Market town in upper-crust battle to give its pork pies a slice of history

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Though Melton Mowbray (pop 25,276) is a pleasant Leicestershire market town, you would not say it enjoys the gilded aura of, say, Beverly Hills or Cap d'Antibes. Yet in the world of pork pies, its name is a golden asset. It signifies class and, more important to the producers, brass.

Although the value of the UK pork pie market is at a near-standstill at £150m a year, the Melton Mowbray slice (about £50m of it) is growing at 5 to 6 per cent annually. But behind this lies a struggle over the application of the magic words "Melton Mowbray" to pork pies.

In 1999, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, a group of seven local manufacturers, applied to the EU to have their products categorised as protected geographical indication (PGI). This would restrict the use of the name in much the same way that 570 other European foodstuffs, including Bayonne ham, mortadella, Cornish clotted cream, Scotch beef and Stilton cheese, have been granted protected status.

After being approved by Defra (Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs), the application was submitted to the EU Commission months ago. At this point, the Hull-based company Northern Foods applied for a judicial review of Defra's decision. The Government suspended the application and agreed to investigate the application again.

Northern Foods withdrew its legal action this week. But what, you may ask, has Northern Foods got to do with Melton Mowbray pork pies? It makes Melton Mowbray pork pies for Marks & Spencer and Asda. But they are not made in Melton Mowbray or even the environs, but in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.

The antique, copperplate scrawl on the wrapper of Marks & Spencer Melton Mowbray pork pie declares it to be "the all-classic mouth-watering Melton Mowbray Pork Pie experience". This view is not shared by Matthew O'Callaghan, chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pie Association.

"I can't believe Marks & Spencer, with the reputation they have, would be selling such a pie when it clearly isn't a Melton Mowbray pie," he said. "Melton Mowbray pies are made with fresh pork so they are grey inside, and, because they are not cooked in a mould, they have bowed sides. Marks & Spencer pies are pink inside and have straight sides. They cannot be Melton Mowbray pies."

M&S pies have pink interiors because, as the label states, they are made from cured pork. This is a regional preference of the West Country, where pork pies traditionally used off- cuts from bacon production. The tradition of the Melton Mowbray area is to use fresh pork, a by-product of the local Stilton cheese industry (the whey was used to feed the pigs). "The meat in our pies is like a pork chop," says Stephen Hallam, managing director of the leading Melton Mowbray manufacturer Dickinson & Morris. "There are three parts to a pie: rich, crunchy pastry, succulent pork and tasty jelly. You cook the meat in the pastry then fill it with jelly until it overflows through the holes in the top. It's not rocket science."

The pork pie, at its best, is among the great treasures of British gastronomy, but the worst ones are unspeakable.Even Alan Davidson, compiler of the (generally) magisterial Oxford Companion to Food, says the products of Melton Mowbray had "an attractive, pink colour, while pies from other districts were brownish or greyish. In modern pies, which are always pink, the colour is achieved by chemicals." This is bizarrely inaccurate.

The Melton Mowbray pie took off as a snack for 19th-century foxhunters. It is a substantial foodstuff yet sturdy enough to resist destruction while being jolted in saddlebag or pocket. Many small manufacturers were spread across the hunting district. Today, only Dickinson & Morris remains in Melton Mowbray (D&M's Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe is the fifth-biggest tourist attraction in Leicestershire), but most of its output is made by a sister company called Charnwood Bakery in Leicester. This spread of production led to a complication in applying for PGI status.

The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association defined its area as "no more than a day's travel [by horse] from Melton Mowbray across routes with no tolls". Possibly slightly mystifying to the bureaucrats of Brussels, this radius of 20 miles around Melton Mowbray was annoying Saxby Bros. For a century, they have been producing authentic (grey meat, bulgy sides) Melton Mowbray pork pies, 40 miles away, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire.

"The name Melton Mowbray is synonymous with a quality pork pie and the name is everything," the chairman, Anthony Saxby said. "Wellingborough Pork Pies just does not have the same ring to it." So the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association extended its proposed PGI boundaries to include Saxby Bros. And the boundary was pushed north of the Trent, previously excluded on the academic grounds that "a pieman would not have paid a fee to a ferryman". This now took in the Nottingham pie factory of Pork Farms.

Though they do not produce Melton Mowbray pies, the meat in their pies has the grey colour of cooked, fresh pork. More importantly, Pork Farms is owned by Northern Foods. "If Northern Foods wanted to make Melton Mowbray pork pies with PGI status, this factory could be upgraded at minimal cost," Matthew O'Callaghan said.

Julian Wild, the company secretary of Northern Foods, which also claims to have been producing Melton Mowbray pies since the 19th century, said: "We strongly believe the PGI process is supposed to be used to protect food heritage, not to create artificial boundaries, which prevent competitiveness within domestic markets. We ask whether it is a coincidence that the same large food company behind this application is now leading the charge for a PGI for Cornish pasties."

This is true. Dickson & Morris and Charnwood Bakery are owned by Samworth Brothers, which produces 50 per cent of Melton Mowbray pies, and now has the Cornish pasty-maker Ginsters. Mr Wild adds: "If the PGI process is used in this way it will lead to a situation whereby recipe-based products with geographic references, say, Cornish pasties, Eccles cakes, Yorkshire puddings, Lincolnshire sausages, will be produced only in certain places by certain makers."

Mr O'Callaghan said: "The Yorkshire pudding argument is ridiculous. Every food should be judged on its merits. I believe our application is a turning point for British food. We must protect regional food; otherwise large manufacturers can plunder food inheritance, change recipes and deliver a substandard product."

But the proof of the pie is in the eating. My one-man tasting panel sat down to a table bearing two large Melton Mowbray pork pies, one from Marks & Spencer and made by Northern Foods of Trowbridge, the other from Waitrose, made by Charnwood Bakery of Leicester.

The comparison was a revelation. The Waitrose pie was low-slung, sprawling, tilted, bulging, idiosyncratic. The M&S pie was upright, four-square, regimental. Inside, the M&S meat was an alarmingly bright pink; the Waitrose grey with a pinkish tinge in the middle. A delicious porky smell emerged from the Waitrose model. The M&S job smelt of nothing much.

My tasting panel tried a chunk of the M&S. "Better than a lot of butcher's pies, but it's bland and fatty. The meat is a cross between luncheon meat and salami. It's ground-up too much, a bit like a sausage. Considering its outward appearance, it is disappointing." And the Waitrose? "Nice amalgam of crunchy pastry and pork. You can really taste the chunks of pork in it. Quite peppery. This is the one to take on a picnic. You can give the other to the cat."

So the pies themselves have the final word. The Marks & Spencer pie wrapper states it is 29 per cent pork. On the Waitrose wrapper, the pork content is 48 per cent. And it is a good weekend for Melton Mowbray pie. Sales jumped in last year's heatwave. "Summer is key to pork pies," one producer said.

REGIONAL DELIGHTS

Eccles Cake Eccles, near Manchester, derives its name from the Greek word ecclesia, which means an assembly. In the Middle Ages an annual service, Eccles Wakes, took place, after which a fair probably sold the first Eccles cakes. James Birch, a shopkeeper, started selling them in 1793.

Bakewell Tart It used to be a pudding. Legend has it that in 1860 in Bakewell, Derbyshire, the cook at The White Horse, was confused making a strawberry tart and spread the egg mixture on top of the jam, instead of into the pastry. The dish was a great success. Commercial tarts have a sweet pastry base, red jam, and almond filling, with a layer of white icing.

Cornish Pasties The date of the pasty's creation is unclear, although there is reputedly a letter from a baker to Jane Seymour (1510-1537), Henry VIII's third wife, mentioning the delivery of one. They originated as lunches for tin miners and were carried to work in a tin bucket and heated with a candle. Traditionally contained beef, potato,onion and swede.

Cumberland sausages Cumberland sausages can contain a wide variety of ingredients but in a long rope-like coil, often bought by length rather than weight. They have a full pork taste, with sage, nutmeg and basil. The rope coil is believed to have started in the 18th century because farm wives cooked on great, black ranges with round hot plates.

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