Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

The amazing bassist Charlie Mingus wrote this elegy, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat  for the late jazz saxophone player Lester Young who was, I learned, born in Algiers, New Orleans.

Once again, I am amazed at how everything is connected and how often I travel full circle in my journey through the Charcutepalooza challenges. Sometimes my journey begins with my roots, sometimes it ends there but, most often, they’re just part of me. “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” said William Shakespeare.

Now let’s get a little pork pie trivia out of the way before we delve into some real history:

Pork pie hats were, at one time, associated with jazz and blues musicians; they were also a favorite of Dean Martin and theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer (Father of the Atomic Bomb).

Did you know that pork pie is Cockney slang for “lie”?

Buster Keaton actually made his own pork pie hats! Who knew?

Moving on to the history lesson I promised…

Long, long ago in a land far, far away (Leicestershire, England in the early 1700’s, actually) a farmer’s wife began making a cheese that was sold by her brother-in-law at his pub in Stilton, The Bell Inn. This was the birth of the famous Stilton cheese that we still know and love today. Oddly enough, Stilton cheese cannot actually be produced in Stilton and it’s not known for certain if it ever was, but I digress! With the growing popularity of Stilton cheese, came a clever solution to the large quantities of whey that resulted. Pig food! The dairies began keeping pigs to put all of that excess whey to good use as pig food which resulted in…you guessed it…lots of pork! A grocer and a baker got together and started making pies out of the pigs and the Melton Mowbray pork pie was born.

Two things combined to make Melton Mowbray the center of the pork pie universe. One was the popular sport of foxhunting. After the Enclosures Act of 1761, the smaller farms were consolidated, the dairy business took off and all of that open space became prime foxhunting territory. The foxhunters noticed their grooms eating the pork pies and bakers began making the pies more portable. The second thing was location, location, location. Melton Mowbray is a small town in northeast Leicestershire and was six hours from London by stage coach. This happened to be the time at which horses were legally required to be rested. All of those hungry travelers needed to be fed and the pork pies, with their hard crust, were the perfect snack. It didn’t take long for the word to get out and they became all the rage in London.

Nowadays, Melton Mowbray is the home of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association and, more recently, it became the battleground for the fight to give Melton Mowbray pork pies protected status. The ten year long battle was finally won on April 4, 2008, giving it the same protected geographical status enjoyed by Parma ham, Newcastle Brown Ale, Stilton cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano and Champagne. Since any Tom, Dick or Harry could bake up any kind of inedible monstrosity and call it a Melton Mowbray pork pie, the residents of this ancient town were adamant about protecting their reputation and maintaining the distinctive qualities of their pies.

There are three things that make these raised pies so distinctive. First, the meat is fresh, not cured, so it is grey, not pink when baked. Secondly, they are baked free-standing so the sides are bowed. They are called raised pies because instead of lining a pan with the hot water/lard crust, it is hand-shaped around a mold, the meat is placed inside and a lid is put on top with holes for the steam to escape during baking. After baking, the holes are then used to add pork gravy that becomes jelly as the pies cool. Last but not least, they must be made in Melton Mowbray.

I was really going for authenticity in my pork pies but since I had never seen or eaten one, it was a bit of a challenge. Obviously, I failed on the location since Nashville is about 4000 miles away from Melton  Mowbray but I was there in spirit. By the time I decided to make a Melton  Mowbray pork pie and not just any pork pie, I realized I didn’t have any fresh pork belly. I did have a nice piece of unsmoked but cured pork belly so that was going to have to do. That was two strikes but I hit the next requirement out of the ballpark! For the raised crust, I used lard that I had rendered and found a jelly jar that was just the right size to use as a mold so I could shape it by hand.

My pastry mold happens to be full of local honey

I was putting all of this together based on my reading but I didn’t really have  a recipe to follow. I found lots of helpful hints to keep me on track so I thought I’d share some of these tidbits:

  • There should be equal amounts of dough and meat with no filler like breadcrumbs in the meat.
  • The crust should be glazed with egg and baked until it is very, very brown.
  • Having two generously sized holes in the pastry lid makes adding the jelly much easier since one acts as a vent while you are pouring gravy into the other.
  • The hot water pastry does not have to be hot to work with it but you will need to work it a bit in your hands to warm it up.

There were so many components to this challenge that I decided to break it up over a couple of days to give me a chance to figure out each step as I went along. The lard was easy since I already had some rendered and tucked away in the freezer. I trimmed and cubed the shoulder and belly, seasoned it up and ran it through the coarse die of my brand spanking new three pounds/minute meat grinder.  I roasted the bone left from the shoulder and made a  bit more stock to add to some that I had. With all of this delectable porky goodness going on I didn’t really want to use powdered gelatin so trotter gear to the rescue! Nothing like being able to build on what we’ve done so far! I warmed it, added the liquid to my stock and the yummy bits went into the meat. That left time for the stock chill so I could make sure it set nicely and gave me time to chill before putting all of these pieces together.

Pork Pie

The Meat:

2 1/2 lbs pork shoulder, trimmed and cubed

3/4 lb pork belly, cubed

2 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp sage

1 tsp thyme

1/4 tsp mace

2 tsp salt

Mix all of the ingredients together, chill and mince by hand or grind in a meat grinder using the coarse die. Cook a small amount to check the seasoning. This was the amount of salt I used with the cured pork belly. If you use uncured belly, it will probably need more salt. Divide into six balls and refrigerate until you are ready for them.

The Pastry:

1 lb, 10.5 oz all purpose flour

7 oz (by weight) lard

10 oz water

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

1 cup jellied pork stock

Heat the water and lard until it is boiling and the lard is melted. Combine with the flour and salt. Knead until smooth. The dough should be neither dry nor sticky. Cover and allow to rest for an hour or refrigerate overnight. Divide into six pieces then divide each of those into two pieces, one twice as large as the other so you have base and the lid for each of the six pies you will make.

Line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper and preheat oven to 375°.

Roll out the larger of the two pieces of dough on a floured surface until it is about 4 inches in diameter. Place it over your  mold and shape the dough around it until it is a uniform thickness and height with no cracks.

It should be about an inch taller than the balls of meat

Roll out the smaller of the two pieces of pastry until it is a little bigger than the base; place the meat in the base. Moisten the edges of the base and the lid with water, place the lid over the meat and seal the edges very well.

If you are so inclined, crimping the edges gives them a very attractive finish.

If you have any leftover pieces of dough, cut them into decorative shapes and attach to the lids with a little water.

Brush the sides and tops with the beaten egg. Bake at 375° for 15 minutes then turn the heat down to 350° and bake for another hour and a half. Brush with beaten egg again and bake until very, very brown.

These are not brown enough!

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Warm the jellied pork stock and carefully pour into one of the holes in the top of the pie. A syringe or turkey baster works well for this job. Allow to cool completely so the stock will set. If any of these last long enough to be refrigerated, make sure you let them come up to room temp before enjoying them.

The traditional accompaniments to pork pie are spicy mustard, pickles and beer. I made the pies as authentically as I could manage but this is where I’m going to have to let my roots show.

A nice southern microbrew beer, Creole mustard and homemade watermelon rind pickles!

CREDITS: was a wealth of information.

Thank you, Dr. D! I knew I could count on some great constructive criticism and, I was hoping, a bit of affirmation. I got both. Flavor -wise, I was on the right track but they needed more pepper, the crust was a bit too thick and should definitely be darker brown. The recipe reflects the amped up spices; pork pies should have a spicy kick to them. Thanks also for the party tip: tiny little pork pies that can be eaten in one bite!

It is a Christmas tradition in Leicestershire to have pork pie for breakfast. I think I’ll do my part to help keep that tradition alive- but maybe not for breakfast.