much to the relief of all Gooners and true football fans alike, not least the Campbells. “We had to name a pie in his honour after that”, Paul confided.
“What else could we do but name our most healthy pie after him: that’s why our sweet potato, aubergine and lentil pie is now called The Kenny Sansom”.
People come from far and wide to visit Piebury Corner. But when talk turns to their near neighbour, now a world renowned brand, let alone a football club I can sense a hint of disappointment that soon turns to another engrossing story that should have the makings of a film.
Arsenal Football Club have a long term contract with an American based catering company. The long and short of it is that whichever way you look at it, unfortunately there is no chance in the foreseeable future that the club will be able to stock the excellent quality food from local merchants such as the Campbell’s. You could argue that’s capitalism. You pays your money and you takes your chances. (Doesn’t make it right however - for what it’s worth I think Arsenal are missing a trick by not providing such great fayre and are actually losing out on custom – I for one haven’t spent a penny on food in the Gunners new ground in seven years. Which if you knew the size of my belly would surprise you to say the least…)
But what happened next is priceless. If you haven’t heard the “Pie-Jack” account read on…
Nicky takes up the story. “There was a Football Pie League (FPL) competition set up on Facebook for fans to vote for the best pies in football. They then associated themselves with the Stadium Experience Awards who decided to give the “fans choice” award to the winners of the pie league. Somehow Piebury Corner won but the FPL decided to change the rules and say the award was issued to clubs instead so the company that provides Arsenal’s stadium catering was invited to the awards night instead of us.
“Well, you can imagine, it’s one thing not to be able to sell our produce inside the ground – it’s another thing completely for someone else to pick up an award for food they had absolutely nothing to do with”.
Showing their instinctive disdain for authority which must be applauded, they went to the awards ceremony down on the South Coast anyway. “I must admit we’d had a couple of drinks by the time they gave out the prize. A bloke representing their company even had the gall to go up on stage and receive the honour. He was actually photographed with his hand in the air in triumph. We’d had enough by then so we went on the stage with them. The bloke said to us, rather rudely I must say – “who are you?”
“ “I replied: “we’re Piebury Corner, we made the bloody pies!!” “
Showing their spirit and lack of bitterness they did have a laugh about it afterwards. “We joked that it was the only trophy Arsenal have picked up since the move from Highbury” said Nicky, tongue firmly in cheek, adding: “Mind you they never did give us our trophy…”
The local press soon picked up the story and named the episode Pie-Jack. And if the story isn’t a Hollywood Film Adaptation in ten years I’ll be very surprised.
The couple aren’t believers in fate, preferring the more tangible rewards of hard work, but the fact is that, as their success expanded from selling pies outside their house, the premises they moved into on the Holloway Road provided a good omen at the very least.
The shop they now trade from has had a “colourful” past shall we say. If you want to know more I suggest you try and catch a word with Paul or Nicky, as my lips are sealed. But as they were renovating the previously derelict property prior to moving in they pulled back an old sign. Underneath was proof that they were doing the right thing. “To our amazement we saw an old faded sign that read “Williams Homemade Pie and Eeel Shop” that dated back almost a century”, revealed Nicky. “We had absolutely no idea it was there. Seeing that lucky omen gave us encouragement that we were doing the right thing”.
Piebury Corner is also deeply involved in the community it lives and serves in. All daily leftovers are given to the Pillion Trust Homeless Charity for young people in Islington and there are plans for the cult Steve Bald Podcast to be recorded from the deli. What’s not to like?
The personable and hugely engaging couple have big plans for their business. “We also love our music and are thinking of expanding into Festivals. One of the joys of working for yourself is that fact that you can try and take it anywhere you want to go”, said Nicky. The shop is fully licenced and has a playlist to entertain its growing clientele on matchdays. “We love things like ska, dub, mod, roots and reggae – anything but pop” she says with conviction.
“Matchdays are great but are only around 30 days a year. We need to pay our staff their wages based on income all year round. I can’t see why we couldn’t have a music based menu and take it to small - or large festivals”. The fact that they can count on such musical royalty as Ian Brown and Bobby Gillespie as satisfied customers surely helps.
“We have proved that if you combine passion with hard work and a little bit of luck you can try and make a go of things” a modest Nicky concludes. “Our food has soul”.
To that I could add high quality, locally sourced ingredients, generous helpings, fantastic taste, a pleasant and hospitable welcome, original ideas, canny but stylish guerrilla marketing, and the satisfying triumph of the underdog against big commercial business in a world that is becoming increasingly disillusioned with unfeeling and bland corporate behemoths.
On the way out after a warm farewell from the whole gang, I spied another picture on the wall. It was an old poster of the plans for Highbury in 1913, after the club’s brave and revolutionary move from its Woolwich antecedents. It read simply: “Build it and they will come”.
It could have been talking about Piebury Corner itself.
Piebury Corner 209-211 Holloway Road, London, N7 8DL. Tel No: 0207 700 5441 @pieburycorner
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