The land of the ‘pie-eaters’: Why is Wigan obsessed with pies?
The first seven days of March is British Pie Week; a period where this glorious pastry-and-filling is given its deserved recognition right around the country. But there’s one town in Greater Manchester where every week is Pie Week: Wigan.
The beginning of March marks British Pie Week; a time of year where the glorious pastry-and-filling dish enjoys renewed recognition right around the country. But there’s one town in Greater Manchester where every week is Pie Week. Wigan is known as the land of the ‘pie-eaters’ – although there’s more history behind that nickname than you might think...
On a balmy summer evening back in 2002, I was caught up in a current of Wigan rugby supporters, all gently floating in a sea of Cherry and White t-shirtstowards the JJB Stadium turnstiles.
St Helens were in town for rugby league’s flagship fixture, and the game was a near-sellout.
Wigan vs Saints invariably pulls in a massive crowd; with the two teams old enemies since time immemorial. The clubs are separated by just 9 miles and a grassy hill called the ‘Billinge Lump’; representing rival regions since the county borders were moved in 1974 (it’s now Greater Manchester v Merseyside, rather than a Lancashire derby).
The game was one of my first visits to the rugby as a young ‘un, and whilst my memories of the match itself are fuzzy, what has stuck with me ever since is the sight of Saints fans suddenly breaking out into a strange song.
I didn’t quite understand the lyrics, so I tugged on my grandad’s coat sleeve and asked him: “Why do they keep shouting ‘pie-eaters!’ at Wigan?”
The St Helenian answer to that question – and one that’s often told in nearby towns – goes something like this…
In 1926, more than one million coal miners were at loggerheads with pit owners over wages and working conditions. So, in a show of solidarity, many British workers went on strike. The protests lasted for several days, but Wigan workers were apparently among the first to return to their shifts – and in doing so were said to be ‘eating humble pie’.
They’ve been teased about it ever since. But according to Wiganers, that’s a little unfair.
Some point out that whilst Wigan workers were the first to stop striking, they were also the first to start. Others claim that townsfolk had the pie moniker long before the unrest of 1926.
But perhaps the true origins of the nickname don’t matter. Because labelling Wiganers as ‘pie-eaters’ works on an elemental level, anyway.
Idioms aside, Wigan is a place that is inescapably besotted with pies.
The town’s penchant for pastry is everywhere. I noticed it from the moment I first set foot in Wigan’s sport stadium as a kid – from the pie posters slapped across the walls of the concourse to the pastry offer announcements crackling across the PA system. An advert for ‘POOLE’S PIES!’ (a company which produced pies in Wigan for 171 years) even danced its way across the scoreboard during the game.
Poole’s has sadly folded since then. But there’s still a minimum of 20 listed pie shops operating in the Wigan region today (with dozens of local cafes and food stores serving up pies as part of their wider menus).
Since 1992, Wigan has also been the prideful host of the World Pie-Eating Championships – where contestants aim to wolf down as many of these crumbly concoctions as quickly as possible (historically held at Harry’s Bar on Wallgate).
See, in Wigan, it’s socially acceptable to tackle any type of pie, at any time of day, in almost any way.
Residents even put pies between two slices of bread for a snack; which is known as a ‘Wigan Slappy’ or ‘Wigan Kebab’ (a local delicacy with the latter name features three pies impaled on a stick).
It’s true that many Wiganers are happy to embrace their passion for pies with good humour, but some evidence suggests that pies here are no laughing matter.
Wigan journalist David Barnett – who has written multiple pieces on the topic – concludes that pies are in fact a “way of life” for denizens. During his time working at the Wigan Evening Post, a fire ripped through the town’s pie factory, and Barnett was sent to cover the story. Despite the disaster, shutting down pie production was seemingly out of the question. Instead, the company drafted in “emergency pie-makers” to work through the night and get pie deliveries out on time. The article made the front page.
Wigan’s appetite for pies has been rumbling for decades – and remains insatiable to this day.
One of the most recent examples of this fixation can be found in 2019 – when Wigan Athletic needed a new mascot for their football team. Club officials turned to local school children for inspiration – and over half of entries featured a pie in the design.
Wigan’s love affair with pies is well-entrenched and utterly unapologetic.
When one study dared to rank nine regions above Wigan on a list of the UK’s top pie-loving places, World Pie-Eating Championships organiser Tony Callaghan was aghast.
“I’m stunned. This can’t be right,” he told Wigan Today.
“The table is very misleading. Everyone knows that Wigan is the capital of the pie world and home to the World Pie-Eating Championships. It goes down in history as such.
“Even now the pie shops are open and they’ve been trading throughout the pandemic. Wiganers can’t get enough of them.”
Wigan has revelled in many other achievements outside the oven, of course.
It’s home to one of the most successful rugby league teams of all time in Wigan Warriors. It also has a plucky little football club that has repeatedly defied the odds to make sporting headlines (including a famous FA Cup triumph over Man City in 2013). The town’s name features in the title of classic Orwellian work The Road to Wigan Pier. And Wigan is also the birthplace of legendary singer-songwriter George Formby.
But every time British Pie Week rolls around, all eyes are always on the Greater Manchester town for its inextricable link with the golden brown grub.
Wiganers, meanwhile, will be scoffing down pie barms as if it were any ordinary time of year.
That’s what they do there. It’s a town with pie-sonality…
We tried Greater Manchester’s first eight-course pie-tasting menu and it was absolutely unreal
Every now and again the opportunity to eat something genuinely new and different and which pushes the envelope when it comes to the kind of food you ever even thought you’d enjoy — sitting down for the inaugural ‘PieSessions’ was one of those such occasions.
This month, we had the privilege of being invited along to one of the most exclusive and highly-anticipated dining events in Greater Manchester: an eight-course pie-tasting event created by pie-pros Ate Days A Week, Scotty’s Pies and a number of other collaborators.
Hosting a true first for the region, Notion Bar over in Stockport was packed out with over 50 guests who were all eagerly awaiting to taste pies from the local favourite, MasterChef contestant turned meat and pastry specialist Scott Eckersley-Bell, as well as Wigan staples Baldy’s Pies and Harwoods Patisserie.
At first glance, the popular SK Deep South-inspired dive bar might not look like the place to offer up a gourmet tasting menu, but what it did have was an accessible charm and a bunch of hungry people not only willing to keep their minds open but who simply love all things pie. Who doesn’t?
At the top of the bill was probably one of the most interesting things we’ve eaten all year: a Japanese-inspired ‘Pie-Scream’ which delivered the exact savoury spin as it promised on the tin. A malt-crust cone stuffed with smoothly pipped mash, katsu curry sauce and crispy Teriyaki bacon in place of a flake.
We believe we call that ‘making a good first impression’. From that moment on, we knew we weren’t just going to be eating any old meal and that it wasn’t just going to be plate after plate of what you normally consider a pie; everything was different and we can honestly say everything was good, if not amazing.
Next up we had probably one of our standouts from the entire night which was a garlic, ginger and soy pork mince tartlet with a perfect piece of honey-glazed pork belly next to it, as well as a light edamame and spring onion purée to balance out the strong flavours.
Following on from the opener, the pair delivered all of the tried and tested Asian flavours in a method most will have never experienced them in before and, in truth, we could have even taken some extra spice with that virtually perfect tartlet but they were careful not to thrash our palettes early doors.
Two down, six to go and when we tell you it was plate after plate of precise pie-based ingenuity, we’re not exaggerating. From the short rib slider, which was almost like an elevated Wigan kebab, to the gentler poached cod pithivier which kind of reminded us of a seafood twist on a Cornish pasty, there was a single thing we didn’t like.
The way the menu was also carefully constructed not to beat you over the head with non-stop meat, pastry and gravy but to fluctuate between smaller bites and more substantial courses was already pretty impressive, as we managed to make it to the end of the meal at the perfect level of full.
We were even pleasantly surprised to see how the team tackled the issue of pudding, with a sweet and just sharp enough take on parfait with fresh orange, stem ginger and brown sugar, as well as a much richer chocolate, salted caramel and hazelnut brownie for a big finish.
To be honest, we loved the tiny little lemon madeleines they surprised us with as an after-dinner treat even more than the desserts (the two of us in attendance are lemon fiends, to be fair) but the best course of the night has to go to the ‘Big Jim Volume 2.0’.
Speaking to Ate Days A Week Founder Andy James on our way out, you could clearly see how his passion for the concept had translated amongst his colleagues, into the excitement of the guests and then back onto him after he saw how well the whole thing went down.
There was a real buzz about the place that was nothing like we’d ever experienced before with other tasting menus and we think it’s because those in attendance had never sat down for a meal that was as experimental as this one whilst also being that accessible.
Yes, it might be a touch posher than pie, mash and gravy but it never stayed too far away from that simple British pleasure and while there were certainly a few thrills to give you that tasting menu feel, nothing felt out of place and neither did the diners.
Pulling off one of the best teas we’ve had in a long time from a tiny kitchen inside a rough-around-the-edges late-night drinking spot, we already know there will be a sequel to PieSessions not only because Andy told us so but because it was such a massive success. Count us in for the next one.
Manchester Christmas Markets 2023 — dates, locations, prices and everything you need to know
Rejoice, Manchester it’s that time again — famously the most wonderful time of year, and you know what that means: we’ll soon be filling our faces with bratwurst, cheersing steins of Bavarian beer and filling our houses with far too many festive trinkets because the Christmas Markets are back.
We’re not even tooting our own horn when we say this, it’s just a fact that the Manchester Christmas Markets are some of the best and most popular on the planet and this year we celebrate 25 years since the seasonal stalls first opened up in 0161 and started a legendary annual tradition.
It doesn’t matter how many years roll by, we still await their arrival like little kids waiting for Christmas morning and set our schedules for what time we’re going to head out on which day to cross off the must-haves on our markets checklist.
With that in mind, we thought we’d help you put together your own plan of attack this holiday season and give you all the info you need to know to make the most of the 2023 Manchester Christmas Markets. You can thank us later.
Manchester Christmas Markets 2023 mug design and price
Every year the Manchester Christmas Markets has a limited-edition mug design, and this year the collectable souvenir has taken inspiration from the Nutcracker.
There are two different sizes and 2023 designs to collect when the markets officially open next week.
When you order a hot drink at the markets you’ll be charged a £3.50 deposit for a mug (that’s up from £3 last year).
You can then return your cup when you’re finished to get your money back, or take it home as a memento.
Last year, the Manchester Christmas Markets mugs were so popular they ran out before the markets had even finished – but they’ve ordered extras this year to be on the safe side.
Travel advice and how to get to the Manchester Christmas Markets 2023
Transport for Greater Manchester has urged people to use public transport wherever possible to travel in and out of the city centre for the Manchester Christmas Markets.
That’s because of all the events running alongside the festivities, from huge football matches to gigs at the AO Arena to Black Friday sales.
The Bee Network app will help you to plan your journey and you can read all the latest travel advice here.
The best hotels to stay in for the Manchester Christmas Markets
Now, for those of you travelling into town to sample our world-famous markets — as literally thousands do every single year — you might be in need of somewhere to lay your head after a few too many steaming mugs of Glühwein.
Fortunately, since this city continues to be such a popular tourist attraction all year round, there are plenty of hotels to suit whatever your budget is.
In fact, you’re so lucky that we already put together a list of the best hotels in Manchester a little while back, so you’re welcome in advance.
And that should do you for now and your guide to the 2023 Manchester Christmas Markets — we’re sure most of you know the score by now: it’ll be a big, cold, a bit busy but utterly wonderful as it always is.
We’ve found the trick is to try out a few days during the week if you want to beat the rush and then come back at the weekend for the full-bellied crowds brimming with festive cheer.
There really is nothing like it in our opinion and we’ll be sure to keep bringing you plenty of updates on all things Christmas Markets-related going on in Manchester over the next couple of months.