Melton Mowbray – the battleground for the ongoing spat between industry giants Northern Foods and a handful of Melton Mowbray pork pie producers over the pie’s protected status – is a small town where pork pies and tourism are big businesses. In the Melton Mowbray area alone, tourism employs over 1,100 people and is worth over £55 million. It’s little surprise the local pie makers are so keen to protect their slice of the takings.

“We don’t charge for demonstrations,” says Stephen Hallam, managing director of Melton Mowbray pork pie specialist Dickinson & Morris (D&M), which gives regular showcases of the traditional pie-making method in its historical shop. “But if we do our job well, if the theatre is right – and successful retailing needs theatre – then every passenger on

every coach will buy a pork pie.” Vegetarians and Jewish or Muslim tourists give the town a wide berth, presumably.

The elusive tiny minority of UK households that, Hallam says, does not buy pork pies at Christmas may be tough to convert. A better bet is the populace that shuns the seasonal favourite apart from Christmas. Around 95% of households buy a pork pie at Christmas, he claims, yet only 55% buy them during the year. So D&M’s range was recently expanded to include a bite-sized six-pack and twin pack to capitalise on the lunchtime trade. This is aimed at changing the perception of pork pies from a one-off Christmas treat.

Playing the tourism card

The D&M brand, produced in a bakery outside Leicester, services retailers including Tesco and Sainsbury’s. But D&M’s brand capital comes from its historical Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe in Melton Mowbray, which plays the tourism card to great success. By promoting itself to coach companies and group travel operators, busloads of tourists pour into the small shop, which struggles to keep up with the demand for hand-raised pies. Cashing weekly sales of £320 per square metre, with annual pork pie sales of over £400,000, it is a tactic that is clearly paying off.

Barely a week now passes without a visit from a film crew, or the telephone ringing for a comment or an interview, says Hallam. But it isn’t just about selling a pie; he says it’s up to bakers to educate and enthuse the public, to share their heritage through group demos, talking to consumers and letting them taste

the product.

Changing attitudes to food

Over previous decades the reputation of the pork pie has diminished as manufacturers cut corners to meet price points, he believes. Consumers noticed and grew sceptical of the product. But, he says, our attitude towards food is slowly changing and provenance, trust values and regionality are gaining in importance.

“There is a great interest in regional foods sweeping the country – at last we’re waking up, and we have some great British products,” he says. “There is a tradition in Leicestershire of always having a slice of pork pie for breakfast at Christmas, which harks back to medieval times when the pie was the equivalent of today’s turkey. We’re keeping alive that tradition. We see a 500% uplift of pork pie sales at Christmas. But there’s another 51 weeks that we could sell customers a pie.”

Melton Mowbray – the spiritual home of the pork pie – is a small medieval market town in northeast Leicestershire with a population of just 30,000. It has six multiple retailers: Tesco, Morrisons, Co-op, Iceland, Kwik Save and Marks & Spencer; eight bakers including Greggs, Bakers Oven and Coombs; six butchers; and within a 10-mile radius, many other retailers selling Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Pork pie history

Stephen Hallam explains the history: “Going back 200 years Stilton Cheese was made in and around Melton Mowbray and cheese makers found the by-product, whey, to be a good food supplement to feed pigs. This led to a surplus of pork. So the local grocer got together with the local baker, Edward Adcock, and started making pies.”

Though not the originator of the pie, Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe has been around for more than four centuries and is the oldest pie shop in the town. John Dickinson rented the property in 1851 and Joseph Morris joined the business in 1886; 15 years later, the firm changed its name to the now familiar Dickinson & Morris.

Fire devastated the building in August 1991 and, in March 1992, the business was acquired by Samworth Brothers. The Grade Two listed building took seven months of extensive reconstruction and sympathetic refurbishment and the shop and bakery reopened in October 1992. Of the 4,500 footfall per week, 30% are visitors – which means that 70% are not and they have the opportunity to shop elsewhere in a very crowded marketplace. D&M began supplying the retailers in 1996.

“For years, we agonised over price parity for our pork pie with our competitors in the town,” says Hallam. “We’ve now bitten the bullet and actually raised our prices, which has added further credibility to our presence.

Point of difference

“Within half a mile, Tesco, Morrisons and the Co-op are all selling the D&M pork pie at a cheaper price, with no parking charges nor inconvenience of purchases being carried around the town. So consumers will pay for our point of difference.”

Two years ago, Greggs, which already had a presence in the town with Bakers Oven, opened next door, which hit its sausage roll trade by 20%. “Not only has this now come back, but sales have increased by 20%,” he says. “We took a positive response to Greggs’ presence, introducing a real Cornish pasty at a premium price – made in Cornwall but baked by us in Melton Mowbray – and we reintroduced a totally hand-raised pork pie, also at a premium price.

“Greggs’ products meet the needs of a particular market very well, but I think our products deserve the premium that our customers pay – and they seem to agree.”

PGI status

Eight years ago D&M, together with a group of six other manufacturers formed the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (MMPPA) with the purpose of gaining Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status to restrict production of the pies to a 1,800sq mile zone around Melton Mowbray. PGI is one of the three European designations to protect regional products that have a specific quality, reputation or other characteristics attributable to the area in question. It acts in the same way that an ‘appellation contrôlée’ does for wine.

Backed by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the MMPPA fought off a legal challenge in the High Court in 2005 from Northern Foods, which has a £50m-strong share of the Melton Mowbray pork pie market, but produces out of factories in Shropshire and Wiltshire. Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the MMPPA, rejecting Northern Foods’ case. The case is now being pursued in the European courts.

“It’s all about protecting the integrity of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie and defending its reputation, about protecting the consumer from being misled about the provenance and quality of proper Melton Mowbray Pork Pies,” Hallam told the British Society of Bakers Spring Conference this year.

“Although comment has been made that the floodgates are about to open with silly applications – Yorkshire Puddings, for example – in reality this won’t happen, as each application is judged on its own merit. I do hope the association’s stand against Northern Foods will make it easier for good manufacturers to charge the right price for their products.”

In a new twist, Northern Foods has put its chilled division up for sale, which includes its two Melton Mowbray pork pie plants, but will progress the case until a new owner is found, who will then decide whether to continue the action.

Hand-raising a pork pie – the demonstration

Distinctive style

Using a hot water paste and pork fat with a little salt and pepper, the Melton Mowbray pork pie’s pastry is quite distinctive. Lard brings richness while the hot water paste

gives it its crunchiness.

Drawing an unlikely comparison between a lard-based pie and a luxury car, Stephen Hallam says: “If you were to try and make it with a lard substitute, then it’s not a pork

pie – it’s like having a Rolls Royce with a plastic interior.

He continues: “To the uninitiated it looks old, very strange, and dark in colour. If you used any other short pastry it would be soft within hours of baking, because of the moist jelly filling. You need a robust pastry that retains that crunchiness.”

Making the pastry

The dough is tempered to give it a malleable, mouldable, plasticine-like feel. Using his hands he raises the pastry up around the outside of the dolly. “There is quite a skill in keeping the pastry nice and even all the way round,” says Hallam. “If the dough is too thick or thin, one side might burn while the other side is correctly baked. You end up with a pastry that melts in the mouth – a digestive, almost buttery flavour and texture.”

And filling it out

The pie is 50:50 pastry to filling. Boned out British shoulders and bellies of pork are bought in fresh and uncured, then chopped and diced. “We’re not butchers, we’re bakers,” he says. “We find consumers generally don’t understand ‘uncured’, so we liken it to a joint of roast pork in the demonstration.”

Dickinson & Morris mills its own pepper and its piquancy teases out the flavour of the pork – no breadcrumbs or rusk are used, which would absorb this piquancy. “A Melton Mowbray

pork pie is traditionally quite spicy,” says Hallam.

Baking and finishing

On goes the lid, using egg, then the pie goes into the oven with no tin or hoop to give its characteristic bow-sided shape. Baking the pies is a “fastidious” process, he says. “Ours are quite a dark colour compared to some on the market and that’s because we take it as close as we can to burning. I wouldn’t criticise a baker for burning the pies as much as I would criticise them for not baking them enough.”

After leaving the pie to cool, it’s filled with jelly made from bone stock boiled from pigs trotters, through two holes made in the case. This adds some moisture back into the meat

lost through baking, while adding a comple-mentary flavour.

Some onlookers blanch at the mention of pigs’ trotters, so Hallam usually softens the blow by comparing the process to making a homemade soup.

Consuming correctly

And if learning how to make the pie weren’t enough, Hallam demonstrates how to

consume them too.

“Always take them out of the fridge an hour before you’re going to eat them,” he urges. “That’s an area where we need to educate the consumer – you can have a super product but destroy it by not treating it properly.”