Who Ate All the Pies?
Words and Pictures by Keith Kellett
If anything could be described as Australia’s National Dish, it’s probably the meat pie. Don’t ask what kind of meat it is; American writer Doug Lansky once asked what went into it, and was told, simply, ‘meat’.
So, a few facts and figures. It is claimed that Australia produces 50,000 pies PER HOUR, and the average Australian consumes twelve pies per year. Sometimes, it’s called a ‘footy pie’, because one of the traditional places to eat them is at a football match. Other times, it’s simply a ‘pie’.
An English ex-sailor called Gibbs opened a pie stall on the corner of King William Street and Rundle Street in Adelaide in 1864, looking to cater for workers in search of a wholesome, but inexpensive meal. Nowadays, that site is probably the most trafficked street corner in the city, and the last place you want to stand around eating a pie.
But, only a short step away, Balfour’s Pie Cart still trades on most nights. It’s the only one remaining of several such carts that used to trade in Adelaide. Their speciality is the ‘pie floater’, peculiar to South Australia. This, it is said, was ‘invented’ in Port Pirie, by one Ern ‘Shorty’ Bradley, who, one night, is supposed to have inadvertently dropped a pie into a bowl of pea soup. It’s claimed the pie floater is the cheapest meal to be had in Adelaide … which is probably why Balfour’s pitch is just outside the Casino.
For me, these pie carts sum up all that’s democratic and egalitarian about Australia. They became a meeting place where cabbies, policemen and other workers rubbed shoulders with theatre patrons in formal evening wear, musicians, politicians and businessmen.
Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney is probably the best-known pie stall … Colonel Harlan Sanders, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame ate three ‘Tigers’ (pie, mashed potatoes and gravy)there, and declared Harry’s pies were the best he’d ever tasted. It’s now a static stall, but was originally a cart, hence its name … the original is now in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
One of the reasons for the success of the Café de Wheels is its position near the gates of the naval base at Wooloomaloo; just the place for a hungry sailor to grab a quick bite after a ‘run ashore’. One ex-sailor recalled once seeing a Captain in full dress uniform sitting on a nearby wall eating his pie. In 1978 the Navy decided to mark the 40th Anniversary of the opening of the Café de Wheels in a rather unusual way.
It was officially commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy as one of its ‘unsinkable’ ships, HMAS Harry’s !!
On a visit to Queensland, we stopped for lunch one day in Montville, a pleasant hill town. Here is the Sambuca Cafe, which claims to be ‘home to the Famous Montville Pie’. This, I had to try!
The pie, when it came, was the traditional Australian beefsteak pie, with mushy peas and gravy. Not a million miles from the South Australian ‘pie floater’, but not quite like it. There were mushy peas, rather than pea soup, and gravy. And, the whole thing was topped by a little Australian flag. So, maybe different enough to substantiate the claim that the pie floater is ‘peculiar to South Australia’?
It wasn’t till later I found out that just about every bakery in Queensland whose pies aren’t downright disgusting claim them as ‘famous’
We found more ‘famous pies’ a few days later, at a coffee bar and pie shop called ‘Beefy’s’. They claim to make ‘the best pies in Queensland’, which they back up with plaques on the wall showing the many awards they’ve won.
At ten o’ clock in the morning, it was a bit early for a pie, but if the little sausage roll I had with my coffee was anything to go by, they must be something.
Another place we stopped was at Yatala, the home of … wait for it … the Famous Yatala Pie! These were a bit dry and flaky for me, but I have no complaint about the filling. And, I don’t think I’ve ever before been in a pie shop with stained glass windows.
I’ve mentioned how well peas go with pies; I have an idea this combination may have had its origins in Yorkshire’s traditional pea-and-pie suppers. At ‘Annabel’s Pantry’, at Kuranda, in the hills behind Cairns, if you order a ‘Swagman’, you’ll get a pie with the peas baked into it. However, it’s not advertised as a ‘Famous Pie’. But, it’s very nice!
(All pies in this article were personally tested, approved and paid for by the author!)