Standing in the white-tiled, blood-swept aisle of Butcher Row in Leeds Market, one thing is fluorescently clear: Yorkshire loves pies. Sitting under the 16th century timbers of The Craven Arms, reading a blackboard menu just metres above the twisting River Wharfe in Appletreewick, one thing is brass-rubbingly clear: Yorkshire loves pies. Waiting in Huddersfield bus station, inhaling the meat fumes from the man next to you wearing an anorak and crease-ironed trousers, one thing becomes gravy-thickeningly clear: Yorkshire loves pies.
I mean, of course it does. We knew this already. You can't live for six years in the self-titled God's Own County, as I did, without witnessing the spit and swallow demise of a few hundred pies. Even when, as in my case, you're living for the majority of that time on a minimum wage diet of rice, dahl, Kirkgate Market baked potatoes, hand-rolled cigarettes, and tea so strong it turns your teeth into a dry stone wall.
But there is one pie that deserves some special mention. A pie that almost defies the name. A pie that has been buried in a wood. A pie that has to be eased out using a crowbar. A pie that may have saved a hospital.
I'm talking about the Denby Dale Pie, a Yorkshire tradition that dates back to 1788 and the supposed return to sanity of George III.
You see, for 212 years, the little Yorkshire district of Denby Dale near Huddersfield has been making record-breaking, tin-busting pies to mark all manner of public events from coronations to the millennium. I normally feel about as patriotic as a used condom but even I am stirred to something approaching a Hovis advert-level of pride when reading about the industrial-scale rubbing together of flour and lard.
After the somewhat premature celebration of King George's sanity (whether it was lead poisoning, porphyria, or simple political machination that caused old George to be branded a lunatic, his return to health was short lived), the second pie was, according to The Denby Dale Pies—Ten Giants 1788-2000 author Chris Heath, baked in 1815 to celebrate Wellington's victory at Waterloo. This little beauty apparently contained 20 fowls and a couple of sheep—like a Noah's Ark as designed by George A. Romero.
The third Denby Dale pie was cooked to celebrate the repeal of the Corn Laws which, as any of you who weren't too busy snorting nutmeg in your A Level history lessons will remember, followed the disastrous reduction of food supplies during two years of apocalyptic famine in Ireland. Well, what better way to celebrate an influx of cheap bread and the destitute state of your nearest island neighbour than with a whacking great mound of pastry, meat, and gravy? According to Heath, 15,000 people turned up to try and grab a slice—quite literally—of the action, causing the whole pie platform to collapse. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, if you spoon deep enough.
The next pie is by far my favourite. Baked in August of 1887, this one was to mark Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. But, as befits a queen who drove much of the world into slave-like imperial oppression, the pie took so long to cook that the meat turned fetid. The whole thing was deemed to smell faintly of death and had to be buried in the nearby Toby Wood. Shove that up your medicinal use of marijuana, Vicky.
The 1896 pie was held under such a cloud of mistrust after the poisoned Queen pie of nine years earlier that, according to the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, "a dozen servers dished out 2,000 portions from behind strong wooden barricades." Imagine the 1968 Sorbonne student riots but with gravy in place of socialism.
There followed a 1928 pie to try and raise money for the Huddersfield Infirmary, acting as a handy gastric reminder of just how vulnerable pre-NHS Britain was. When your local hospital is having to serve up a 16 foot long, 5 foot wide, and 15 inches-deep pie just to try and raise enough money to buy penicillin, suddenly paying your taxes doesn't seem such a bad idea.
There is one pie that deserves some special mention. A pie that almost defies the name. A pie that has been buried in a wood. A pie that has to be eased out using a crowbar: the Denby Dale Pie.
The pie was so big, in fact, that is had to be prised out of the tin using crowbars. According to the Yorkshire Post (an office where I once spent a happy month watching the grey-faced reporters file in and out of a yellow-smeared glass-tank-come-smoking-chamber right in the middle of the newsroom), the beef for the 1928 pie was stewed in large boilers in the Ambulance Hall and the pastry made and rolled in the Salvation Army Citadel. The pie contained "four bullocks, 600 pounds of beef, 15 hundredweights of potatoes, 80 stones of flour, two hundredweights of lard, and two stone of baking powder." No wonder it took 11 and a half days to cook up this titanic pie—one week of which was just spent cooking the meat.
Then there was a Bicentenary Pie in September 1988 to celebrate 200 years since the first Denby Dale pie which, thrillingly, was broadcast on the BBC Radio One Roadshow by Mike Read. That's right: the very same Mike Read who, just two and a half decades later would release the, ahem, notable "UKIP Calypso." Ye gods.
The most recent Denby Dale pie was baked, I believe, to mark the Millennium. According to local newspaper reports, the first slice was cut by cricket umpire Dickie Bird. Now, if there's a more Yorkshire image from the preceding 2,000 years of human history than the finger-punching, double hat-wearing, smart parting, shiny ball icon Dickie Bird tearing into a 12 tonne pie wearing a navy blazer and white rose then, frankly, it has been lost to the annals for all time.
Over the last few weeks I've been trying to get my hands of the recipe for this famous juggernaut of meat and gravy. I called Gawthorpe, a local butcher who told me, handily: "Oh, well you can put anything in a pie really, can't you?" Perhaps the best guide comes from the award-winning Andrew Jones Pies who, apparently, "select cuts of British beef that are diced and cooked until tender with potato, onion, and seasoning."
The pastry itself is made using "Italian lard and local flour from Driffield." Their steak and dark Yorkshire ale pie contains precisely what it says on the tin while the famous Andrew Jones Figit™ Pie (wouldn't you just love to meet the person who submitted this to be trademarked?) is made "with the most succulent meat with a layer of Bramley apple and sage and onion stuffing in a delicious hot water pastry finished with a lattice top." I'll be honest, "figit pie" sounds like something that happens on the back of a bus on the way home from Year 12 disco to me, but hey, everybody loves pork and apple.
Last week, as I walked through Leeds Market on my way to the bus station and the slow dehydration of the National Express coach, my eyes rolled across the lids of row after row of perfect, golden pies like egg wash. Meat and potato, steak and kidney, pork and apple, steak and onion—the names alone were like a Blake poem made lard. I look up from the counter, into the face of a woman in about 40 kilograms worth of gold jewellery, her hair pushed up into something not unlike the astroturf on which a collection of Scotch eggs were nearly resting. I smiled. She winked.
And, for just a second, I felt a surge of affection stronger than pastry, thicker than gravy, and as heartfelt as lard. It was delicious.