As I walk in to the World Championship Scotch Pie Awards judging room in Dunfermline the first thing I notice is the smell of hot pies surrounding me.
There are rows after rows of long tables inside the Carnegie Conference Centre stacked with pies, starting with the famous Scotch pies of course.
While the championship is named after this classic pie, there are nine other categories where bakers and butchers across the country are vying for glory.
My eyes – probably as round as a pair of pies at this point – quickly wander to the vegetarian savoury table. If I was a judge this is the category I’d want.
Walking past rows of macaroni pies, apple pies and steak pies, I find head judge Ian Nelson. The experienced pie taster can fill me in on all the secrets of judging day.
“There are 50 judges, and every year we rotate them so they don’t judge the same category,” he explains.
“They judge in pairs and the team leader makes sure all the judging is fair.
“All the pies are tasted hot and judged blind.”
Hundreds of pies
After talking to Ian I also realise why I feel like there are pies as far as my eyes can see. There are 480 products in the running, and there are three of each pie, bridie or savoury. So, there are almost 1,500 treats before me.
I also realise why the room smells like a bakery, there are ovens at either end of the room constantly heating up a stream of pies for judging.
Each product is judged on 11 different areas, including looks, smell, taste and filling. As two judges taste each pie together, they have to agree on the final score.
At the end of the session – of which there are two, one in the morning and one in the afternoon – all the judges get together to pick their favourite pies.
“Each category has one diamond award winner, and there are gold, silver and bronze awards as well,” says the head judge.
“The amount of awards in each category can differ, if we feel it’s worthy of an award it deserves to get one.”
As well as the best Scotch pie, the judges are on the hunt for the best macaroni pie, steak pie, sausage roll, hot savoury, vegetarian savoury, haggis savoury, bridie, apple pie and football pie or savoury.
And finally, across all those categories, one tasty bake will win the Maclean’s Cup for best speciality savoury.
What is the perfect Scotch pie?
Perhaps somewhat naively, I thought that after this full day of tasting and judging the winners would be clear. That’s far from the case, Ian assures me.
The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in January, and who they are is apparently so secret not even the head judge knows at the end of judging day.
You see, the judging doesn’t end when this day is over. Instead it’s time for mystery shopping.
Staff from Scottish Bakers – the organisation behind the awards – visit a selection of bakers and butchers ahead of the ceremony to ensure the pies are still up to par.
So what is the perfect Scotch pie? Head judge Ian has the answer to this too.
“It has a crisp shell, a moist filling and the right balance of salt and pepper – it’s nicely seasoned,” he says.
“It needs to have a good lid, look attractive, and when you bite into it, you want to taste that moist filling.”
Just hearing him describe the perfect pie made me hungry.
From Scotch pies to kebab pies
I make my way over to the football pies and savouries table, where four judges are eating their way though a selection of around 40 bakes.
Chris Fox and Chris Marshall have tasted close to half of the entries, and the pie sweats are setting in.
Having worked in a bakery making savouries before moving to a sweet bakery, Mr Fox was asked to judge the awards a few years ago and has been back every year since.
This is because none of the judges can work for businesses that have submitted entries. However, most of the judges still work in or have experience from the food industry.
The pair are about to tuck into a steak and gravy pie as I come over, a welcome break from all the Scotch pies they’ve just eaten. In this category, any pie or savoury sold inside a Scottish football ground are eligible, making for some interesting flavours.
Further up the table I’ve spotted a kebab pie and a steak and Buckfast pie. Both get a pass from me.
Is judging pies really a dream job?
The two Chris-es are carefully inspecting the three steak and gravy pies to judge the bake – when they discover something you never want to find in your pie. A hair.
They carefully prod at it, making sure it hasn’t come from someone in the room, but this dark hair is firmly baked into the crust. As they wait for Ian to come over they tell me it’s not often you see this level of drama on judging day.
The head judge disqualifies the pie and they move on to the next, it’s another Scotch pie. It’s got a thick, pale pastry top and after cutting it open they see the pastry is still raw.
The grey filling is suspiciously odourless and this pie is anything but appetising. They offer me a bite and I’d never been happier to tell someone I don’t eat meat.
Chris takes one bite and immediately throws the rest of his pie in the bin. Clearly being a pie judge isn’t always as amazing as it sounds.
His co-judge laughs, looks at me and points at a colourful plate of various fruits on the judging table.
He then says: “This plate is always my favourite by the end of the day!”