As a resident of the official pie capital of the country and home of the World Pie Eating Championships (Wigan) I have always had a strong awareness in the local fascination with pastry products. Yet what I realised throughout the construction of my book “Life of Pies” is that The British obsession with the humble pie stretches far and wide touching every corner of this fair land.
I certainly went at it with a fair sample size eating around 400 pies in two years so here – IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER – as any contest worth its salt would always tell you, are ten of my best:
Morecambe Football Club
Graham Aimson is a chef with a difference. Given the choice of charging £30 per head for six tiny morsels of food stacked up like Lego bricks on a huge plate, he opts to feed thousands of lower division football fans each week instead. Ever since Morecambe insourced their catering operation from another fine pie maker (Potts Pies) Morecambe have hit upon a winning formula under Graham’s stewardship making great pies which arguably outshine the football on display.
A regular and deserved accumulator of Best Football Pie awards, these clunky beauties can also be purchased direct from the club and taste even better after a good 25 minutes in the oven whether you opt for the tried and tested Meat and Potato formula or the more exotic Chicken, Ham and Leek version.
Mad O'Rourkes (Tipton)
There’s two things Mad O’Rourkes in the Black Country is famous for. Firstly, for being the place where a young Frank Skinner cut his teeth in stand up and secondly for the Pie Factory. Their infamous Cow Pie is served on a reinforced table and you get a certificate if you can finish it. Full of bravado, my first reaction was “Where’s the chips” but there is way too much food in this pie for one person to eat: carrots, potatoes, button mushrooms, a bit of kidney and all flanked by enough meat to amply feed a family of four.
The gargantuan slabs of intricately flavoured steak are swimming in dark, wholesome gravy. The puff pastry alone is six inches tall and its piece de resistance is two large pastry horns to mop the tributaries of gravy up with. However, somewhat controversially its top crust only which is enough to infuriate the pie purists enough to start a petition.
Imagine having to ring through your order to a pie shop? However, Greens is no ordinary pie shop, it is a local institution. Greens is apparently the pie vendor of choice of the Hairy Bikers and I can see why. Like a step back in time, the queues came out of the door with me stood behind an octogenarian with his moped helmet under his arm and two members of the local constabulary talking to everyone on first name terms.
As for the pies, well if you're a meat and potato junkie like me you'll be in heaven. A soft, lardy crust which melts in the mouth like a sweet lullaby. Bite into it and you'll be amazed how it all fits in as the layers of juicy potatoes inside expand concertina fashion whilst little boulders of meat and juices attack your tastebuds. A hearty traditional feed for a mere £1.20. Although the shipbuilding industry might not be what it was, the whole of Barrow-in-Furness is a pie hotbed of the highest order so it might be worth venturing down that long cul de sac after all, dear pie rambler.
The Pie Kitchen (Bury St Edmunds)
I was so keen to track down the 2013 British Pie Award winners that I literally turned up in their kitchen the morning after they’d had a heavy weekend to raid their fridge. When Carol and Sally found themselves in receipt of the illustrious “top pie” honour, their business went through the roof and they have had to quickly find some bigger premises.
I can’t say I’ve ever had cause to visit Bury St Edmunds for pie business or otherwise but upon accidentally driving into its sugar factory it resembled downtown Detroit. Anyway, after reversing my car into a neighbours drive resulting in him thrusting his hedge trimmers at me and shouting “go to the end of the fucking road if you want to turn around”. I soon got re-directed to Sally’s houses where I cleaned their fridge out of dustbin lid sized chicken & tarragon pies and steak and ale finding their passion for pies exhibited in every mouthful of the rich, well crafted filling.
I rang through in advance and a pleasant lady told me that the kitchen would be open from 6 even if the shop wasn’t so just ring the bell. Unfortunately, someone appeared to have stolen the bell. Nevertheless, I prodded it open and wandered straight into the kitchen to find two large gentlemen knocking out the produce. A large, warm package was exchanged for a mere pound.
They call it a “Clarks Tache” locally. No need to do Movember down in the Principality. Simply bite into one of these oval delights and you’ll soon be experiencing the sensation of hot bubbling gravy inviting itself onto your top lip. Its shape is reminiscent of a savoury rock cake with dense shortcrust pastry which has an apple pie type texture and sweetness to it.
Although their signature beef and veg pie seems to mainly consist of mince and gravy, it is sufficiently opulent to send you to pie heaven and back.
Percy Turners (Barnsley)
SIXTY FIVE PENCE. Not even two thirds of one English pound! And I got a chunk of dried blood handed to me in my change! Percy Turners butchers in the village of Jump near Barnsley is another local institution, and despite a window stacked high with hens' eggs they specialise in the traditional Yorkshire “growler” served still warm from the oven.
Also a noted delicacy in places like Skipton and Otley and across most of the White Rose county, the pork pie eaten whilst cooling from the oven is a real pocket hand grenade of a feed. The jelly starts to dissolve into the crust and the peppery sausage meat causing a messy and fiery episode at times but you've not lived until you've felt that wonderful experience of warm pie juice dribbling down your chin.
G. Kelly (London)
Not to be confused with R&B demigod R.Kelly, the pie and mash shop proprietors all have their initials in front, no doubt harking back to days of yesteryear when they were one man dishing up from a wheelbarrow on East End Markets. Now, I'd be lying if I said this was my favourite pie but no review would be complete without a pie and mash entry and Kellys are one of the best.
Situated deep within the heart of the capital in Bow, I wandered into their shop through the bustling market on Roman Road and faked a completely pathetic Cockney accent which the serving lass saw straight through. The meat is slightly cheap tasting mince encased in an oblong shaped pie with tapered crust but that's the traditional way and long may it remain. I also forced myself to indulge in a pot of eel liquor, which for all my pre-conceived phobias was remarkably inoffensive, kind of like a parsley infused vinegar.
Pauls Pies (Oxfordshire)
If Greens or Percys is a pie to represent the Northern heartlands, Pauls is a prime contender to be the finest pie in the South. With a range of fine flavours, their Steak and Guinness is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch with prime cuts of meat combined with bacon, mushroom and onions. The suet based pastry is simply perfect and with a top crust shaped like a crown, this is indeed a pie fit for a king!
Look out also for Paul’s Christmas Pie at this time of year which possesses layers that look to have been measured out with a spirit level.
It was a toss up whether to include Bowens or Galloways (of Wigan) to represent the quintessentially Lancastrian meat and potato pie, however I rated Bowens of Adlington near Chorley as the best pies in the North West and invited them to cater for my book launch.
Despite concerns they may have "fluked" it and caught me on a particular hungry day when I visited their shop I was delighted to sample their wares once more including a meat and potato pie which ticks all the boxes: a sloppy potato based filling with ringlets of mince, a peppery kick, all perfectly encapsulated in a soft yet sturdy crust ensuring that this weighty number can be chomped on using just your hands. They also do a mean butter pie, another local speciality and with prices at little over a quid each represent great value.
As if to underline their high regard, Bowens are also the current incumbent provider for the World Pie Eating Championships which are held in Harrys Bar, Wigan each year. The 2014 Championships take place next week.
Sweeney & Todds (Reading)
Reading strikes me as quite a modern, generic town but in Sweeney & Todds they have a proper unique little gem of an establishment. At any point in time they will have a selection of their menu of up to 30 pies on offer, to eat in or take away featuring some truly innovative flavours.
Whereas the vicar pie is intriguing featuring almost every ingredient that you can think of, I plumped for the Five nations pie consisting of steak, Guinness, leeks, mustard and garlic. A big, round pie complete with hand cut chips, veg, a boat of gravy all washed down with a couple of pints of Wadsworth 6X. Oh and a splendidly fresh but totally unnecessary side of salad…..
There's my starter for ten, and whoops I forgot the Melton Mowbray, Scotch Pie or Steak & Gravy, let alone the more obscure Fidget Pies or syndicated pastry products such as Cornish Pasties or Bedfordshire Clangers.
There's a total of 314 pies discovered, eaten and reviewed in my new book Life of Pies. It's available to buy direct from http://www.lifeofpies.co.uk or search for Life of Pies on Amazon.
Those are ten of my choices, I'd love to hear yours....