The Rural Capital of Food
by Dr Matthew O'Callaghan, Chairman, Melton Mowbray Food Partnership
There are many reasons why Melton Mowbray is described as the UK's ‘Rural Capital of Food'.
New boundary signs celebrate this stating ‘Borough of Melton; Home of Stilton Cheese and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies' and more recently town signs with ‘Welcome to Melton Mowbray - Rural Capital of Food'.
And as interest in food grows so do the number of visitors - two million at last count worth £65m to the local economy.
A ‘Rural Food Centre' is being developed to celebrate the link with food. Visitors will see pork pies, stilton cheese, beer, bread and others being made on a commercial basis. There will be with an exhibition area available for school and other visits. A restaurant and food hall will offer the food produced in the centre.
Stilton - the King of Cheeses
The two best known products associated with the borough are, of course, Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray Pork Pies.
Though the exact origins of Stilton are much disputed, there is little doubt that by about 1730 its production was widespread in the Melton Mowbray area. Through family connections the cheese came to be sold at the Bell Inn in Stilton, a small Cambridgeshire town on the Great North Road, where it was taken by stage coach to London.
Over one million Stilton Cheeses are eaten every year, more than all the other blue cheeses in the UK put together. White and Blue Stilton are now both protected under European law to Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Seven producers are licensed to make the product. Besides Stilton, red Leicester cheese, Slipcote, a runny young cheese and Colwick, a soft white cheese also used to be made locally.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pies
The recipe for a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is not complex. Indeed, its simplicity underlines its very authenticity and reminds us that the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie has remained true to its roots and is still baked without a hoop as it was the end of the 18th Century.
The sides of a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie are bow-shaped as they are baked free standing i.e. without a supporting hoop or tin.
The meat used is fresh pork which is naturally grey when cooked (like roast pork) and must be particulate. The meat is seasoned with salt and pepper and the pies are well jellied.
The pies must be produced within a geographical region defined as the area which runs from the River Trent in the north to Wellingborough in the south, and from the M1 motorway in the west to the A1 trunk road to the east.
The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie has a long heritage in British food history. Its development was aided by the Enclosure Awards of the 1760s which encouraged Melton Mowbray's thriving beef and dairy industry by providing an environment which materially increased milk yields. As the region's Stilton Cheese production grew, so did its pork industry because the whey was an excellent food for pigs.
Agricultural workers, grooms and hunt servants were soon eating pork wrapped in a protective pastry case as a handy and transportable lunch. As the pies popularity grew, companies like Atkins and Dickinson & Morris adapted the recipe to make the pastry richer and more palatable and started using the ‘hand-raising' technique which is still used today.
The pie's longevity and popularity was increased by visiting hunters who enjoyed eating ‘Meltons' during the hunting season. As the age of the railway dawned, manufacturers could supply markets further away and by the mid-1850s the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie had gained a reputation of social, cultural and agricultural importance.
Since 1993, the European Union (EU) has provided a framework that gives legal protection for named regional food products against imitation across the EU and in July 2009 the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie was granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
Melton Mowbray and the Vale of Belvoir
The Melton area also gave the country one of its most enduring traditions - afternoon tea.
Anna, Duchess of Bedford, was staying at the time with the Duke and Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle and, tired of the long wait between lunch and dinner, she ordered for herself and her friends tea, sandwiches, buns and cake to be served at five o'clock sharp.
When she later moved to London she took the custom with her and so a famous tradition was born.
And if you come here and stay awhile you'll find there's much more to Melton Mowbray than cheese and pies.
Its markets are among the oldest in the country and the Cattle Market is one of the few successful livestock markets remaining.
And then there's Hunt Cake, Belvoir Cordials, a number of micro breweries, beautiful countryside, fine dining and much, much more.
Several festivals celebrate the town's connections with food and the biggest of these is the East Midlands Food and Drink Festival. Held on the first weekend of October it boasts more than 200 exhibitors and is the largest regional food festival in the country.