I've finally found Britain's best pie – and it's a classic

848 pies and 134 judges but only one winner: which pie reigned supreme?

 The 12th annual British Pie Awards - Ladies in Pigs
The Ladies in Pigs, posing at the British Pie Awards Credit: Martin Elliot

Melton Mowbray can be said to be the pie capital of Britain. The Leicestershire market town is not only home to the Melton Mowbray pork pie, a noble creation with its own Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and strict rules including an uncured filling (Melton Mowbray pork pies are a dull, rather than bright, pink inside). Melton, as the locals call it, has for the last 12 years been the setting for the British Pie Awards, celebrating what is surely the pinnacle of our country's pastry craft. 

Last Wednesday, I joined the 134 judges gathered for the tasting in St Mary’s Church. It was a broad church in our cohort too, from food writer Jo Pratt to chef Marianne Lumb, through to the manager of the Q Butchers Guild, Claire Holland, and TV producer Andy Clarke, the man behind James Martin’s recent series. “We can eat food from all over the world, but Brits still love pie!” Clarke told me, pointing out that it’s not just old traditionalists but young foodies who are enjoying pie, too. “These days good artisan pie makers are part of any street-food market.”

For the Awards, there were a total of 848 pies to be thoroughly assessed, submitted from 160 different pie makers – mostly small producers – in 23 categories encompassing the likes of pork pies, fish pies, steak pies, dessert pies and pasties. Yes, pasties: a pie, the rules state, “is deemed to be a filling wholly encased in pastry and baked”. There is no truck with mashed potato or lattice tops, or fried samosas, or even the kind of pie I’m most likely to make at home, the lid-only pie. Maybe they are right: dispensing with the bottom layer of pastry is a cop out, although it still allows the chief joy of a hot pie – breaking through the crust to allow a gush of savoury steam to escape. 

I was allocated the vegan pies category by the organiser Stephen Hallam, nattily dressed in a red chef’s jacket. “Bad luck,” mouthed a fellow judge, wrinkling his nose in sympathy. But I was delighted. Vegan pies are something of a breakout category – it was only established two years ago, but this year had the second highest number of entries, trumped only by steak pies. Last year the Supreme Champion trophy was awarded to a vegan curried sweet potato and butternut squash pie made by a real meat butcher, Jon Thorner's from Somerset. It was a controversial decision. “I got a lot of ribbing,” head judge Colin Woodhead told me, adding by way of explanation, “I’m from Scarborough.” But he pointed out, “in the end it was the best pie, the one you kept going back to for another piece.”

On with the judging. We donned gloves and split into teams of two, then set to on the first pie, checking its glossy brown top studiously. “Does it make you want to buy and eat it?” asked our judging notes. “Does it disappoint?” My judging partner, Claire Holland, tipped the pie out of its container. Was it evenly baked? Too much “boil out”, the baker’s term for juices which have bubbled through cracks in the crust, was marked down, as was burnt pastry. 

Holland cut into the pie. “It sounds good,” she remarked as the crust split with an audible crunch. The pie was well stuffed – good news, since meanly filled pies with huge air pockets meant more points docked. It tasted good too, a mix of spicy vegetables, with a good texture and flavour to the veg and a generous lacing of cumin seeds. But alas, the pastry, although golden on the outside, had a thick uncooked layer within. No gold medal for this one, then. 

Pies on parade at the British Pie Awards 2020 Credit: Martin Elliot

We moved on to the next pie, and the next. There were some corkers – a crisp little beauty stuffed with vivid green spinach and kale spiked with ginger, and a spicy jackfruit number that I’d happily skip the steak and kidney for. Some had softer pastry inside, but when it was well cooked and saturated with gravy it was delicious enough to pass. But several fell victim to that unappetising blanket of raw pastry, sometimes lurking on the sides and top as well, particularly the ones with flaky puff pastry. Woodhead eyed an example and shook his head sadly, remarking, “It is very, very difficult to get a good bake on puff pastry with a moist filling.” And, sorry vegans, with pastry made with bland vegetable fats rather than butter, it’s particularly dismal.  

But even butter is controversial. Jo Pratt, who worked with the late Gary Rhodes before going on to write a series of cookbooks, was firm on the point. “Salted butter is best. It gives a fantastic flavour and the salt is evenly distributed all the way through”. Adding salt later, particularly big flakes of sea salt, just isn’t the same, she added. Hallam, himself a champion pie baker at Dickinson & Morris, whose Melton Mowbray pork pies won Supreme Champion two years ago, prefers a mix, especially for puff pastry. “Butter is around 20 per cent water, with salted butter having slightly more water than unsalted, and particularly with puff pastry you want a high fat content to ‘fry’ the pastry layers in oven. That seals them and traps the steam escaping from the flour and water, which puffs the layers.” With solid vegetable fat getting close to 100 per cent fat, he likes a half-and-half blend with butter, “which just does taste better.”

Lumb goes further. “I’m experimenting with leftovers of goose fat from Christmas and schmaltz [chicken fat] in combination with butter.” It might sound odd, but anyone who has tried lardy cake, a delectable sugary flaky bun rich with lard will know how good the subtle savouriness can be even in sweet baking. 

Don’t forget the filling either. “Getting colour on the meat [or veg] and using really good stock, well reduced, helps,” says Lumb, who currently works as a private chef to Star Wars producer George Lucas. The gravy consistency is important too. “It should coat everything nicely, and not run out.” Above all, seasoning is vital: pie isn’t about subtlety, so be generous with the salt and pepper. 

The annual British Pie Awards at St Mary's Church, Melton Mowbray Credit: Martin Elliot

The Supreme Champion, which was announced on Friday, certainly fit that bill. The steak and Stilton pie made by Turner’s of Sussex didn’t just have perfect pastry, but a great filling and meat that was tender but still had a little bite – no one wants a mushy pie. “Overall,” said Woodhead, “A cracking pie,” and one worthy to wear the Melton Mowbray crown. 

The class winners

  • Melton Mowbray pork pie:  M&S handcrafted large Melton Mowbray pork pie (440g), by Walker & Son
  • Pork pie: Walkers fluted pork pie (440g), by Walker & Son
  • Cold-eating savoury pie: Pork and black pudding pie, by Dales Traditional Butchers Ltd
  • Pasty: West Cornwall Pasty Co. cheese and spinach
  • Dessert pie (including Bramley apple pie): Bramley apple pie, by Morecambe FC
  • Steak and kidney pie:  Jarvis Pickle steak and kidney pie
  • Beef and any flavour combination pie: Steak and onion pie, by Yorkshire Pie Bakery
  • Beef and ale pie: Beef and Salcombe Brewery riptide ale, by Passion For Pie
  • Beef and cheese pie: Turner's steak and Stilton pie, by Turner's Pies Ltd
  • Meat and potato pie: Meat and potato pie, by The Custodial Pie Corporation
  • Lamb pie: Pepper's Cottage Bakery minted lamb pie, by Pepper's Cottage Bakery
  • Chicken pie: Chicken and ham hock pie with crème fraiche and white wine, by Higgidy
  • Chicken and vegetable/herb pie: The West Mill chicken and leek pie, by The West Mill Kitchen ltd
  • Chicken with other meat pie: Chicken and ham hock pie, by Nice Pie
  • Speciality meat and game pie: Homemade venison, stout and chestnut pie, by Truly Traceable Venison & Game Pies
  • Hot-eating savoury pie: Cheese and onion, by Piemezzanae
  • Fish pie: Nice fish pie, by Nice Pie
  • Vegetarian pie: Thomas' cauliflower cheese pie, by Thomas The Caterer
  • Vegan pie: Squash, spinach and feta (vegan) pie,  by MUD Foods
  • Pub pie: The Woodmans Arms salmon, cod, smoked haddock and prawn pie, by We Are Never Limited
  • Sports pie: Lamb and vegetable, by Morecambe FC
  • Fish and chip shop pie: Chicken, leek and ham pie, by The Cods Scallops
  • Free from: Mad K goat's cheese, spinach and sweet potato pie, by Mad K Ltd T/A Mum & Dad's Kitchen
Turner's Pies - British Pie Awards 2020 Supreme Champion Credit: Martin Elliot

How to avoid pie pitfalls at home 

  • Dark patches: Keep the pastry even, or patches will burn before other parts are cooked through. Josephjoseph make a natty rolling pin with rings to help you achieve optimum thickness. £20 from oldrids.co.uk 
  • Burnt edges: Sweet pastry is particularly vulnerable to burning, so protect the edges with foil once it it firm (after about fifteen minutes).
  • “Boil Out”: Burnt spots where filling has bubbled out of the pie at the edges or through the steam hole, are a no-no. According to Hallam it’s down to too much runny juice – he recommends adding a little cornflour or potato starch sprinkled over raw fruit fillings, or stirred into meat gravy, to avoid this. 
  • Uneven baking: "Know your oven,” says Hallam. Everyone’s is a little different, so you need to watch as it cooks and turn your pie, or pop it on a higher or lower shelf, to even out the effect hot spots and avoid a pie that’s got a deeper tan on one side than the other. 
  • Soggy bottom: Start the baking with 10 minutes on high, at least 200C for shortcrust or 220C for puff, to set the pastry. Then reduce the temperature by 20C to finish the cooking. This gives the pastry a chance to cook through without burning the outside. 
  • Overcooked filling: most meat fillings are casserole style and improve with time, but those carrot slices or chunks of butternut squash can be reminiscent of school-dinners after an extra hour in the oven. Make sure they are a touch underdone when you fill the pie.