The first recorded recipe for a pork pie was 1390 in the kitchen of the Court of King Richard and today’s pork pie is still a direct descendent of the medieval pie tradition.
Pastry then was used like we use plastic containers today – it wasn’t eaten but merely held the food and was discarded afterwards!
Over the centuries, the Melton Mowbray area of Leicestershire, England developed a very high concentration of cheese producers. The development of the dairy industry was encouraged by the Enclosure Awards of the 1700’s, which incidentally also created the perfect foxhunting environment.
Whey, a by-product of the cheese industry, was an ideal food for pigs, so pork became a common feature of the Melton diet. Originally baked in a clay pot covered with a rough pastry, the pork pie evolved to resemble a “parcel” of pastry wrapped around a pork filling.
This allowed the pie to be carried while at work (agricultural workers, grooms and hunt servants would often carry them).
In the late 1700’s foxhunting developed in the Melton area, Melton Mowbray becoming the center for the three famous local hunts (Quorn, Cottesmore and Belvior) and the capital of foxhunting in England.
The local pork pie was “discovered” by visiting hunters who saw their grooms and servants eating it during the 1780’s. It was particularly noticed because the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie differed from other types of pies the visitors saw elsewhere.
The meat of the pie when cooked was grey in color, not pink, because the hunting season coincided with the slaughter over the autumn and winter months of local pigs, and the associated production of pork pies.
The pies were baked free-standing, which gave them a bowed appearance when they came out of the oven. Bonestock jelly was added to the hot pies to fill all the air spaces and to preserve the meat inside the pie longer, while also ensuring the pie did not crumble when carried by fox huntsmen riding over ditches.
The fresh meat, seasoned with salt and pepper, crunchy pastry, succulent jelly and the distinctive bow-shape of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie distinguished it from all other pork pies.
With the rise of industrial food production, pork pies sadly became a cheap staple made in factories – but in the Midlands and the North the hand-made traditional approach continued well into the 20th century and today is undergoing a renaissance!
To ensure the origin and brand of this recipe, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association applied for protection under the European “Protected designation of origin” laws.
This was a result of the increasing production of Melton Mowbray-style pies by large commercial companies in factories far from Melton Mowbray, and recipes that deviated from the original uncured pork form.
Protection was granted on 4 April 2008, with the result that only pies made within a designated zone around Melton, and using the traditional recipe including uncured pork, are allowed to carry the Melton Mowbray name on their packaging.
Based on a wonderful recipe by the great Nigel Slater, my version of his historic recipe adheres closely to tradition. However, he does not include the traditional use of minced anchovy as a way to both flavor the pie and provide a pink color without using cured meat. My version does.
I also include a bit of cured bacon for flavor, as well as my own version of a classic English savory pie herb/spice blend and (heretically) some Marsala wine in making the jellied stock. I love the flavor, but you can leave it out for a more classic recipe.
Either way, my version is a delicious take on a classic recipe, Citizens – I hope you will give it a try! 🙂
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 ¼ pounds boned pork shoulder, reserve bones for stock
9 ounces pork belly
9 ounces streaky bacon
2 bushy sprigs of thyme
2 sage leaves
½ tsp ground mace
½ tsp ground white pepper
½ tsp ground cloves
2 good pinches ground nutmeg
6 fillets of anchovy, Ortiz brand strongly preferred
1 tsp kosher or sea salt
1 tsp coarsely cracked black pepper
For the pastry:
1 beaten egg
1 8 inch/20cm cake tin
For the stock:
bones from the pork
2 pig’s trotters, cleaned and cut in half
1 onion, halved
1 bay leaf
1 small carrot, cut into pieces
1 small bunch of parsley stalks
1 rib of celery, cut in half
6 black peppercorns
1 cup Marsala wine
Water to cover
Make the filling
1. You need to chop ½ the pork into small cubes, about 5mm in size. Blitz the other ½ of the pork and the anchovies briefly in the food processor.
2. Finely chop the bacon.
3. Remove the thyme leaves from their stems, add the sage leaves and chop both finely. Mix the herbs into the chopped meats together with the spices and refrigerate until ready to use.
Make the pastry
1. Put the lard and water into a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Sift the flour with a good pinch of salt into a large bowl. Pour the hot lard and water into the flour, mix with a wooden spoon, then leave until cool enough to handle. The pastry must be warm when you start to work it.
2. Set the oven at 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Lightly grease and flour a cake tin with a removable bottom.
3. Pull off a quarter of the pastry and roll it into a lid that will fit the top of the cake tin.
4. Roll the remaining pastry to fit the base of the tin.
5. Lay it in the bottom, then firmly push the dough up the sides with your hands. It should spread quite easily. If it slides down, leave it to cool a bit more.
6. Make certain there are no holes or tears. This is crucial, as the jelly will leak out. Spoon the pork filling into the lined cake tin and press it down. It should come almost to the top of the pastry.
7. Brush the edges of the pastry above the meat with beaten egg. Lower the lid into place and press tightly to seal with the edges.
8. Poke a small hole in the lid to let out the steam and put the tin on a baking sheet.
9. Bake for 30 minutes, then lower the heat to 320F/160C/gas mark 3 and bake for 90 minutes until the pastry is pale gold. Brush with the beaten egg and return to the oven for 30 minutes.
Make the stock
1. The day before you make the pie, put the bones into a deep saucepan with the stock ingredients.
2. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and leave the liquid to cook for an hour, watching the water level carefully and topping up where necessary.
3. Remove from the heat, decant the liquid into a bowl and leave to cool.
4. Refrigerate overnight. If it has set very firmly, simply remove the fat from the top of the stock, transfer to a saucepan and bring to the boil. If it is still on the runny side, then remove the fat as before, pour into a saucepan and boil hard until it is reduced to about 400ml.
5. Season carefully with salt.
6. When the pie is ready, pour the stock into a jug and then pour it carefully through the hole in the top of the pastry. A funnel is invaluable here.
7. Leave the pie to cool, then refrigerate overnight. Serve cold or at room temperature with good English mustard on the side and perhaps a bit of Major Grey’s chutney.