Every January for the last few years I have been making a pilgrimage down to the quiet and leafy town of Barnes, West London with one goal in mind: to scarf as many sausage rolls as humanly possible down my greedy little throat. And before you ask, no, there is not a particularly exceptional outlet of Greggs down there. I go there to visit The Red Lion pub, an esteemed establishment where the annual Great Sausage Roll Off is held. It’s a culinary competition that pits chefs from around the country against each other to do battle over pastry and mince (in a kitchen the size of a cupboard) for a trophy assembled from burnished oak and adorned with gold-leafed papier mâché.
As nights out go, it is extremely good fun. Particularly for the competing chefs, who, let’s just say, like to let their hair down for the occasion. Nerves are soon washed away with beer, the sound of plates smashing is a regular occurrence and as the night progresses, compere Melissa Cole often has to start bellowing at the crowd to gain any semblance of order. I suspect that when proprietor and landlord Angus McKean first conceived the idea of a #rolloff, he never ever thought things would get so big or raucous. Nor would he ever have the likes of Pierre Koffmann, Dan Doherty, Neil Rankin or Mark Poynton come along, to offer their services as judges for the evening.
In terms of innovation and quality, the nineteen sausage rolls presented this year were all of the usual high standard (bar a fishy travesty and one or two soggy bottoms). The winner though, Charlie Hodson, a consultant chef from Norfolk and patron of Porkstock, obviously worked out something that his fellow competitors hadn’t. It wasn’t enough to just make a very good sausage roll. To gain an edge, there had to be a cohesive story behind it and for Charlie, he simply had to call upon his friends to help bring everything together. Namely the farmers, butchers and producers that surround him in the eastern part of the UK that juts out into the North Sea. On the night, as he talked about each contributor to his sausage roll, after watching the judges go all dewy eyed and nodding with dreams of provenance, I knew he had it in the bag. And plus, the ‘Nelson’ was pretty damn tasty.
Waking up the next day, I suffered from the usual heartburn, disorientation and notions of regret that often comes from attending a ‘roll off’ and then came the panic of trying to find my phone. Luckily, I secreted it in my shoe and, after a quick scan, I saw there was a text message from Charlie that said: ‘Really great that you want to come up, Dan. Can’t wait for you to meet some of the girls and boys.’
‘I am meeting the girls and boys?’ I thought. ‘What girls and boys?’ And then it came flooding back. An enamoured embrace, complete with handshakes covered in sticky barbecue sauce and a promise to visit as soon as I could. Which indeed happened just recently, when I took in a whistle-stop tour to visit all the people that helped to roll the ‘Nelson’ all the way down from Norfolk to Barnes.