I LIKE a pie. While I do not really have the frame of somebody about whom it would be suggested that he be the main suspect in the Who Ate All The Pies? Mystery, I am happy to admit to have eaten at least some of the pies.
Nevertheless, until fairly recently, I would not have been considered an expert in pies. No longer. For the past couple of years, owing to a complicated series of unlikely events, I have been a judge at the British Pie Awards.
Whenever I tell people I am a judge at the British Pie Awards – and if you spend any more than 38 seconds with me, I will tell you this – they say one of two things.
The first is “What makes you an expert on pies, Gary, apart from the fact that you’ve clearly eaten a few?” I reply to this, “I am a judge at the British Pie Awards. That is what makes me an expert on pies.” I do not care that this is circular reasoning. Facts mean nothing these days.
The second is, “You lucky thing [sometimes they do not say ‘thing’]. That must be the best job in the world. All those pies. Pies are great. I hate you.”
And in many ways, they are correct. Pies are great and it might well be the best job in the world. But do not let yourself think it is an easy ride.
Let me explain by sweeping aside the Pie-on Curtain and taking you through what happens when you are a judge at the British Pie Awards.
You get off the train at Melton Mowbray and make your way to the beautiful St Mary’s Church. Melton Mowbray is a pretty town which tells you that it’s the home of pork pies and Stilton cheese about as often as I tell people I am a judge at the British Pie Awards.
You are provided with a white apron, and, after a short introduction which impresses upon you the seriousness of the task ahead, but includes a small number of pie-related jokes, you find your category table. You see, judges only pass judgement on one type of pie. It is not a pie free-for-all, or pastrymonium. If you’re on meat and potato, all you will eat that day is meat and potato pies.
And when you try the pies, it is not a matter of guzzling them like the Cookie Monster in Sesame Street. You have a partner judge who will also want to try the same pie – so you have to leave some behind – and a list of six criteria on which you mark the pies.
You have to take into account the appearance of the pie, the quality of the bake, the thickness (and doneness) of the pastry, the taste of the pastry, the quantity of filling, and the taste of the filling. Pencils are involved. Sometimes even esoteric arguments about how much pepper is too much pepper surface. You have to care about things about which you have never before cared.
And it is not like wine tasting, where you spit out the wine after you’ve tasted it. Obviously you could spit out the pie after you have eaten it, but that’s never going to happen. Call it Northern Conditioning.
The point is, it is pie-eating in a way you would never normally eat a pie. You eat a sliver of pastry and a morsel of, for example, steak and/or kidney, write down your scores, and move on.
And you do this roughly 25 times, so that by the end of your stint, you will have a lump of pastry and meat in your stomach about the size of three normal pies. Your centre of gravity will have altered in such a way that you cannot be pushed over, like a Weeble. And your body is crying out for some cabbage or, perhaps, a satsuma.
And the thing about competitions is that, well, not every entry is a winner. Let’s put it this way, you will come to understand just how easy it is – and how many ways there are – to mess up a pie.
So while it is indeed a great honour and I am very lucky to be a judge at the British Pie Awards, don’t think that it is all gravy.
Because if it were all gravy, it wouldn’t be the British Pie Awards. It would be the British Steak Bake Awards.