John and Lucy go on a visit to Pyes Farm, bakers of some of the very finest pastry enclosed fare in all the land.
by John Pope on December 21, 2015
I feel I should start with an admission: I have a bit of a thing about pork pies. I could, and in fact I have, eaten them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It does of course have to be pork pie of the highest order to justify filling every meal in the day, and sadly those aren’t that easy to find.
Here though is the tale of one of the finest pork pies to have ever passed my lips, of other yummy things from the same source, and of our visit to the wonderful place where they are created.
We needed a special pie…
For a recent very special celebration, in addition to a traditional white cake, we decided that we would like to have another tiered tower of food, consisting of a very large pork pie as a base and a couple of layers of yummy cheeses stacked atop it.
The cheeses were easy enough to come by, albeit it from some strange and random places, but the question of where to lay our hands on a pork pie of sufficient size and quality was a bit more tricky to work out.
When we did find one that seemed to fit our needs it came from a small company in Essex, Essex Larders at Pyes Farm. The incredibly helpful Jenny established what we needed, the date we needed it delivered on, told us that it would be packed in some funky cold retaining packaging and took our money.
From the moment that the doorbell rang and the box arrived I was excited, even before I opened said box, dove through the layers of insulated packaging, saw and felt the beautiful pastry and smelt the unmistakable scent of proper pork and jelly.
This was not, I was sure, just any old pie. Imagine my joy When the day came to actually be allowed to cut into and consume a slice of pie, and find that the taste really did live up to all of the anticipation that had been building to a crescendo inside me.
We were sufficiently impressed to get back in touch with Jenny, order some more yummy things from them and arrange a visit to the place where these wonderful confections were crafted. So, one slightly overcast day not too long ago we hopped into the car and headed off to visit Pyes Farm
About Pyes Farm
First off, let’s clear up the name… it’s not called Pyes Farm because they make pies, it was named long before any of that started, after a black and white bird rather than a crust encased delicacy. So, now that we have that out of the way…
The reality is that many years before they started knocking up pastry based confections the site was a fruit farm, and continued to function as such successfully until the late 1970’s.
In that period of time everything was changing for British fruit farmers. Prices were dropping, due to massive imports of cheap produce from European growers, which rapidly made fruit farming in Britain economically nonviable for many. British farmers dealt with this situation in a variety of different ways, some soldiered on and somehow managed to keep their heads above the water, some folded, and some diversified or changed their business model completely.
In 1980, the owners of Pyes Farm, seeing the fruit business in decline, were searching for a new business direction. After a visit to Devon and meeting somebody doing something similar they made what was surely a brave and difficult decision and moved away from fruit trees and instead decided to turn their hands to running what is essentially a traditional farmhouse bakery, creating pies and other baked goods.
In the early days they would bake and then go around to local pubs selling pies. Apart from their sales channels and scale, really little has changed over the last couple of decades.
Pyes Farm is still a family run business, producing an average of about 3000 pies a week. They bake from Mondays to Thursdays with locally sourced ingredients (more on that shortly) and everything is essentially hand made. The only bits of machinery that are used anywhere in the bakery are a large electric stand mixer and the pneumatic press which puts the pastry into the bottom of the baking tins. The top pastry is added using a hand press.
Anatomy of a pie
The meat pie is really a simple beast, there are really only three things to get right or wrong.
You can’t have a pie without pastry, and it just has to be right, you can’t stick a great filling in a soggy grim casing.
The pastry from Pyes Farm is just as it should be, they make it all in house with flour from nearby Marriage’s, the family run mill where they have been producing flour since 1824.
The Pork comes from Priors Hall Farm, which is about five miles down the road. The people at Priors Hall grow the wheat and barley that feeds the pigs themselves so that they have a fully traceable food chain, and the pigs live in large deep home-grown straw yards with plenty of natural light, air and space. The result is pork that tastes like pork should.
The people at Pyes don’t believe in racking up loads of food miles and any meat that can’t be sourced from Priors Hall comes from a butcher almost as close at hand, near to Chelmsford. All of the fruit and veg, except for the odd things that don’t grow in this country, are also locally sourced.
Ah, the jelly – the only element of a pie which could be considered even vaguely divisive!
When I was a child I really liked pork pies, but I would only eat little tiny individual ones because they had the highest proportion of meat and pastry compared to jelly (of which there was often no discernible trace), even then I would try to avoid eating the jelly bit and try to sneak it to the bin or feed it to the dog. I am glad to be able to say that I have grown wiser as I have become older. I now realise that they jelly I so unfairly demonised in my youth is in fact wondrous stuff, full of flavour.
The fact is that the jelly in meat pies isn’t just there to taste good though. It is traditionally added after the pie has been baked and serves two purposes. Firstly in the days before refrigeration it acted as a preservative, working in a similar way to clarified butter to stop air from reaching the meat. Secondly, the meat shrinks slightly during baking and leaves a gap between the pastry and the filling – the jelly fills this gap which means that the pastry doesn’t collapse when it is cut into.
Go and buy things!
Pyes Farm is still a family run business and they don’t produce a massive volume, you won’t find their wares in Tesco or Sainsbury’s, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get your hands on them.
As well as delivering to select delis and pubs in the local area and also in Central London, private customers are always welcome to buy lovely pies and things, both in regular sizes and also those fantastic special orders for celebrations, weddings, etc. There is no retail shop, but if you call or email then they will make whatever you need and either ship them or you can pick them up directly from the farm.
Everything is made to order, which means two great things. Firstly that anything you buy is guaranteed to be as fresh as possible, and secondly that there is pretty much no food waste at all.
Given all of my preceding exclamations about the wonders of the pork pie, the savvy reader would probably be expecting me to tell you that you should rush out and order some of those. You wouldn’t be wrong, I would never discourage pork pie purchase or consumption, but I am going to surprise myself by recommending that you actually sample (and love) something else from Pyes Farm. They have a venison with tomato and chilli jam pie which is one of my new favourite things in the world.