ROBERT Ross, a man with a keen eye for a pie, slices into the sample in front of him: "You're looking for a nice, crisp, straight shell. This one looks appetising, it's nicely baked." His knife reveals ... perhaps not quite Burns's "gushing entrails bricht", but certainly a glistening mince filling.
He invites me to sample some. Personally, I believe my palate was shot to hell by too many pints of gassy beer and Madras curries in my misspent youth, but I try the proffered fragment and pronounce it to be delectably moist, also that I would happily consume more.
"A lovely moist flavoursome pie," Ross agrees. "This has to be close to being a winner." The baker of the pie must remain incognito for the moment, for it is just one of almost 300 pies, bridies and savouries which Ross and his fellow judges are sampling, in the course of the World Scotch Pie Championship.
We're standing in the catering department of Lauder College outside Dunfermline. Around us, Fife sunshine is spilling in the windows on to serried ranks of hundreds of neat pastry carapaces, as Ross and his coterie of white-coated judges slice, prod and taste, and award points for external appearance, texture, colour, "bake", taste ... and so on.
This is the Grand Prix of pies, the Crufts of crusts, and it is no trifling business. Indeed the defending champion, Keith Stuart of Stuart's of Buckhaven, Fife, was working at his entry in the early hours of the morning and in considerable discomfort, with the help of crutches and his bakery manager, after fracturing his heel on Sunday when climbing in through his office window, having locked himself out.
Pie-makers from Inverness-shire to the Border country, Renfrewshire to Fife - and one solitary English entry from Seahouses in Northumberland - converged on the Dunfermline college early yesterday to leave their wares. The winners won't be announced until 29 November, the eve of St Andrew's Day. The piemaker behind the championship, Alan Stuart, is hoping that Alex Salmond might just be willing to declare the humble Scotch pie our national dish, for St Andrew's Day at least. Haggis-makers may have a word or two to say about that, but certainly the First Minister has apparently been known to nip into Bert Fowlie's shop in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, for a pie when visiting his North-east constituency.
The championship has its origins in the dark days of the mid-1990s, when public reaction to headlines about E coli outbreaks and DEFRA pronouncements on links between meat and CJD saw sales of that baker's staple, the Scotch pie, drop by almost 40 per cent overnight.
Explains Alan Stuart, father of the current champion, managing director of the Buckhaven company and founder of the Scotch Pie Club: "We formed the club to find ways of restoring public confidence, and to persuade butchers and bakers to look at their products and raise the quality."
"I think we've succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The Scotch pie is probably more popular now than it's ever been."
A Scotch pie, he continues, is unusual in that its filling is cooked in the pie from raw, rather than pre-cooked and then encased in the pastry.
But how does this crusty little icon of Scots gastronomy fare in an age when cholesterol is as welcome as a plague of boils? For is not the essence of a good Scotch pie a pastry made with lard? "It's very difficult to combat the health issue fully," admits Stuart. "And, yes, the best Scotch pie shells are made with lard, because that gives crispness and flavour. But it's a question of balancing things."
I'm reaching for another Scotch pie, but Robert Ross, at 61 a craftsman baker, is moving on into the savoury room. "This is the one where we're looking for innovation," he says. And he and his fellow-judges proceed to delve into pasties and savouries promising such delights as farmhouse chicken with skirlie, Highland venison and cranberry ... and, yes, the odd topping of baked beans,.
There are exotically titled little numbers such as Spicy Sausage Strombolli, created by Goodfellows of Tayside, containing green and red peppers, chilli and chorizo sausage; then there's Lewis McLean of Forres, a dedicated member of the Tartan Army who was moved by Scotland's European Championship success so far to create his Victory Pie, promising spicy Italian sausage, white sauce, garlic and onions. Just as long as his heroes don't consume too many of them before they run on the pitch.
How do the judges keep their pie-bombarded palates fresh? "The judges will stop after, say, a dozen and wash out their palates with water," says Ross.
"Lots of water," chips in another judge, Craig Loftus. "Personally I'd like a pint of beer but they won't give it to us."
At the end of the day, stresses Alan Stuart, a genial man whose expansive physique suggests a connoisseur's appreciation of his product, we shouldn't really get too po-faced about pie-ology: "Pies are fun. They're never going to be a health food, but they can play a part in a balanced diet."
• ONCE commonly known as the mutton pie, the Scotch pie, according to cookery writers Laura Mason and Catherine Brown in their book The Taste of Britain, is a descendent of the 15th-century "villain", a raised pie made by moulding hot water paste into a truncated cylindrical shape and left to harden before filling.
Pies in general, they add, are not indigenous to Scots cuisine and at one time were frowned upon as a luxurious import from the decadent land south of the Border.
The advent of the Scotch pie would change all that. Traditionally made from well-seasoned mutton - which is today supplanted by beef and perhaps a little lamb, the pie was made to suit a single serving.
Alan Stuart, the man behind the World Scotch Pie Championships, explains that the humble pie came into its own during the Industrial Revolution. It was a time when masses of workers and their families migrated from the countryside into the expanding cities.
With wages low, the pie became a sustaining and self-contained meal for the worker, either eaten hot straight from the vendor or reheated at home.
While Mr Stuart describes as "an urban myth" the huge proportion of Scotch pie production presumed to be sold on the football terracing, many bakers still go into overdrive on a Saturday, with some of them manufacturing as many as 35,000 pies in a week.
Trade secrets of the crme de la crust
The defending champion, 26-year-old Mr Stuart, whose father, Alan, initiated the championship nine years ago, hasn't let a fractured heel cramp his style and is sticking to his Buckhaven firm's tried and tested recipe: "It has stood the company in good stead for 150 years, so we've kept everything the same." And without giving away any trade secrets, he describes the requisites of a prize-winning pie as "high-quality beef - no rubbish; well-balanced seasoning; and our pie shell is fairly unique.
"There's an east-west divide here - a pie from Glasgow is different from a pie from Fife, but ours are different again. It might be something to do with the way we dry them, or the mixing process ... but each to their own."
World Scotch pie champion three years ago, Paul Boyle, of Boghall Butchers in Bathgate, has introduced additional stock this year: "The judges intimated they'd like to see some juice on top of the piece, and last year ours did not have that."
For the savoury section, Mr Boyle has also created a chicken Balmoral, combining haggis and chicken in a cream sauce:
"I like chicken Balmoral, so we thought that we could put it in a savoury, and it works very well."
Mr Marr, whose pies have triumphed in the championships twice, is hoping for a hat-trick this year. The managing director of Auld & Sons bakery group, based in Greenock, thinks the competition is getting tougher every year. He describes his firm's product as "a good, traditional pie. We're sticking to the recipe we've used for 30-40 years".
The Forres pie-maker, champion in 2003, says that he has modified his seasoning this year. "I kept the recipe the same after winning the title - we were scared to change it, but we drew a blank last year, so I've fiddled with the spices in a bid to catch the tastebuds of the judges."