When you think of a Saturday afternoon at a football match, the thought of award-winning food does not automatically spring to mind.
AYE TO A PIE: the award-winning Forres Mechanics’ pie
This could perhaps be forgiven, with the average club serving up mass-produced heated pies from their kiosks. However, some clubs have realised the importance of a half-time pastry and are putting a lot of effort into making top-notch snacks.
Food is seen as a key part of a day in the stands, with fans not only consuming pies for warmth and to fill stomachs, but also for enjoyment. For travelling fans, it is sometimes the ‘make or break’ element of the trip, after the result of the match itself.
In fact, with hospitality becoming increasingly crucial to sport fans, the food that is served in stadia has the ability to enhance reputations and, ultimately, affect whether some visiting fans return. For home supporters it acts as the deciding factor in whether to eat at the game or to indulge at a nearby pub.
It’s not just the corporate boxes at Premier League clubs (famously labelled the “prawn sandwich brigade” by Roy Keane) that enjoy top-quality catering at matches. There are grounds in the lower leagues of British football that pride themselves on treating spectators who sit on the cold terraces to good food.
Venture to Morecambe and you can eat award-winning pies made by the club’s own team of chefs. The Lancashire outfit will remember 2010, not only as the year it moved into the newly built £12m Globe Arena, but also for the arrival of Michelin starred head chef Graham Aimson, who changed Saturday afternoons for pie-lovers cheering on the Shrimps.
The club is a regular fixture of League Two in the fourth tier of English football, but when it comes to pies, they are top of the league. They were crowned Supreme Champion at the British Pie Awards in 2011 for their ham and leek pie and the winning streak continued in 2012, when the club won a special award to recognise small producers. It also topped three different classes with the pork, apple and cider pie winning the “other meat” class.
Aimson says: “When I came to the club, I wanted to serve food made by us and not sell mass-produced pies out of a freezer, not only for events and hospitality but also for the fans in the stands.”
The hard work is non-stop for Aimson and his squad of cooks, tweaking recipes, developing new products and rotating flavours. Sourcing ingredients from local suppliers is also a key focus. “It’s good for the local community and helps to keep work in the area,” he says. “We are in a good location to make use of what is around with plenty of farms and the Lake District herds, and it generally tastes better when you use fresh ingredients in the food.”
One top-end London retailer certainly seems to agree, stocking the club’s steak and ale and chicken, ham and leek pies on its shelves at £9.95 a pop. It means even more profit comes back into the club and the local community, although Aimson is not looking to roll out the products to other big name retailers.
“We sell to small local retail outlets like farm shops. We don’t want the product to become mass-produced, so we stick to the more decadent shops,” he says.
The effort that Morecambe makes with its food is not frequently seen at other grounds, but there are a few other clubs who are following in the Shrimps’ footsteps.
December 2012 saw the launch of a football category at the World Scotch Pie Championships to acknowledge pies sold in Scottish football. It attracted 48 entrants including all but one club from the Premier League and outfits throughout the Scottish football league, down to the Highland and Junior divisions.
Douglas Scott, chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association, one of the organisers of the competition, alongside Scottish Bakers, said the companies behind food at football grounds “deserve recognition for their hard work”.
Scott says: “It is one of the biggest market for pies in Scotland and some of them are very good. It’s also a good reason for going to watch the football; to have a little treat at half time.”
There are different awards within this new category, which saw Celtic take the Speciality Award, however the overall top football pie went to Highland League’s Forres Mechanics for their steak pie.
Unlike Morecambe there is no head chef maintaining quality – instead they are supplied by the local family butcher’s shop Murdoch Brothers.
Founded in 1916 and situated on Forres’ high street, brothers Ronnie and Graham Murdoch now run the business and have supplied the club for the past two years.
Graham Murdoch says: “We have seen a healthy increase in sales since winning the award via our internet site, which we use to sell our products nationally.”