Monthly Archives: September 2016

Customs occasional: Denby Dale Pies

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“It was absolutely glorious. It really was lovely. Very, very savoury – the spices that they’d added to it were such that they brought out the full flavour of the meat. It was more like best stewing steak, so well cooked that it was starting to fall and to disintegrate…It wasn’t chewy, but it was easy on the teeth with lots of rich gravy on it.”

BBC Look North talking to David Bostwick of his pie memories of 1988!

Whilst many waited to see the clocks chine 12 or the impact of the Millennium Bug (remember that) on their VHS recorders (remember them!?) I was thinking I wonder if Denby Dale would do a pie this year? A pie, not instantly an exciting prospect, but this was to be one of the famous giant pie, the biggest pies in the world. I searched in vain on-line, remember this was the day of slow dial up and even slower and primitive pages…but after some searching and contacting the local tourist information they confirmed a pie was planned for the first weekend in September. I made a note in the diary.

 Having a finger in every pie.

This rather unassuming Yorkshire village has progressively baked larger pies since 1788, ten now in all, each attracting more and more hungry mouths. Why this village should start the tradition is unclear – although giant baked produce are not exactly common, they are not that rare – but only this village has kept it. The first pie was baked to celebrate George III’s recovery – albeit brief – from his bouts of madness – I suppose making a crazy pie helped.

However, clearly the villages got the taste for giant pies for soon in 1815, twenty chickens and two sheep were used to make a second pie this time to celebrate the victory of Waterloo. The third to celebrate repeal of the Corn Laws in August 29, 1846, at least made sense it lowered the price of wheat products!  This 1846 pie nearly ended in disaster when 15,000 could have perished when the stage collapsed and a mass escape ensued leaving the official cutter trapped inside it!

Half-baked idea?

However, the most famed incident in pie history is recorded for the fourth pie baked to celebrate Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in August 1887. Not learning from the earlier event perhaps the lack of any organization once the pie appeared at Norman park, having been cooked at the White Hart by Halifax bakers led by a London chef, crowds swamped it. Yet as they dug into it, a rather unpleasant smell arose!

“emitted such an intolerable stench that a number of persons were injured in the stampede to escape.”

It transpired that apparently that in the cooking process the meat had gone cold. This combined with dirt on the potatoes and the fact that the pie had sat all day in the sun, had made the dish go seriously off….so much that it was buried in quick – line and never eaten. A local newspaper the Huddersfield Examiner stated that:

“I am astonished how the promoters dare offer the pie for human food.”

They were not to be beaten and on the 3rd of September that year another pie as made and a select 2000 people invited. It was called the Resurrection Pie.

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Pies the limit?

No such cooking problems would affect the 2000 pie which had the state of the art heating mechanisms which ensured that each piece of the pie was kept piping hot. Infact although it had a crust a top, I wondered how much the mechanical dish with its separate compartments, twenty four in all, heated by three kilowatt heating, could be justified with the concept of a giant pie – was this not smaller pies albeit sharing a giant crust?

1896 saw the 50th anniversary since the Corn Law repeal a good reason to use some of that corn for a crust so a sixth pie was constructed using the previous pie dish. However, for the seventh pie, a local brick and tile works made the dish – 16ft long, 5ft deep and 15 inches deep and it was baked in August 1928 to raise money for the local hospital and as such as called the Infirmary Pie which raised £1000 for them and was given to 40,000 recipients. The pie was almost lost, as the dish got stuck in its specially made oven and needed considerable elbow grease from 20 mean and crowbars to extract it. Not only that there were not enough rollers to move the five-ton pie!

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Pie in the sky

The town did not see another pie due to the Second World War and indeed the original dish was melted down to help the war effort. It was not until 1964 when four Royal births in the same year Prince Edward, Lady Helen Windsor, Lady Sarah Armstrong Jones and James Ogilvy was thought worthy of celebration. In an interesting attempt of publicity, the new pie dish was floated down the canal to Denby – it didn’t make far before it sunk! Sadly, this pie would be tinged with sadness as returning for a television show promoting the pie, four of the main organisers were killed in a car crash. Despite the tragedy, the pie went on and was served to 30,000 people. The money made from it and its associated celebrations paid for Denby Dale Pie Hall which was opened in 1972.

1988 could not go by without a pie as it was 2000 years since the original and so on the 3rd September the Bicentenary Pie was baked. For the first time the pie was served over two days with a fantastically impressive 90,000 being served at £1 apiece. The pie entered the Guinness Book of records as the biggest meat and potato pie in the world and the dish sits holding flowers in the village.

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Nice as pie.

So in 2000, the new millennium combined with the 100th birthday of the Queen’s Mother meant that a pie must be made. This time it contained two and a half tons of beef and potatoes, three and half tons of pastry and 36 gallons of bitter. The dish was 40ft by 8ft and 44 inches deep – so big that it was the trailer of a lorry – 70 feet in all.

And what a site this giant pie was. I stood at the end of the long lane and soon it swung into sight. In a parade which one would only see when a giant pie was in town. With it unsurprisingly were the Sheffield Giants, whose towering statue came close to normalising the gigantic crusted creature.

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With much trumpeting and celebration, the pie arrived at the field. Here entry by paid ticket entitled the bearer to a piece of pie, to prevent a scram they were timed and zoned if I remember. Before all that was the ceremonial cutting of the pie. I sneaked in amongst the press back to see the chefs checking on the pie. Huge wafts of heat bellowed out of it and the smell this time fresh and enticing rose majestically out of it. Of course to cut such a Yorkshire icon needed a Yorkshire icon and as such famed cricket umpire Dickie Bird took the honour. He wielded a giant sword – what else to slay a baked beast as this. Raising it with a devilish grin on his face the pastry skin was pieces and steam arose from it. The pastry pierced it was now time to dish up.

 

Sadly being a vegetarian – they didn’t cater for that – I didn’t partake in this meaty masterpiece giving my offering to a hungry looking boy nearby. I asked him his thoughts…’marvellous’ he said.

I searched on-line (more successfully this time) to find if any further pies were planned such as for the Queen’s recent Jubilees or 90th birthday, but it appears some plans were made, no pies were baked up. One hopes that as the souvenir brochure for the 2000 pie, the Chairman noted:

“there are people saying this is the last Denby Dale Pie. The thoughts were expressed also at the time of the 1964 and 1988 events. I do however believe that in a generation or so, hence, some notable event will encourage a group of ‘pie crazy’ villagers to assemble a ‘mammoth’ pie, and thus maintain a tradition which has made the village of Denby Dale famous throughout the world.”

Let us hope that the Queen’s Hundred or a coronation – whichever happens first – will be the impetus. But until then I am glad to have witnessed such a monumental meaty manifestation!

“When word was given a general rush,

Took place to hack and hew it;

The clambered up outside the crust to get their knives into it,

When all at once the crust gave way,

It’s true, I’ll take my davy

And ninety-five poor souls they say

Were drowned in the gravy.”

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Custom revived: The Whitebait Festival

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The days when we all lived in clover, With whitebait, can never revive, I assure you,” said Lawless, “they’re over, But, oh, keep the licence alive.”

Such were the lines from ‘Punch‘ to have two politicians who were commenting on the end of the great Whitebait Feast.

The consumption of baby sprats and herring – commonly called Whitebait – was such a popular dish in Essex that it attracted much ceremony which included members of parliament and even the prime minister!

Raise to the bait

The association with an annual feast apparently is associated with those who funded the Barking Breach, a costly anti-flood venture which was built in 1707. This begun with the host Sir Robert Preson, the Dover MP inviting distinguished guests to his fishing cottage nearby. Then in 1766, the first Whitebait Feast first took place in Dagenham, this was largely a private affair, often attended by politicians and marked the end of the parliamentary season on or around Whit Sunday. The politicians would process by boat to the party. A regular attendee was the then Prime Minster, Pitt the Younger. He was concerned that the venue was too far too London and as such it moved to Greenwich. However this being a political activity there were two locales: the Trafalgar Tavern (for the Liberal members) and the Old Ship Tavern (for the Tories). The last such Dinner was held in 1894 a closure forced by the lack of Whitebait, a consequence of the Thames pollution rather than any political falling out.

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Baited breathe

Then Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry revived it in 1934. The improvement in water quality in the Thames has resulted in spawning occurring not far from Southend pier. Of this first revived feast the Times reported:

“Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds; whitebait ill-cooked is much nastier than salt cod, and many are the people who do not like whitebait because they have never tasted whitebait worthily cooked and served.”

The custom consisted of an official opening ceremony with the catch blessed at from the end of the pier with the bringing in of the first catch. This catch was then taken to the feast. However a few changes have been made – since the burning down of the pier – the event has moved to the Bawley below Cliff’s Pavillion. The Mayor of Southend, other important people of the town and the ministers of the five different denominations attend. Arriving a few moments earlier one has to peer into the nearby restaurant where the whitebait feast occurs – tickets available from the Round Table – but don’t expect any prime ministers. Here the party assembled and then vicar and mayor carrying a basket of whitebait in a white cloth. Gingerly making their way to the water’s edge, the vicar said a few words and together holding the fish and nearly dropping them they threw them back!  Then the group went to a local restaurant to enjoy the Whitebait – although this is only the first course I would imagine!

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Sadly despite the blessing – much of the whitebait is caught 100s of miles away in the Baltic..and I am not sure the blessing gets that far!

Custom demised: Huntingdon Freeman’s Boundary Walk

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cow skull

Sometimes old customs and ceremonies are very bizarre, confusing and mixed. An account written in the Pall Mall Gazette, September 16th 1892 records a custom was enacted every 15th September.  The custom begun with the whole of the freeman of the borough assembling in the market place in the morning. The paper reports:

“The freeman of the borough of Huntingdon have this week been engaged in the observance of a curious and ancient local custom…The skull of an ox borne on two poles was placed at the head of a procession, and then came the freemen and their sons, a certain number of them bearing spades and other sticks. Three cheers having been given, the procession moves out of the town, and proceeds to the nearest point of the borough boundary, where the skull is lowered. The procession then moved along the boundary line of the borough, the skull being dragged along the line as if it were a plough. The boundary holes were dug afresh, and a boy thrown into each hole and struck with a spade. At a particular point, called Blackstone Leys, refreshments were provided, and the boys competed for prizes.”

In the book by P. H. Ditchfield 1896 Old English Customs still extant notes that:

The skull is then raised aloft, and the procession returns to the market-place, and then disperses after three more cheers have been given. There are no allusions to this strange custom in any of the topographical books of reference, and it is an instance of the strange and curious customs which linger on in the obscure corners of our land.”

Clearly the event was a confused beating of the bounds, especially with the beating of the children and giving of gifts to encourage remembering the boundaries. The skulls suggest a possible older origin when the skull had a more sacred origin perhaps. The Freeman of Huntingdon still exist but this curious and bizarre event no longer exists.