Shropshire, a sparsely populated rural county of under half-a-million people. What has it got? A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad, the majestic Ironbridge, the wonderful landscapes of The Stiperstones hill, and, of course, the world-renowned Shropshire fidget pie.
Except the Shropshire fidget pie is not that famous—not even in Shropshire.
In my unscientific straw poll of a handful of Salopians (the name given to Shropshire natives) in their 20s and 30s, the results were mixed. "A Shropshire what?" asked one. "It's a pie with cider in, what's not to like?" said another. Most had neither eaten nor heard of it, though one had made their own version. "I know a lot of people have not heard of it. You won't find it on every pub or restaurant menu here," he said.
Like many regional dishes, the true origins of fidget pie are unclear. There are, it seems, versions of it in other parts of England but Shropshire has a strong claim. The basic ingredients remain consistent: gammon or ham, apples, cider cooked in a pastry—perhaps with potato and onions too.
To get to the bottom of fidget pie, I went to Ludlow.
The south Shropshire town became something of a culinary hub in the late 90s. The arrival of chefs like Shaun Hill and Claude Bosi of Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant Hibiscus made Ludlow's reputation soar. The fine dining scene has declined in recent years but the town's gastronomical kudos still seem well-deserved.
One place that has been offering Salopians their regional dish for nearly a decade is the Ludlow Food Centre, situated just outside town on the Oakly Park estate of its founder, the Earl of Plymouth.
The facilities far exceed the expectations suggested by its functional name. The Centre includes a farm shop as well a restaurant, the Ludlow Kitchen. Half of the food it sells is produced on the estate and 80 percent comes from the surrounding counties.
The shop has made and sold its own version of the Shropshire fidget pie on its deli counter since opening in 2007. Production kitchen manager Damien McNamara has become adept at making the pies but he's still none-the-wiser on their provenance.
"We've looked back at it, time and time again and no one can ever seem to come back to the actual origin of it," he says.
There are conflicting stories out there, though.
"Sandy Boyd [former manager] told the story that it was from when people would go to the harvest and that's what they would have brought with them, and that it should have five sides of the pentagon," he adds. "But you look at other ones and there's no word of that, it's a totally different story again."
Everyone who works under McNamara must be able to make a fidget pie, a process he describes as a lot of work. In an average week, the Centre makes around 120, all by hand.
The pies also plays a key part in how the kitchen uses its meat. The in-house butcher uses whole carcasses from pigs bred on the estate and every part of the animal is used.
"If we weren't producing this [fidget pie] then John, the butcher, would have to allocate that percentage of meat elsewhere," explains Food Centre commercial director Paul Hill. "So, everything is sustainable. It's quite a small pie—but it's very important to how the butchers actually operate."
McNamara also cites appellation d'origine controlee (AOC) certifications that regulate certain regional foods in France, and believes it a shame that the UK has not been as keen for similar measures. Perhaps the Shropshire fidget pie and other regional food could have benefitted here, he says.
The Food Centre's method for making fidget pie is quite simple, though a little fiddly. Gammon—from the estate's Gloucester old spots—is diced then cooked with cider until it becomes a sugary paste, which is used to glaze the meat. The meat is then mixed with sage and Bramley apples. Cheddar cheese is placed at the bottom of a shortcrust pastry before the gammon and apple mix is placed back on top. To top it all off is a swirl of honey and wholegrain mustard mash. Then it goes in the oven until the mash browns and the pastry cooks.
The most unusual thing about the pie is the mash on top. It is a finish that is more polished than rustic. The overall size is more delicate than robust. It's not what I was expecting from something with such humble ingredients and it's hard to imagine piped mash being a part of an "historical" version.
So why this technique? Well, ultimately, people have got to want to eat the pies, McNamara says.
"When you've already got pies as it is, what is going to make that one unique product stand out against all these different types of pork pies and all the rest?" he continues. "If it was just the pastry it would be non-existent. It would be even harder to get people back into it."
The mash then, is what makes this version of the fidget pie. It seems like there could be a world of variations, but McNamara is staunch in sticking to his method and rejects wanton experimentation.
A few miles away, in Ludlow's town centre, is another local perspective. Henry Mackley has owned and run the Harp Lane Deli with his wife Hannah—a seventh generation Ludlovian—since 2014. Having moved to Shropshire aged eight, the local dish is something Mackley can recall from way back.
"I remember going as a very young boy with my grandfather to a really nice old pub called the Royal Oak in Cardington. We'd walk over the Long Mynd to this little pub there. Their signature dish was the fidget pie," he says.
Like McNamara, Mackey acknowledges the dish's contentious nature.
"It's one of those things that people can argue the toss over—certainly in Shropshire—until the cows came home."
Although fidget pie isn't on-sale regularly in their shop, Mackley occasionally makes it for private functions, with a more conventional pastry top. He'd like to see more of it around Shropshire and believes that its key lies in its simplicity, perhaps something that could be embraced more. "It's a really lovely thing when it's made well," he says. "It's very simple but is one of those old English recipes that is just good and the sum of its parts."
All photos by Sarah Campbell.