Pies. Tons of them. More than 900 chunks of lard-infused goodness, including 50 Melton Mowbray pork pies, 40 beef and stilton, and one eel and chocolate. It was while surrounded by these, judging at the 2012 British Pie Awards – held annually in Melton Mowbray – that I met the editor of this magazine and he asked me to plan a food road trip of Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire.
Was I judging too ferociously, suggesting an obsessive knowledge of local food hotspots? I calmed my technique and crossed my fingers that it was simply because I’d lived in the area for many years and publish a regional food magazine. So I started to plot a tour.
So, where to begin? Counterintuitively, with ferrets. After moving to Melton Mowbray six years ago, I was accosted – jollily – by a chap walking one on a lead. The incident occurred near to the town sign welcoming visitors to ‘The Rural Capital of Food’, so this is where we’ll start.
I mention the ferret because the owner acquired it from the town’s extraordinary weekly farmers’ market. This ancient town centre institution –location of the East Midlands Food Festival – offers the food shopping equivalent of a double chilli vodka. Melton market slaps you around the cheeks. A collection of huge open barns, up to 6,000 sheep and 300 cattle are sold here weekly via farmers’ mysterious hand signals. It’s not just livestock – also on sale are pies, cheese, meat, honey, fish and veg. But my favourite part is the Fur and Feather auction, where you can buy a brace of pheasant for around £1.60, or a freshly shot hare for £3. Waitrose this ain’t – it feels like stepping back in time. You could even buy a live ferret if you so desire.
The Vale of Belvoir
Stick your pheasants in the boot: we’re heading north into the Vale of Belvoir (pronounced ‘bee-ver’ – GCSE French-style interpretations may be ridiculed). As you drive, look for numerous Long Clawson Dairy signs marking farm entrances. Long Clawson Dairy, in heart of the vale, is a farmers’ co-operative and is the largest producer of stilton in the world. It makes 6,700 tonnes of cheese a year, using 58 million litres of milk extracted from 42 herds, all grazed within 25 miles.
The Vale of Belvoir is beautiful, a prime example being Eastwell village with its tiny, ancient church and superbly rugged farm shop, where farmer Alan Hewson can often be found behind the counter making pies, faggots and sausages. When I travel from Eastwell to Stathern, home of the excellent Red Lion Inn – the perfect rural pub – I love the way the entire vale unfurls before you, a farmhouse tablecloth of lush green fields. The ideal drop to drink while taking in this view would be Blue Brew from Belvoir Brewery, Old Dalby – an ale that uses stilton whey in the brewing process.
Onwards to Lincolnshire. Heading east from Leicestershire, through Rutland and into Lincs, I’m always taken aback by how quickly the atmosphere changes. Rolling hills vanish, the sky lengthens, dykes appear by roadsides and fields fill with sugar beet, cabbages and barley. It’s flat, occasionally eerie and sometimes strangely beautiful.
In south Lincolnshire lie acres of English mustard fields. For at least 200 years, the flatlands here have produced almost the entire English mustard crop, supplying Colman’s since 1814. While I was visiting this area recently, a local grower called George Hoyles told me an amazing tale. “When the Pilgrim Fathers set sail from Boston, Lincolnshire, in 1623 to discover America, they used to pray six times a day,” he said. “They took mustard seed because, as the Bible says, it is the smallest, fastest growing seed. Whenever they prayed, they threw down seed so they could retrace their footsteps. These mustard trails can still be picked up by satellite photography today.”
We’re now venturing north-east to the Lincolnshire coast, above the Wash. Samphire sprouts on the saltmarsh at Kirton Skeldyke near Boston. I used to think the land felt barren out here, but during one samphire hunt last year, I looked more closely to discover a saltmarsh humming with life and transmitting strange tranquillity, its creatures and vistas ebbing and flowing with the tide.
Samphire in the bag, what to serve it with? There can be few more authentic Fenland ingredients than smoked wild eel, traditionally trapped in Lincolnshire’s rivers and estuaries. Just above Boston, at Friskney, is Smith’s Smokery – and there’s nowhere better to get this exquisite dish.
Further north, the stretch of coastline from Anderby Creek to Skegness comprises mile after mile of golden sand – a beautiful place for blanket and hamper, but don’t expect shops or pubs. Continue north beyond Skegness, dip inland to Alford and a surprise awaits. Cheese is not associated with Lincolnshire, but the county produces three stunners. Near Alford graze cows whose milk is fermented into Lincolnshire poacher – a hard, fruity, nutty cheddar-like cheese. A few miles north-west is Osgodby, home of Cote Hill Blue – one of my favourites – sometimes referred to as British roquefort. A little further south at Wragby, award-winning goats’ cheese is made at Goatwood Dairy.
Before we leave Lincolnshire, we must cram in Market Rasen, which recently became one of Mary Portas’s Pilot Towns. This town of 5,000 is also home to Sunnyside Up Farm Shop, famous for Lincoln Red beef, a native breed that produces sublime steaks. What should you serve with your Lincoln Red? I’d go for a local beer every time – try Marquis from Sarah Barton’s Brewsters Brewery of Grantham.
Suitably refreshed, it’s south to Stamford – in Lincolnshire but on the edge of Rutland. I grew up in this town and it is best summed up by three very noble things: church spires, old stone buildings and pubs. While there, do visit the Tobie Norris, an outstanding and brilliantly restored boozer that dates back to 1280.
It would be wrong to end this food trip without venturing into Rutland, England’s smallest county but packer of a weighty food punch.
In the north of the county spins Whissendine Windmill, run by (and personally restored by) one of the food world’s true characters – miller Nigel Moon. Born in the wrong era by several hundred years, Nigel stonegrinds flour and sells some of it to Hambleton Bakery, which bakes award-winning breads and cakes – including its famous Rutland loaf – in a giant oven in Exton.
But, for me, Rutland is all about great country pubs. For truly local cooking, the King’s Arms in Wing is hard to beat. Run by James Goss, who has a small smokehouse out the back where he smokes everything from Rutland trout to Mangalitza pork from nearby Chater Valley Farm, it’s a hidden gem. Then there’s the Exeter Arms, Barrowden, notable for its microbrewery and pub dog – Pilot – who has a beer named after him. There are many more (the truly excellent Olive Branch, the Jackson Stops, the Fox and Hounds at Exton…) but we can’t mention Rutland without referring to the Grainstore of Oakham, which brews delightful beers and is also a brewery tap. It’s a spit and sawdust sort of place, and I enjoy sipping a pint of Ten Fifty and dipping into the bowls of nuts that pepper the bar.
Rutland is also good for pies, with Northfield Farm of Cold Overton, Leeson’s Butchers and Hambleton Fine Foods of Oakham all making crackers. But now we’re back to the British Pie Awards, and I’m getting sweaty palms and flashbacks. Our food tour must end here.