Meat Pies Evoke Australian Sighs

Hamburger equivalent is a slurpy cousin to the British pasty; anyone for a 'pie floater'?

MOVE over, Calvin Trillin. We are looking for the slurpiest meat pies in town: Meat pies that will bring a grin to the roughest truckie. Meat pies your old mates rave about. Meat pies you can still taste 24 hours later. Yes, meat pies - the Down Under equivalent of the American hamburger.

A bread-roll-sized meat pie is the only food to eat while watching two sides slog it out on a muddy rugby field. Meat pies can be eaten in minutes. And practically every sandwich shop here has some variation on the meal.

Meat pies are not unique to Australia. "Some people think the meat pie goes back to Homer's 'Iliad.' There are records of meat pies in Rome," says John Ross, publisher of Pastry Cooks and Bakers News Monthly, a trade publication. Americans eat pot pies, a cousin to the Australian version; both are probably derived from the countries' English heritage.

Today, however, the British are better known for their cold pork pies, or pasties, a vegetable-filled pie from Cornwall. Few self-respecting pie eaters Down Under would eat a cold pie or one with heaps of vegetables.

Food writer Michael Dowe says the pies reached their peak of popularity in the 1930s or '40s. "Even 20 or 30 years ago every corner shop made its own meat pies," he says.

But there are still plenty of meat pies - an estimated 100 million sold annually. A specialty in South Australia is a "pie floater," a meat pie on a bed of canned peas, which are also spread all over the top. Sydneysider David Pinkerton recalls growing up in South Australia and participating in pie-floater-eating competitions. "Three or four was usually the best most people could do," recalls Mr. Pinkerton, who still manages to eat a few pies a week.

Although recipes vary, each state has its own rules on how much of the pie must be meat. In New South Wales there must be a minimum of 25 percent meat in the pie. "Crikey," exclaims John Roth, a Sydney pie lover. "Is that all?"

For most Australians, a pie is not a pie without "sauce" (ketchup). The proper saucing technique requires inserting a plastic squeeze bottle into the pie's top center. The sauce helps cool the roof of the mouth, since most Australians will try to eat the pie while it is too hot. (Pies are heated in a conventional oven, never a microwave, which makes the pastry soggy.)

The pies have become so synonymous with Australia that some mass producers are starting to export them. Sometimes this requires changing the recipe. At Miss Maud, a baker based in Perth, Margaret Van Doornum says pies going to Japan are "very delicate in flavor." The Japanese also like a much lighter pastry. Cafe de Wheels version

Big Ben, the largest-selling pie in Australia, now sells 20,000 pies a month in Japan and is close to signing a contract for Korea. The company will also provide 20,000 pies for the Rugby World Championship in Hong Kong on April 7.

So far, however, the pies have not been a hit in the United States. Four Twenty, a pie company, failed in its effort three years ago to export pies called "Aussie Snacks" to the US. Big Ben is planning to look at the US market next.

The export-variety pies are made in food factories. But many Australians prefer the handmade variety, such as those made at Harry's Cafe de Wheels.

The wheels are off this tattooed trailer, but the pies really move. During the week, Harry's will sell 200 dozen pies at prices ranging from $A1.50 to A$2.80 (US$1.15 to $2.15). (The "de Wheels" dates back to 1938 when the local laws required food stalls to move at least one foot per day. After the law changed, the stall became Cafe de Axle, but later went back to its original name.)

Counterman Arnie Shaw confides that the meat is lean lamb chunks. However, the gravy ingredients are a "trade secret," which he will sell for A$70,000, he says. (Just kidding, I'm sure.)

For the more adventurous, there are blue-boiler peas to pile on top of the pie. The peas are washed and soaked overnight. Once they are cooked, Mr. Shaw adds salt, sugar, "and other ingredients." By the time they are ready for the pies, the shamrock-green vegetables are the consistency of mashed potatoes but not soggy enough to soften the pastry shells. "If they are not mushy, they will slide off the pie," Shaw points out.

There must be something to the recipe, because singers Elton John and Phil Collins have parked their wheels at Harry's. Even ex-Prime Minister Bob Hawke stops for Harry's pies. However, most of the customers are truck drivers, cabbies, and sailors whose ships are docked directly across from Harry's.

True bragging rights, though, belong to Michael Conrick, the owner of The Colonial Bakery. His pastry won a national contest in 1990, beating out 400 other pies. The judges considered appearance, taste, and texture. "It's amazing the different taste of the pies," says magazine publisher Ross, one of the sponsors.

Mr. Conrick, who has been baking pies for 18 years, produces a traditional square pie (A$1.30 apiece) from his very traditional-looking bakery in Milsons Point, a Sydney suburb. Purists might be surprised to find that Conrick fills his pie with ground beef, not beef chunks.

"No matter how careful you are, if you use chunks, you almost always end up with gristle and customers get very annoyed," says Conrick. Even without the gristle, Conrick's filling has a nice, gelatinous texture and rich beef flavor. Meat pies go upscale

Over the years Conrick has found that the pastry works best when made with a combination of butter and lard.

For her large, single-crust meat pie (see recipe at left), on the other hand, Australian food guru Stephanie Alexander uses only lard.

The meat pie has even gone "up market" at the Paragon Hotel, a renovated Sydney landmark near the ferry terminal. As merchant bankers entertain customers in the aqua-and-mocha dining room, they dine on an A$18 (US$13.75) made-to-order meat pie.

There is no lard in the pastry at the Paragon; chef Chris Manfield keeps the dough very light by using only butter and creme frache. The pastry is shaped like a turnover and is golden brown. The filling is a mince of veal and chicken, with roasted pine nuts, mushrooms, and onions heavily spiced with roasted cumin seed.

Ms. Manfield describes it as a Middle East or Turkish type of meat pie. She says she lightens the pie during the hot summers. But in the winter, "I use pheasant and make it creamy and rich with tarragon and prosciutto. I think it works much better in winter."

In fact, in two months, once the Antarctic winds begin to blow, meat pie consumption will soar. "There is nothing like a meat pie on a cold day," says Conrick, looking at the cash register.

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