There are some folk down in Leicestershire who think their pork pies are better than any other. They’ve got some funny ideas in Melton Mowbray. For in reality it’s not where a pie comes from that makes it the best, but what’s in it that’s the true test.
Of course, we in Yorkshire would argue that anything created within our borders knocks spots off whatever is conjured up outside them. Let’s face it – it’s in our DNA to do so whether we be talking about pies, beer, rhubarb or nutty slack.
History tells us that the first recorded recipe for a pork pie was in 1390 in the kitchen of King Richard II, the monarch whose actions led ultimately to War of Roses. Clearly, he has a lot to answer for given that the lands of the white and red roses are still prodding each other across the Pennines from time to time to this day.
Like so much of our traditional dishes, the British raised pork pie has its origins as a means of preserving meat. Unlike salting, curing and air drying, making pork pies was not intended to keep meat edible for some months, but was a way of extending the time over which pork could be eaten after a pig was slaughtered. And pretty much every rural family – even very poor folk – had a pig in the back yard as a source of food.
The hot water pork pie crust – made from boiling lard in salted water and tipping it into flour – acted as a container for the meat so it stayed fresher longer or didn’t get damaged in transit. Think edible Tupperware and you’re pretty near the mark.
Hot water pastry is capable of being moulded into shapes which support their own weight, so is ideal as a pastry pot for a good dollop of pork and herb and spice flavourings. Traditionally pies are made by raising the pastry into a cylindrical shape with a firm base, which it’s possible to do by hand, with the aid of a cylindrical shape like a jam jar or ‘pie dolly’ a wooden mould with a smooth knob handle at the top. The jar or dolly is removed when the pastry has reached the required height and is replaced with the pork and seasonings to taste. The pie is then sealed with a hot water pastry lid and a hole cut in the top.
Centuries ago, once the pie was baked, clarified butter was poured through the hole and the raised crust ensured the butter didn’t run out. When solidified, the butter excluded the air from touching the meat, keeping it fresh for some time, especially as hot water pastry doesn’t go stale as quickly as other types.
These days keeping meat fresh is not the primary purpose behind baking pork pies, so clarified butter is no longer used. But the meat still shrinks as it cooks, leaving a gap between the pastry and the meat filling which is why we now add a rich stock through the hole in the lid which sets into a firm jelly.
The spiritual home of the Yorkshire pork pie is the Old Bridge Inn at Rippondon near Halifax. Here, the Pork Pie Appreciation Society meets on regular Saturdays where members have over the last few years subjected more than 1,000 pie offerings to intense critical scrutiny. It’s not always been a good experience as they’re the first to admit – some pies, they say, have sent them into raptures while others have steered them speedily to the gents…
Members protect their pie connoisseurship with jealousy. And these are their rules for testing them: “First the pie is held up to the light, to admire its colour and structure. A good pie must not mind being probed, prodded and poked and, when sniffed, it must have an aromatic bouquet.
“The pie is cut then into two and the experts speculate upon its provenance and appellation. First the crust is nibbled and savoured. The the wedge is bitten into, its jelly swilled from one side of the mouth to the other. The meat is masticated noisily to extract every subtle nuance of taste.
“Only in Yorkshire can a pork pie be properly appreciated. A baked box of pulverised pig body parts is not something to be scoffed at.”
There is very definitely an art to the pork pie, and one who knows it as well as the best pork pie maker is Yorkshire artisan butcher Chris Moorby who works with us to deliver top notch charcuterie sessions as part of our Kitchen Social events.
Chris showed me how to make a traditional hand raised pie and the pictures here show the results. A bit of a pig’s ear if I’m honest, and work in progress I think, but great fun to make with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. As befits something as special as a pork pie…
Here’s the recipe Chris gave me which I’ve tweaked a bit because after all, every pork pie maker wants to make the recipe their own. The quantities here make four 1lb pies.
Yorkshire pork pie
Hot water pastry
580g strong plain flour
265g boiling water
Pork pie filling
800g lean pork shoulder, coarse minced – your butcher will do this for you
200g pork back fat, fine minced – again, get your butcher to do this
6-8 leaves finely chopped sage
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
15g fine salt
8g freshly ground white pepper – this might seem a lot, but pepper really does enhance the flavour
For the pastry add the water to a saucepan and heat. Add the lard to the water, stirring often until the lard melts. Pour the flour into a large mixing bowl and add salt, mixing together well.
Once the lard has melted into the water, bring to the boil and slowly pour into the flour. Be careful of the fat splashing as you pour. Mix well with a wooden spoon until the ingredients are cool enough to handle. Bring together the pastry to form a paste-like consistency, wrap in clingfilm, cool and then chill.
For the pork pie filling place the minced meat and back fat into a large bowl, add the salt, pepper, spices and sage and mix thoroughly.
Take the chilled pastry and divide into four equal amounts, approximately 250g each. From each piece remove about 20g of pastry and put aside for the lid. Knead the pastry to make it more pliable, but don’t over knead it as it will sweat.
With the larger pieces of pastry form burger-shaped pieces just under an inch thick. Using a floured pie dolly or similar (a baked bean tin works) raise the pastry with your hands. This is done by placing the dolly into the centre of the pastry and slowly easing up the pastry around the sides until you have a case about 5-6 inches high. To remove the pastry cases from the dolly, place the dolly on its side and roll gently across the work surface to loosen the pastry.
Stand the dolly back upright and slip a pallet knife between the dolly and the pastry and gently work round to ease it from the case. The case should then be chiiled to firm up.
To assemble divide the filling mixture into four equal amounts (about 250g each) and roll each into a ball shape. Press the ball into the pastry case. Take the smaller pastry pieces and roll each of the them out to just a tad smaller than the top of each pie base. Make a hole in the centre of each lid.
Egg wash the neck of each pie and place the lid on top to stick. Seal the lid to the base and crimp with your fingers or the prongs of a fork. Glaze the pies with egg wash and place in a pre-heated oven at 220C for around 15-20 minutes. Turn the oven down and bake for a further 60-70 minutes. Check the temperature at the centre of the pie with a thermometer (the meat will be cooked at 75C but the pastry might not be). To avoid this, leave the pie in the oven until the internal pie temperature reaches 90C.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Jelly the pie by mixing rich stock with some gelatine and pour into the pie through the hole in the lid. Would also work with chicken stock if you want to keep the jelly light.