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, ! 🙂
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