The making of giant pies is a strange Yorkshire compulsion. They’ve been made to celebrate wars won, railways opened and laws reformed. The whole surreal enterprise of baking the world’s biggest pies has settled half-way between Holmfirth and Barnsley in Denby Dale.
Nowhere can compete with Denby Dale’s glorious fiascoes and extravaganzas. They should have known from the start, the first pie baked in 1788 to celebrate the return to sanity of George III was no sooner consumed than the poor King went mad again.
In 1815 the second pie – two feet deep and seven feet across – celebrated the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. The Repeal of the Corn Laws was marked ignominiously in 1846 when the platform supporting the pie gave way and 15,000 hungry spectators scrambled for the remains.
In 1887 the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. a ton and a half of meat and potatoes was cooked in batches over a number of days and then added to the pot. On Pie Day when the first slice was cut, the stench of decomposing meat was so bad the whole lot had to be buried in quick lime. Face was saved by the good ladies of Denby Dale who successfully baked a ‘Resurrection Pie’ within the week. With a heifer, two calves and two sheep inside, this was no mean feat itself.
A record breaking pie was baked in 1896 and was safely served in the park to the accompaniment of brass bands and fireworks. The next pie in 1928 also went well as far as most people were aware. However the pack of dogs chasing the procession down the street knew something. The pie was on the turn and ‘four barrow loads of meat had to be quietly carted away’. The 1966 pie went well enough except in order to get the 18ft pie out of the barn in which it had been made, the barn had to be demolished.
The 1988 pie was a still more sophisticated affair. There was sponsorship, technical committees and medical tests. Everyone connected with the pie even had to have ‘thy shit tested’. After a blessing by the Bishop of Pontefract, the pie set off on its procession with spectators sinking into fields of mud, roads choked by the mother of all traffic jams and the general cacophony of 50 floats and a fun fair. Somehow 50,000 people fought through for their £1 portions. According to tradition the next scheduled bake is 2013, though we haven’t heard news of it yet.
Denby Dale pies on a more digestible scale are made today by a team of craft bakers in a small factory beneath the Denby Dale viaduct. Last year the company was on the verge of receivership until Andrew Hayes of Chapel Foods rescued it and saved 17 local jobs. In tribute to the Denby Dale pie and to celebrate National Pie Week Chapel Foods commissioned local lad Ian McMillan to write the Denby Dale Piem.
With thanks to Julia Smith ‘Fairs, Feasts and Frolics’, 1989