I'm lost in a world of pie.
I'm also lost in general, really. Having just alighted the train at Preston, I'm wandering down the high street, past bakeries and Christmas shoppers, in the hope that I'm headed towards to Deepdale, the home of Preston North End Football Club. I'm in Lancashire to discover butter pie, the local delicacy with a history is as rich as its filling. Packed with potatoes, onion, and of course butter, the pie is sold in chip shops, supermarkets, and cafes across the city—as well as its football ground. I arrive at Deepdale with the last of the fans and we stream in like salmon, just in time to watch a mediocre match against Burton Albion. There's song and a dash of atmosphere in the first half, but not much. Preston equalise just before half-time. Half-time is welcome. Half-time means pie.
The first thing I see as I walk into the concourse from the press area, is a man chomping down on a butter pie. Steam is emanating from the pastry. I catch a whiff of its salty warmth. The man is standing with a friend who isn't savouring the Lancastrian dish, but complaining of Preston's poor display in between mouthfuls of sliced potato and golden pastry. I ask them about butter pie.
"What?" the first man answers. "You get them over there mate. Second counter, past the bar." I tell him that I'm hoping to garner fans' thoughts on the history of the pie—its significance here in Preston, the regional pride, the localism, the deep, mellow, buttery tones of what the dish represents. I've been told that butter pie is part of the community, invented in the 19th century and eaten across the county. "We're playing like shit, lad," says the friend. "We're not here to talk about pie."
A pint is in order. Fosters proves ideal as I stand in the long queue for lunch. The menu excites me: meat and potato, chicken balti, butter pie. Normally, at Crystal Palace's home in Selhurst Park, I get steak. But in Preston, it has to be butter pie.
By the time I get my pie, the break's nearly over. I down my pint, grab a plastic fork, and follow the stragglers back into the roar of the ground. The second half is a more lively and raucous affair. Preston dominate. The crowd is buzzing more palpably. My pie is hot as hell. So, the pie. Everything is heavily seasoned, the is taste deep. It's peak carb: dense and nourishing and a little clammy. The pastry, by contrast, is soft and floppy. And the butter. It's pure, unrelenting, delicious fat. I love fat so much.
The ingredient list for butter pie is a simple one: potato, butter, onion, salt, pepper. There are variations and other pockets of Lancashire may mix it up. I've heard murmurings of cheese (the authenticity of which concerns me). Some people refer to the dish as "potato pie." Here at Deepdale, when a change of supplier meant butter pies would no longer be served, fans quickly set up a Facebook petition to reinstate their favourite half-time snack. Why, though, is it called "butter pie"? Butter is vital to the pastry, but it's not the signature flavour here. How has this come to be? A Deepdale steward called Geoff Rishton is on hand to happily inform. "My understanding is that it's a Catholic thing," he says, in between the chants of fans. "I grew up a Catholic and ever since I can remember—and I'm well into my 70s—we've always had butter pie on Fridays. It's because Catholics don't eat meat on Fridays, traditionally, and butter is the richness around the potato. Potato pie it is, in a way, sure—but butter is the name."
Lancashire has been a Catholic region for centuries. Rishton's theory makes sense. He continues: "Preston used to be known as Priest Town. I believe Preston is the actual home of the butter pie, but then I am from Preston. You can get it all over. My mother ate them. She'd have a meat and potato Monday to Thursday, and a butter pie on Friday. Everyone I know did and does the same. It's what everyone does. It's just what happens here. We eat pies." Indeed pies—butter or otherwise—have always been a workday favourite. They're what pasties are to those in the West Country: practical, easy dinners that provide a substantial fill for cheap.
My mouth tastes of butter and onion. The game ends, but by the time Rishton and I have finished chatting about his time as an engineer—and the fact he's only been in this job three weeks—the shutters are down and everyone's gone home. Or to the pub. I meet a few revellers walking back into town. "'Course we love butter pie," a man called Gary Malone tells me. The group is from Kirkham, just outside Preston. "I don't know anything about the Catholic thing. I just know that we all eat them. It's our thing, isn't it? The whole of Lancashire, really. You know Wigan? They're pie-eaters too. Explains their big mouths."
I ask Malone to elaborate. "We eat them 'cos they taste nice. Always have," he says. "People have them with red cabbage or beetroot, they're both good [the acidity cuts through the fat]. Or you can just have HP sauce or tomato ketchup. Hearty food." Does Malone ever make his own?
"No, we just buy them. They're not expensive. Usually less than £2," he explains. "They do a perfect job. We don't really think about it, mate. Although I didn't have one today. Had meat and potato."
On the train back to London, with couple of tins of beer and Danny Dyer's
Who Do You Think You Are
on iPlayer, I ponder the pie. The filling is besotting. The pastry, however, I found a touch troubling.
Reading the ingredients on the back of the butter pie packet explains that: it's a long as Preston's long balls in the game I just watched. There are E numbers and all manner of additives.
Still, who am I to argue? The manufacturer of Deepdale's butter pies is Clayton Park Bakery in Clayton-le-Moors, which in 2015 was awarded a Great Taste Award.
At the time, managing director Barry Thomas told the Lancashire Telegraph: "There's a local history around the butter pie. Catholics did not eat meat on Fridays so they would use butter in their pies instead. Now it's become an everyday thing. A lot of people think 'Butter pie? What's that?' Until they try it and realise just how good it is." I was one of those people. But now I know: butter pie is a thing of beauty. It's a pie baked in religion, crafted by workers, steeped in community, and made in Lancashire.