MELTON MOWBRAY – It’s tough keeping up with Dr. Matthew O’Callaghan as he strides purposefully across the cobbled square in the centre of this lovely historic town, population about 24,000, located in the heart of Britain’s East Midlands.
Wearing a jaunty beige mini-version of a cowboy hat he bought in New Zealand, my guide for the day has been a town councillor here for 12 years and is a man with a mission.
This is boldly illustrated by a brand new sign he proudly pointed out at the vintage train station where I arrived after a scenic hour-and-a-half ride from London with one change at the nearby city of Leicester.
“Welcome to MELTON MOWBRAY
Rural Capital of Food
Home of Stilton Cheese
Melton Mowbray Pork Pies”
O’Callaghan has been splashed all over the news in this country as he tirelessly campaigns to put Melton Mowbray on the culinary map and is on the front page of today’s local paper pictured beside his latest coup: that train station sign.
What’s more, he has impressive credentials.
He’s a doctor of chemistry specializing in soils who has worked in Belgium, Japan and Costa Rica. He’s chairman of both the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association and the Melton Mowbray Food Partnership.
He speaks five languages and has an agile mind packed with facts about history, agriculture, science and food.
His goal is “to make the people in Melton Mowbray proud of their heritage and history.”
And history here is plentiful. It’s a largely medieval town that features well-preserved buildings, including the famous Anne of Cleves pub, assorted churches and the odd castle, all dating back to this period.
Located on the river Eye, this place was inhabited in much earlier days by the Romans. But, as O’Callaghan explains, his plans for his beloved burg to become a food destination are rooted in the recent past and what he sees as a rosy future.
His main aim is to eliminate what had been, until recently, high unemployment. “We had mad cow, agricultural problems and the closing of an army depot,” he explains.
But he traces a key cause of the once sluggish economy to Margaret Thatcher. Faced with miners’ strikes and mine closures across the country, she tried to revive her image in the 1980s by opening a coalmine in resource-rich Melton Mowbray.
“The shafts were in the wrong direction,” O’Callaghan says, adding: “It blew the towers and the mine closed.”
His clever plan – one that has helped reduce unemployment to 1 per cent – involves promoting and protecting the town’s two internationally celebrated foods: Stilton cheese and the Melton Mowbray pork pie.
To check them out at the source, we walk past an array of vendors with barrows selling everything from leather handbags to fresh fruit to stop at Dickinson & Morris: the town’s oldest and most popular food shop where they’ve been making pork pies since 1851.
Ironically, O’Callaghan is a vegetarian. However, he’s a passionate champion of the region’s famous meat pie, the history of which is fascinating.
In the Middle Ages, kitchen utensils were unavailable to the average cook. Instead, a paste of flour and water was shaped around ingredients to be eaten, then discarded after cooking.
Eventually, fat was added to the flour/water mixture forming an edible crust and the pie we know today.
There’s a dazzling array of cheeses and round pork pies in the display case before us at Dickinson & Morris. The latter range in size and style. Some have no top crust but come with a topping of chutney, apple, cranberry or Stilton.
However, all have the mandatory features: An uncured grey-coloured filling seasoned with just salt and pepper; a heavy-duty, crunchy crust, and bone stock jelly between meat and crust that keeps the pie stable and stops it from wobbling.
That trait makes it ideal for one of its traditional uses – as portable food for hunters who flock to this region for their controversial sport. Among them are Prince Charles and sons William and Harry.
Stilton has had trademark protection since the 1960s.The Melton Mowbray pork pie’s E.U. designation is due to be signed and delivered any day. This means pies bearing this name must be made according to the authentic recipe and come from this area.
As O’Callaghan and I sit down to a delectable lunch of perfect pie and a crumbly wedge of pungent Stilton, I offer congratulations.
Back in London, the food is disappointing in comparison. Meals at several restaurants recommended by Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler in her annual round-up are mostly underwhelming and crying out for salt.
That is, until our dinner at York & Albany, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant co-owned and operated by his chief protégé: chef Angela Hartnett.
In fact, the food, service and ambience at this Camden Town dining spot is the best I’ve enjoyed in the U.K.
It seems that rambunctious Ramsay knows how to put his money where his mouth is. If you’re there, try the perfect Pumpkin Risotto and luscious Rice Pudding with Prune Armagnac Compote.
As for Melton Mowbray’s famous pie, various versions are sold in many supermarkets, British food shops and specialty butchers in Toronto. Making them at home is not an option.
However, incorporating wondrous Stilton cheese in soup or salad – not to mention serving it after dinner with crackers and fresh fruit – is. Here’s a dish that features it in a wonderful way.
Stilton Pear Salad
Perfect as a dinner party starter, this appeared in Gourmet magazine in 1992; I found it on super food web site: www.epicurious.com.
2 tbsp white wine vinegar
½ tsp dijon mustard
¼ cup olive oil
6 cups mixed lettuce
1 large or 2 small ripe pears, halved, cored and sliced
About 1 cup crumbled stilton cheese
½ cup pecans, toasted, cooled and chopped *
Whisk dressing ingredients in small bowl until combined.
In large bowl, toss greens with half of dressing. Divide among four plates. Arrange a quarter of pear slices on top of each. Sprinkle stilton and chopped pecans on top. Drizzle each salad with remaining dressing.
Makes 4 servings.
*To toast pecans, cook over low heat in dry skillet about 4 minutes or until aromatic.