In our personal list of food cravings, there’s usually that one thing we wouldn’t mind eating every day, an object of affection that would comfort us no matter how jaded our appetites became.
For one of our colleagues, her food soulmate is the meat pie. Hailing from Australia, where savory pies are sold at practically every corner store, she professes an undying love for them.
“When I was in uni [short for university], I would eat a chicken pie every day for lunch,” she said. They were convenient, cheap, and filling. You could get the commercial brands at delis, or gourmet, handmade ones at local bakeries.
“There’s so many different flavors. You’d never get tired of it,” she reminisced. Pies are what she misses most about home. “Why can’t New York City delis have them too?”
Despite being a former British colony, here in America we didn’t inherit the love of eating savory pies like the Aussies did. Our pies tend to fall squarely in the dessert category. But as any Aussie or Brit will tell you, warm meat with gravy and vegetables, tucked inside buttery pie dough, makes the perfect comfort food for the wintry cold days ahead.
High British Standard
The key to a good British pie is a saucy filling with a flaky pastry—but the filling can’t be too wet; otherwise, the pie becomes soggy. The proportion of filling to pastry has to be just right, with neither overwhelming the other.
At Parker’s, a British goods company located in upstate New York, the pies meet the traditional standards. Co-founder Damian Parker explained that meat pies have been a staple in British cuisine since medieval times, when the gentry favored them for a filling and easily transportable meal while traveling on the road.
Today, pies are a ubiquitous part of British life. “There’s no occasion when you wouldn’t eat pie,” Parker said. “Every convenience store sells them. It’s an everyday snack.” He compares it to the American burger, beloved by all.
Some pies are associated with particular holidays. For Bonfire Night, Brits typically eat pork pies with mushy peas (mashed up peas cooked with butter and salt), and for Christmas, it’s customary to eat mince pies, where these days the traditional meat has been replaced with nuts and brandied vine fruits.
Each region has its own variation. In northern U.K., people favor the steak-and-kidney, while southerners crave potatoes in their filling. In Cornwall, for example, people eat Cornish pasties, a pie that either resembles a small football or is folded in a crimped “D” shape. Inside are ground beef, turnips, potatoes, and onions. According to Parker, pasties gained popularity when workers in the mining industry brought them as portable lunches.
Done the right way, the vegetables bring out the flavor of the meat, which only needs a touch of black pepper for seasoning. The pie’s outer crust should be golden, buttery, and flaky, while the inside is thicker and chewy. Parker’s pies, well researched and perfected over the years, are just right.
Eight years ago, Parker journeyed all around the isles so he could learn pie-making from the masters and bring the tradition to the United States. He’d initially relocated to the States to invest in a startup company, but when he realized that no one was doing British food properly here, he decided to embrace his love for cooking and start a pie business. Since then, the company has expanded to become a one-stop shop for all things British, from candies to condiments.
Parker said a common faux pas committed by Americans is making shepherd’s pies with beef instead of the standard lamb used in the U.K. Indeed, lamb’s juicy richness is a more fitting match for the heavy mashed potatoes on top. The slightly browned gravy provides the perfect hint of char in each bite.
Parker strives to make pies as traditionally British as possible—complete with Victorian pie presses. “We speak to authenticity. That’s our driving force,” he said.
It could be why many British expats from around the country order pies from Parker’s. A popular choice among them is the steak-and-ale. The ale gravy has an undertone of smoky tang, adding a pleasing moreishness to the tender chunks of beef.
With different immigration waves, British pies have also absorbed the flavors of other culinary cultures, seen in Parker’s chicken tikka pie with its mild Indian-spiced filling.
Parker has also created some distinctly American flavors. In honor of his new hometown of Buffalo, New York (where his company is based), he created the Buffalo pie, with spices reminiscent of Buffalo wings. Though the spices punch your palate, they don’t overpower the taste of the chicken. Eating the pie is like eating a more refined version of your favorite messy wings.
In the land down under, pie-eating is an undeniable part of being an Aussie. Chris Rendell, executive chef at Australian eatery Flinders Lane in the East Village, says that pies are particularly popular at Australian football games, akin to how we consider eating hot dogs an essential part of watching our games.
“At sporting events, they serve pies in pie warmers,” Rendell said, so that the pastries are toasty when you eat them. Our Australian colleagues also told us that manufacturers of tomato sauce (Aussie for ketchup) invented a packet that can be squeezed with one hand, so that spectators can keep their eyes on the game while they drizzle sauce on their pies.
Aussies have added their own twists by changing up the filling and the texture of the pastry. At Flinders Lane, Rendell makes a braised lamb and green peas pie, a warming filling for cool weather. He rotates varieties throughout the year.
Rendell’s pie is lighter in flavor compared to Parker’s British pies. It has a similar flaky, buttery crust, but the braising sauce is toned down, with a flavor reminiscent of pot roast. Eating it conjures the feeling one gets sitting in front of a cozy fireplace, as the heat slowly envelops you.
For those who want to try true Down Under-style pies with their signature chalky, tart shell-like pastry, DUB (Down Under Bakery) Pies in Brooklyn delivers. Our Australian colleagues agreed that DUB indeed captured the essence of real Aussie pies with their tougher crust, which differs from the puff pastry texture of the British.
DUB was opened by New Zealand expat Gareth Hughes in 2003. Owing to immigrants from Southeast Asia bringing their culinary influence to the local cuisine, Australian and New Zealand pies also incorporate Thai and Indonesian flavors.
DUB’s Thai chicken pie had our Aussie colleagues raving about how it was just like the ones back home. The strong notes of lemongrass, mixed with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, and chilis, reminded me of eating green curry at Thai restaurants. This was an exhilarating, spiced-up rendition of the meat pie, full of the liveliness in Southeast Asian fare.
Another delightful variety was the mince and cheese pie. A layer of sharp white cheddar cheese on top brought a piquant zing to the saucy meat filling. It’s a meat and cheese combination that may just rival American steak sandwiches.
After eating through many, many pies of the British, Aussie, and Kiwi sort, we were persuaded that Americans are definitely missing out. To experience them for yourself, try making pies at home with the following recipes from Nuala Cullen’s “The Best of Irish Country Cooking.”
Click here for the recipes.