TOP OF THE BRITISH PIE CHARTS

This week, Asda's chicken and bacon baked pudding (left) was judged best supermarket product from a list of 100,000. Perfected by craftsmen in Leicester, it elevates the pie from humble pub fare to a food for gourmets.
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The Independent Culture
Simple Simon never met a pieman quite like David Samworth. Twentieth- century pieman Samworth sells pies like no one has sold them in the history of piemanship. You may have bought one, though you've probably never heard of him or his company, Samworth Brothers. Yet it has a turnover of pounds 120m a year, based on massive sales to supermarkets of own-brand pies and puddings, not to mention a few million pounds-worth of Cornish pasties.

If, like me, you had a vague notion that modern Britons had rejected British traditional pies as passe, you would be wrong. Cold pork pies for summer eating and hot winter pies are enjoying a huge boom. Have you not noticed Mini Meltons? Miniature versions of a Melton Mowbray pork pie, invented by Samworth's, who sell 1.7m of them every week.

Yet it is only seven years ago that David Samworth opened a pounds 7m pie factory on the outskirts of Leicester, and with no customers in his sights. Devoting himself to Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door, he duly made some better pies and waited. There was one rule: no compromise on quality.

Tesco, who'd decided to upgrade a line of traditional products, were the first customers up the path. Others followed, sniffing out a bargain, only to be rebuffed. Factory manager Peter Harris says, indignantly, that some made totally unacceptable demands. "They'd say, 'These pies are good, but can you give us an extra day or two of shelf-life?'" Absolutely not. "I tell them I'm sorry, but we're not prepared to do that. Long shelf- life is incompatible with quality. We suggest you go elsewhere." Managing director, David Stein, amplifies: "If David Samworth hears that anyone is compromising on quality, he will beat them to death personally."

And it seems that virtue is not always its own and only reward. Samworth pie profits are soaring, turnover rising from pounds 3m in 1989; to pounds l.8m a week this year. So their commitment to quality has certainly paid off. And no-one is more thrilled than Asda, the least glamorous of the big supermarket chains. They came to Samworth's with a programme to revitalise their own traditional pie range. It was last November that they put their finger in the Samworth pie and this week they pulled out the golden plum. At the annual SuperMarketing magazine British Quality Food and Drink awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel, they won the supreme prize, the Gold Award for Best Supermarket Product of the Year.

Their Chicken and Bacon Baked Pudding was not only adjudged winner in its own category (chicken products) but it went on to outshine other category winners, each in their turn selected by supermarket buyers from some 100,000 food items on the nation's shelves. It was a remarkable win but thoroughly justified, according to a 24-strong panel of critical judges. Chairman of the Academy Culinaire and television cook Brian Turner thought it was "a magnificent pie with the real taste of delicious chicken'. Professor John Huber, who teaches patisserie at Thames Valley University, marvelled at the superb quality of the pie's crisp-baked suet crust.

Asda were over the moon to be nudging ahead of M&S, Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway. But they were not surprised. Says Asda's marketing chief, Alison Truman: "We had decided to revamp our pie section, to produce pies you'd like your Mum to bake, if she had time - and the skill."

They asked Samworth's to make some traditional pies using rich pastries but in a modern idiom; such as Mini Melton pork pies, steak and kidney pudding with beer, and this chicken pie. It is a coq au vin pie, filled with chunks of chicken (roast off the bone), best smoked bacon, onion, mushroom, and a wine sauce enriched with real chicken gravy. For added flavour, they made the unusual choice of a suet pastry crust, in this case baked rather than steamed, something you seldom see these days.

Samworth's development chefs, led by Ian Loftus, rose to the challenge. When they had done, they consulted Michael Roux, son of Albert Roux, who now runs Le Gavroche, the grand Mayfair establishment which sports two Michelin stars. "We took the pie into him and asked for his criticisms," says Brian Stein. "We expected him to suggest 15 different improvements, but he said 'I can't think of one'."

To those of us with doubts about the food industry, this is inspiring news; a factory producing food that a two-star chef would be proud to cook. Samworth's were relieved, but not surprised. "It is our best product; it really is superb," says Brian Stein with pride. "Every day we have a tasting panel of products in the factory and there's a fight to get it. It's always first to go."

But why should we be so surprised that a food factory should produce food of excellence? They have the expertise, the facilities, the technology, the resources, the potential for investment. Good heavens, all they need is the will.

So it was that I made my way to Leicester where they evidently have the will. Leicester, in the heart of the east Midlands, has had a tradition of good country food for centuries. Beside the covered market stands a pork butchers, one of the finest in the country, Henry Walker, founded 1824. Hams, appetising pork cuts of every description, sausages, hamlet (the Midlands version of a meat loaf) and other pork delicacies are arranged decorously.

This is pie country. We are only 17 miles from Melton Mowbray, home of the famous pork pie for centuries. Pork pies are famously old and go back at least to the 14th century, whence this recipe for Pig Pie. "Flay the pig and cut him in pieces. Season with pepper and salt and nutmeg and large mace. Lay in your coffin (pastry crust) a good store of raisins and currants. Fill it with sweet butter and serve it hot or cold." (You are left to guess how it's cooked).

The secret of Samworth's success soon becomes apparent. David Samworth, who had built up the pie company Pork Farms and sold it to Northern Foods, was looking for a new challenge. "I was looking to for a traditional product to take upmarket."

First on David Samworth's shopping list was Leicester's Henry Walker with its eight butchers' shops around the city. He bought it in 1986. This is the Walker who invented Walkers crisps in 1946 but sold out to a US company. Samworth used the Walker name to launch his traditional pie business. Then, in 1992, he bought the Melton Mowbray pie-maker Dickinson and Morris (founded 1625) to add an extra touch of authenticity, and justify launching his new product, the Mini Melton, a tiny pork pie. They sell an impressive 1.7m of them a week.

Samworth's is almost too good to be true. The quality of its chuck beef and pork shoulder and belly is a joy to behold (they use no trimmings). They make their own jelly for filling pies from boiled bone stock. Factory manager Peter Harris explains their philosophy. Unlike bakers who make and bake a pie in a day, here it is a four-day operation. They rest the pastry, rest the meat, rest the pies. "We have more space for refrigeration than manufacturing."

They build in a craft element in the baking, browning their crusts five minutes longer than most other bakers who bake a paler pie, playing on the safe side. "It's a risk and it can lead to wastage," says Peter Harris. "There's no leeway for error. But if it's difficult for me, it's difficult for the competition."

There is much to praise, for the company is renowned for its working conditions. The only hiccup is the noise, not so much the distorted Tannoy music, but the squeal of a thousand stuck pigs. No, pigs are not slaughtered on site. The trolleys on which pies are stacked for baking, though oiled each day, come out of the ovens with all their joints arthritic and seem to scream in pain as they are wheeled through the factory. Handlers wear ear plugs.

It was a flaw evidently not identified at the planning stage. Factory manager Peter Harris confides he was involved in the factory design. "I bought pounds 600 worth of Lego bricks, and we mocked it up. We called in the technicians, the managers, customers, environmental health officers." And from Lego bricks to pork pies it was but a short step.

There was a time, though, when commercially made pork pies seemed to be getting worse, not better - so adventurous cooks made their own. Despite the renaissance of the supermarket pie, purists might like to try their hand at it. It's an enjoyable pastime, like making a clay pot. Part of the secret lies in the making of the pastry.

PASTRY FOR HOT-WATER CRUST FOR RAISED PIES

This is the first step in making a good pork pie, delicious with a blob of Colman's mustard and a glass of, say, German lager or a pint of English real ale. This recipe is from Jane Grigson's classic Good Things (Penguin, pounds 14).

1lb plain flour

7oz water

6oz lard

12 teaspoon salt

scant tablespoon icing sugar (optional)

beaten egg

Sift flour, salt and sugar if used (it gives a richness to the pastry), into a bowl. Make a well in the middle. Bring water and lard to the boil and pour into the well immediately, bringing in the flour with a wooden spoon until the dough forms a smooth ball. Cover and leave in a warm place to cool a little. When it is malleable, remove about a quarter for the lid and put the rest into a greased, hinged two-pint pie mould (or cake tin with removable base). Shape the dough up the side. If it slides down it's still a little hot; leave it a while, then start again.

Pack the filling gently into the corners and undulations of the pastry- lined mould, and mound it up at the top to support the lid. Moisten the pastry rim with water or beaten egg, and lay on the reserved pastry, rolled out, as a lid. Trim and knock up the edges, make a hole in the centre and decorate with pastry shapes. Cut a strip of stiff paper, or a small piece of card, to roll up and push into the hole: this keeps it open during cooking. Brush lid and decorations with beaten egg.

A wooden pie mould, or a two-pound jam jar, may be used instead of a hinged pie tin or cake tin. In this case the pastry must be shaped or "raised" on the outside. Flour the wooden mould well before you start, or you won't be able to remove it from the pastry when it's cool. Tie a piece of thick paper (such as brown paper) round the warm raised pastry to help keep the shape. When the pastry is cold and set, remove the mould but not the paper, which remains in place until the pie has been baked and cooled. Pack the filling in gently and make a pastry lid. This is the way pies were made, and still are, in parts of the Midlands and East Anglia.

Bake for 30 minutes at 400F/Gas 6, then 1 1/2-2 hours at 375F/Gas 5. Let the pie cool a little, remove the mould, brush the sides with egg and return the pie to the oven for them to brown (protect lid with brown paper). Pour in runny but cool jellied stock (see below) through a funnel in the hole in the middle. Leave overnight before eating.

RAISED PORK PIE

Making a pork pie takes time rather than any special skill. You need to remember three things: about a third of the meat must be fat to keep the pie succulent; the filling must be well seasoned with herbs, spices and perhaps a dash of anchovy essence as in the Melton Mowbray area; the better the pork you use, the better the pie will be.

hot-water crust as above

For the filling:

2lb boned shoulder, throat or loin of pork, with 1 part fat to 2 parts lean.

12lb very thinly cut green bacon rashers

teaspoonful chopped sage

12 teaspoon each nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice

salt

freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon anchovy essence, or to taste

For the jelly:

bones from pork, plus veal knuckle or 2 pig's trotters

large carrot, sliced

medium onion stuck with two cloves.

bouquet garni

12 peppercorns

Make the jelly first. Put all the ingredients into a large pan and fill with water to within an inch of the top. Simmer for 5-6 hours, adding no salt. Strain off the stock into a clean pan, and boil it down hard to about 34 pint. Season with salt, and more pepper if necessary, and leave to cool. This jelly can be made a day in advance of the pied.

Next make the filling. Chop the pork, or mince it coarsely. Then mince half of it finely with two rashers of bacon. Mix all the pork well together; add the seasonings and anchovy essence. Fry a small piece of this mixture to test the flavour, remembering that dishes to be eaten cold always need a stronger seasoning than dishes to be eaten hot.

Make the crust, and line the mould as above. Lay the remaining rashers of bacon over the bottom and lower sides to form an inner lining. Pack in the filling and finish as described above. If the jelly has set firm, it should be melted to a state of cool runniness before being poured into a hot pie. Pour in a little of this jellied stock at a time, through the centre hole, using a kitchen funnel. Do this immediately the pie comes out of the oven finally, so that the stock sinks into the filling. Don't hurry, or you will flood the outer crust of the pie. The point of the jelly, flavour apart, is to fill the gap left by meat shrinkage. This will vary, and it is impossible to predict accurately, but 34 pint of jellied stock will be more than enough. Any left over can be used for soups, sauces, and dishes such as oeufs en gelee.

! Asda Chicken and Bacon Baked Pudding with Suet Pastry costs pounds 2.69 for 440g, serving two (or one very greedy person). Each one contains 1,160 calories, of which half are provided by fat.

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