The goal: to eat a pie at all 92 grounds in English league football. The results: in some cases, surprising…
It was a dismal rainy afternoon at the Reebok Stadium. Unfolding in front of my eyes was a meaningless end-of-season encounter between Hull City and my beloved Bolton Wanderers. The action on the pitch was dire. But this didn’t concern me. I brought the pie up to my mouth and paused in silent contemplation for a minute. A pie crafted with love and precision at Greenhalgh’s Bakery and reheated with zero love or precision in the Reebok Stadium microwaves.
This was the 92nd pie that I had consumed in the past nine months. I had just spent the 2008/09 season watching football and writing a book, 92 Pies, about my adventures along the way. I traveled across ghost-town England, spending a very large amount of money and driving vast distances in my ropey old Peugeot 206. I watched clubs play 92 matches in 92 different stadiums, from the Premier League down to League Two. And I ate a pie at every single one.
Food at the football, as any supporter will tell you, has a bit of a tricky reputation:the image of the grim grey slab of burger, or the barely edible phallic hotdog, the £2 Wembley Kit Kat or the cup of tea resembling dishwater.
But there is the holy grail of footy food, the culinary treat that could make even the most hardened Millwall fan go weak at the knees with stomach-grumbling desire: the pie, in all its majestic simplicity. The pie and football go together like strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, like popcorn at the cinema or like ten lagers and a kebab on a Friday night. It is a match made in heaven. The pie may as well have been hand-crafted by God for the sole purpose of cheering up 5,000 miserable Scunthorpe fans at a freezing-cold goalless evening match against Huddersfield. I had therefore made a vow to eat a pie at each of the 92 grounds; pies of all shapes and sizes, the good (see below) the bad (Walsall) and the ugly (Chester City).
The pies are the meaty glue that holds our football together. More than flags, replica shirts and ticket touts, they are the one specific thing linking all 92 clubs. I tried to vary my pie choice as often as possible. Steak pies are usually a safe bet, but the choice of champions is undoubtedly the chicken balti pie. It’s a British institution nowadays, but many dark moons ago the creation of such a curious spicy delight mystified the Midlands.
The best pie, the overwhelming victor, the Tiger Woods of football pastries, was whisked up at Morecambe FC by the small local bakery Potts’ Pies. Morecambe are a tiny club with rickety old terraces at their Christie Park home, but their food is second to none. The huge meaty pies (baked from pure lard, I have since been informed) came on a full plate with thick gravy and mushy peas. The plate, rather than the traditional pie box, was worth the relatively cheap £3 price alone. It was splendid. If this wasn’t enough, they also, quite spectacularly, served hefty portions of Lancashire hotpot. If you’re going to eat food at a football club, make it Morecambe.
There were some worthy runners-up. The best that the Premier League had to offer was at Wigan Athletic. People tend to associate Wigan with pies and pier; while the pier is nothing more than a dank slab of graffiti-covered wood (Orwell would have worded it more delicately, I suspect), the pies did not disappoint. I remember taking a bite of the hefty, sauce-filled pie and a thick splodge of brown gloop and indistinguishable meat fell on to my new white shoes. But I didn’t care about the birthmark stain slowly forming on my spanking-clean footwear, such was its quality.
Exeter City, as well as being one of the most charming clubs of the 92, is well known for its food. There was a wispy white-haired old man selling home-made carrot cake outside the ground. Get that at Old Trafford? I thought not. Inside the ground there was a Domino’s Pizza stall, possibly the only case of a fast-food chain in a football ground.
Darlington may be one of the Football League’s most troubled clubs, but they showed title-winning form with their pies. They set them out as at a bakery: freshly cooked and displayed at the front of the food counter. At £1.30, the meat and potato pie represented probably the best value for money anywhere I’ve been.
The pies at Delia Smith’s Norwich stuck in my mind. Along with the traditional pies that you would expect, there was the “pie of the week”, a regular special that’s a favourite of the Norwich elite. I wondered if Delia hand-crafted them herself before the match. The “pie of the week” for my trip was cauliflower cheese. Cauliflower cheese! That was … unique. The week before, it had been beef in red wine gravy. Why couldn’t I have gone to Carrow Road that week?
One of the best things that happened to me on my nine-month tour was when I visited Yeovil Town. Queuing up to get my pie, I witnessed a majestic sign handwritten in Biro, Blu-Tacked to the wall next to the menu of the typical pies, burgers, drinks, etc. The sign boldly stated: “Soup — past sell-by date — clearance, 50p.” This was simply magnificent. Out-of-date soup for sale. Openly. Where else in the Football League could this happen?
Sometimes I just did not want to eat. A very hungover trip to Leyton Orient on my birthday presented an undesired and undercooked pie that didn’t say happy birthday quite as effectively as a cake with candles. But I always forced myself to get a pie no matter how ill I felt, and over the course of nine months I got lost in a football food-fueled adventure, culminating in a tour of a pie factory before my last match at Bolton.
It was surreal watching the pies being made — the way in which the pastry and the filling are magically combined to make a perfect package of hunger-destroying goodness. It was all a bit like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, if Roald Dahl’s imagination had been more grimly realistic and Lancastrian. And with fewer Oompa-Loompas.
The entire trip had made me become slightly detached from reality. I would cancel evenings out with friends to stare at fixture lists, I would sleep nights in my car and obsess over the lower leagues that I had previously cared nothing about. I took my girlfriend a few times, but she hates pies and football in equal measure (what’s wrong with the girl?) so we had some problems, especially when I traveled to Swansea City by myself on Valentine’s Day.
Forgetting any odd obsession that I had developed with every last detail of the intricacies of pies, the football journey itself was full of highlights and low lights: goals, tears, fights, good times, bad times and many, many laughs. More than anything else, I just fell deeply in love with the Football League. For every scabby, undesirable, bland monstrosity of a ground, there is a stadium such as Exeter’s St James’ Park or Brentford’s Griffin Park that will take your breath away with its individuality and charm. And some decent grub always helps matters hugely.
Football fans have short memories, and over the summer break the supporters of all 92 teams will have reconvened with wide-eyed optimism about all the great things that their club can achieve in the forthcoming months. They will by now have arrived at their clubs to purchase their first pie (or out-of-date soup) and prepare themselves for whatever the next nine months will bring.
In a league of their own: Tom’s top five food stadiums
Christie Park, Morecambe
The daddy of all pie-makers, Potts’ Pies, provide the perfect mix of piping-hot meaty goodness and crisp pastry.
St James’ Park, Exeter
Huge pizzas, carrot cake and the best hot chocolate in the Football League at a beautiful old crumbling stadium. Oh, and the pies aren’t bad, either.
The Northern Echo Darlington Arena
A bakery-style set-up that defies the club’s financial woes. And some of the cheapest food in the Football League.
Carrow Road, Norwich City
Delia Smith-inspired grub baked with love. Keep your eyes peeled for the legendary “pie of the week”.
DW Stadium, Wigan
Thick and generous Pooles pies, a true chunk of Wigan in pastry form.
Article source: Times Online