I never quite know what to expect when I'm sent to a pub in the middle of nowhere, especially in a small place called Soberton, quite ironically, as there seems to be a good handful of pubs around here.
I arrive at Admiral Taverns' The White Lion in the Hampshire village, where the only traffic I can really hear is horses. It's this beautiful country pub you'd have to travel to for a chance to eat the Gentlemen's Pie Club of Bishops Waltham's 2013 Pie of the Year.
The White Lion received an excellent reputation for their pies after the club, which rates pubs based on its pies, gave them the overall 2013 title.
Landlord Allan Marks has only been here for 18 months, but in that time has managed to transform the place from somewhere that was, according to chef Liz Crocker "quite frankly derelict" into a stunningly quirky pub.
"We came in and stacked up furniture, sanded the bar down, put benches outside and sorted out the flooded cellar," says Allan. "It took quite a while to build up the reputation again, because all the locals had left. And in this kind of small place, you really need the locals to keep you going, so we invited them all in for a drink."
Last year, the pub received a phone call from the pie club, who were interested in stopping by to review the pub's pie of the day. After a great review, eight club members returned in February to present the 2013 Pie of the Year Award to Allan for his chicken, ham hock and leek.
But it wasn't just the pies that won the judges over. "They said it was the whole experience — beers, atmosphere, and every-thing else," says Allan. "They keep coming back in and bringing their wives and children too, so it's definitely been good for the pub and our reputation."
So what makes an award-winning pie? "I don't know really, I just make them," laughs Liz and looks at Allan, who seems to find the whole thing equally funny. "I make them with a combination of short crust and puff pastry, with lots of different fillings."
She says there is only one particular pie available at each time, and she makes up batches of it until it's all sold out and then changes the filling again. "The judges liked the sauce with the pie rather than the pie mix," she explains.
They both agree that the pie award has helped business, and they take good care to mix it up as the seasons go. "We serve the pie with seasonal vegetables and potatoes," says Liz. "It was with sautéed potatoes when we won the title, but we change it up as the seasons go on and during Christmas we'll do mash with it."
The rest of the menu is traditional pub style, which has gone down well with the locals. There are two fine dining pubs just up the road, but "people want traditional pub food for pub prices," says Liz.
"We had one of our locals come in and say 'not everyone wants to eat guinea fowl'. We serve good honest food, and make sure we change the menu for the locals who come here more than once a week. Our menu changes in September, then in March, but the specials change every two weeks."
For someone who has spent most of his working life at sea and has never run a pub before, Allan seems surprisingly established in the industry, with a good few quirky touches. "On Monday nights we have a ukulele club coming in, and there's about 25-30 of them," he adds.
HOW TO WIN A PIE CONTEST
MAKE IT LOOK GOOD
Judges will decide whether the sight of the pie excites or disappoints
BAKE IT RIGHT
Pastry will be visually assessesed for burning or sogginess
PERFECT YOUR PASTRY
Judges will look and listen whilst cutting the pie, and assess whether pastry is of consistent thickness.
Is it in harmony with the filling? Is it too greasy, dry, salty or bland?
FILL IT WITH FLAVOUR
Pies will be assessed on filling texture, seasoning, whether meat and veg are well cooked and whether it tastes as good as it looks