Dropswell Farm – The life of pies

pies1Rosie McGlade and son Bryn make proper pork pies with a proper butcher, down on the farm. Tip: eat them hot. Pie heaven…

We’re here to make pork pies; on the table is a metal bowl with lard and hot water inside, a dish of flour, and next to us a huge pig’s head and shoulders. Our raw ingredients. Not like those I’d normally get from Asda.

Dropswell Farm on the outskirts of Trimdon in Co Durham, just along from where our former Prime Minister Mr Blair used to live (occasionally), gives little away as you approach. It’s a farm, with sheds, byres with cows inside, and chickens scratching around. Here on the left though is a homely little cafe, and a butcher’s shop. Nothing you could call gimmicky. Timeless.

It’s Monday, Paul and wife Christine Craddock’s day off, and they’ve invited me and my son Bryn, who’s on school holidays, to take part in the ritual of turning the pig into pie.

Now you could make this at home, though I can’t remember the last lay cook who said they make their own pork pies. You’d have to buy best shoulder pork (Paul says all forequarter meat has most flavour as it’s where the animal’s done the most work, but the muscles are dryer so it needs fat or cooking in special ways, usually slowly), and you’d have to mix up your own cure. I ask Paul what’s in his and unsurprisingly he doesn’t say much, though there’s a strong aroma of nutmeg and mace.

piea2As it turns out to be the best pork pie we’ve ever had, we might actually give it a go as a diversion from the ever-present lure of XBox during the hols. Either that, or make a physical diversion next time we’re in Co Durham, and buy some. Or get online, which seems like cheating. They are extraordinarily delicious, deep pink inside, as opposed to the grey of so many mass-produced half attempts, their pastry crusty and crumbly top, bottom and sides. They are worth getting fat for, which at my stage in life I can’t say often. They’re the real deal. Eat hot if you can, and you’ll never forget them. “When we started out, we spent six months perfecting the cure and the recipes,” Christine says, “and both put on a stone.” It was noble work.

We’re making two types of pie – the ordinary pork pie of the Melton Mowbray variety (in which town the Dropswell pies actually won a coveted gold award, whcih is quite a thing), and huge hand-raised pies made with plain pork and leftover ends of the cured meats that Paul also specialises in, more of which in a moment.

Paul begins by chopping off the pig’s front legs, and because it’s fascinating and we ask, showing us the pig’s cheeks, which are now fashionable (tip: ask for them if you’re ever at a hog roast – Paul says they melt in the mouth). His knife work is deft as a sculptor’s. The head comes off. He saws through the spine, and splits the forequarter in two. Into a separate bowl, huge slabs of shoulder muscle are slapped, meat and fat, not too much, together.

“A proper butcher will tell you how to save money when you go in,” Paul says, cutting away. When he started out they’d make potted meat, which people warmed up and poured onto chips, but it’s now (bring it back!!) fallen from favour.

I put on a metal glove and chop up the shoulder, ready for the mincer. Bryn spoons in sections and we watch it come curling out. And that’s it, for the pork. It was a local pig, killed about a week ago. Poor thing, but this is about the best way it could ever have ended up. There’s an air of respect in the butcher’s back.

The dry, spice cure is added, a bit of rusk to help bind it together, and a splash of water.

Onto the pastry, and the bowl of lard rendered down on the premises from pig fat, which is melted in hot water and added to the flour, salt and pepper, and which we then knead, and each break off a chunk the size of a tennis ball.

Paul produces a wooden ‘dolly’, like a rolling pin chopped in half, which we press into the pastry as a mould to lift the sides up round and form a bowl. Into this goes the pork and cured meats mix, and then a cut-out lid on top. “Don’t worry, everyone has their own way of crimping,” Paul says. The pastry is easy to work with and both our pies look incredible. He puts them on a little tray of us to take home and cook. They are beyond delicious, ourselves beyond proud.

pies3Onto the cured pork (confusing terms I know; this is the one with the spices in), and we’re using the tin method, where a smaller lump of pastry is placed in the bottom of a little tin and then slid under a very traditional-looking machine. You pull down a lever and a hot end like a big round stamp presses it into shape. An ice cream scoop-sized lump of meat is added, then the lid, and back into the machine where a different end crimps it together on another pull of the lever. They look magnificent, all identical.

Paul and Christine are keen we try them hot, so there’s a tray of some they’ve made earlier, fresh out of the oven. I think I’ve already mentioned they’re rather good. They actually sell a lot of them in the farmshop from frozen, so you can take them home and cook them yourself for the same effect.

“Once you’ve had them warm you’ll probably never want a cold one again,” Paul reiterates. And is he a jelly man? “Traditionally, they used un-cured pork and it could go a bit dry, which is where the practice came from, so it was necessary. You make a hole and pour it in after cooking and I prefer it with jelly, though if you eat them hot you don’t really need it.”

The couple have run the shop and cafe for the last three years, Paul on the meats, Christine the accounts, marketing and so forth. He started as a young butcher’s lad in Trimdon Village with ‘good old Harry Coates’. “That’s what I do, cut stuff up. What I’m more and more passionate about is charcuterie, making and curing our own produce. It’s now a big part of our business, quite specialised. Now we’ve got the accreditation we’re able to sell elsewhere.”

They also do dry cured bacon and gammon. There’s an under-the-counter middle bacon that’s dried to half the size it starts out at, but you have to prove you’re worthy before you’re allowed any.

Just tell them how great their pies are…

For pies, visit Dropswell Farmshop near Trimdon Village (map on website), or order cooked or frozen for next day delivery from www.dropswellfarmshop.co.uk tel 01429 880 661

For stockists of Dropswell’s specialised cured meats, salamis, chorizo, and
dry-cured bacon, try Fenwick in Newcastle (coming soon), Mmm in the Grainger Market, and Teesdale Game and Poultry’s stall in Durham Market

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