Bet on Black

Andrew Holt has devoted a lot of time to taking on the rest of Europe with his award-winning black puddings. Martin Pilkington crosses the Channel with him as he attempts to come away with yet more silverware from Continental competition


Andrew Holt bought traditional Lancashire black pudding maker RS Ireland a decade ago, against the advice of numerous family members and friends. “They told me black pudding was on the way out, that it was old-fashioned, and the country was turning vegetarian,” he says. Since then, the trained butcher has grown his business through a mixture of clever marketing, product innovation and basic business acumen. He has had to move to bigger premises in Haslingden, and now employs 14 people. Ironically,  he even makes a vegetarian black pudding that is now a big seller.


Marketing plan

Andy’s marketing includes entering competitions all over Europe. He is an unashamed pot-hunter, winning more than 150 prizes for his products to date – including being judged Supreme British Champion Black pudding Maker in the National Supreme Products competition held at the NEC on Sunday, 6 April. But glory is not the motive.

“I want to compare what we do against other quality producers, and learn from them, as well as showing what British makers can do,” he says. Partly because of his success at such events he has been featured on various television shows - he was one of Rick Stein’s food heroes for example.

His schedule includes occasional hectic weekends at food festivals on the Continent. In one weekend in March, he attends both the 44th Foire au Boudin (Black pudding fair) in Mortagne-au-Perche in Normandy on Friday and Saturday 14 and 15 March, and on Sunday 16 is in Ransart, near Charleroi in Belgium, at the prize-giving for the 7th Concours Européen de Charcuterie (European Charcuterie Competition).

Andrew laboured over his entries for Mortagne early Thursday morning, and remains nervous during the dash from the ferry at Caen until he delivers the chiller. He arranged for them to be accepted a little after the normal limit, but is worried there could still be a hitch.


Black pudding town

Mortagne is nicknamed Boudinville – Black Pudding Town. In the quaint old centre stands the butchers ‘Au Roi du Boudin’ (King of the Black Pudding), and on Friday night Andrew tries Pizza Mortagnaise – topped with black pudding – at the local trattoria.

Friday is elimination day, 600 entries chopped down to the 150 deemed good enough for Saturday’s prize judging. Andrew’s products make it through.

He regrets that there are no real equivalents in Britain to events like the Mortagne affair, presided over
by the Confrérie du Goute Boudin de Mortagne-au-Perche (Mortagne-au-Perche’s Brotherhood of the Black Pudding). Fairs like this are part of the local culture. The French are proud of their food heritage and, though they inject fun into the proceedings, they are deadly serious about maintaining that heritage. The local paper has a special edition devoted to the festival. When the fair is in town, black pudding stalls do a roaring trade.

M. Gardin, a judge from another Normandy confrérie there to assist with the judging, confirms this: “We are supporting our neighbours, helping to keep our traditions alive.”

There are 18 confréries in Normandy, dedicated to maintaining specific elements of the region’s culinary heritage, such as garlic sausage and tripe. Three are guardians of boudin noir, France’s cereal-free version of black pudding.  Andrew enjoys the international flavour of the event. There are about 20 German butchers competing,and the head of an important trade association is there. There is even a film crew making a programme for German television. Belgians and Dutch enter too, and, from Austria, Andrew’s great friend Franz Dormayer. “It might seem a bit sad, but I have dedicated a lot of my life to the business of making black puddings, and making a success of them,” says Andrew: “And you can learn a lot from people like Franz.”


Judging fervour

In the vast hall of Mortagne’s community centre judges move in packs among the tables, chefs’ tunics and green or black mock-medieval smocks of various brotherhoods prominent among them. One head judge bangs the table and De Gaulle-like shouts “Non!” There must be 40 canteen tables laden with products: boudin noir, Blutwurst, black pudding. Several feature fantastic concoctions: icing-coated black pudding cakes; black pudding sweets; black pudding rabbits.

A display of puddings made at a local school specialising in charcuterie catches the eye. The best youngsters compete in a cookery demonstration on Saturday. In France they start them young.

The judges invite Andrew to join them and confrérie members for lunch on Friday and Saturday – Andrew, a junior member of the brotherhood, is continually greeted by officials and competitors alike like an old friend. The judging concerns Andrew though.  Products are divided by region rather than type, so in seeming culinary apartheid, Andrew’s four diverse entries are lumped together on the British and Irish table: black pudding, chilli bombs, a boudin noir, and traditional Italian-style sweet blood-pudding – Sanguinaccio - shaped into chocolate-covered rabbits as it is nearly Easter. Worryingly, only tiny amounts of his products have been consumed by the judges. More worryingly, products seem to be left out over Friday night.

In Saturday’s judging Andrew wins a national champion trophy for his black pudding. But the odd rules mean only an entrant’s best product can win a prize. Even if all his entries were of gold medal standard, only the one with highest marks will be rewarded. Disappointingly, there is no feedback about his other three entries.


All or nothing

On Sunday Andrew leaves Mortagne at 6am to make the lunchtime prize-giving in Charleroi, Belgium, for February’s competition run by Les Compagnons de la Gastronomie Porcine, but still barely makes it. His name is called out by the MC as he arrives at the venue, and he collects the first of three awards: gold medals for his traditional black pudding and chilli bombs, silver for his white pudding with kirsch. He also lands the prize for best British cooked-sausage maker.

“I’m really pleased, especially about the chilli bombs, as they’re a new line I hope to develop,” he says. He is convinced competitions help him improve, and focus on new product ideas, and will certainly be back in Ransart next year. About Mortagne he is in two minds. In the raffle after the five-hour celebratory meal in Ransart Andrew wins four free entries to next year’s competition, worth €38 (£30) each. Keen to get more Brits involved, he’ll give one each to the first four new UK competitors to contact him. Generously Fred André, president of organisers the Compagnons de la Gastronomie Porcine, agrees to offer British first-timers one free entry for every three paid.