This week, we are excited to feature our first guest post! And what could be better to start it all off but a real down and dirty battle of the best meat pies?
In one corner, the saucy London parcel, in the other, the cheeky Aussie dish… who will come out on top?
Tom Hoschke of The Raw Prawn give us the play by play.
As an Australian, the meat pie is part of my cultural heritage. An ideal hand held snack, these hot pastry parcels filled with anonymous meat and thick, savoury gravy are an integral part of antipodean cuisine.
A pie with sauce is what you eat at half time at any footy game, in celebration or commiseration depending on how your team is going. It’s the working class lunch of choice, bought from the local milk bar or servo. Bakeries in towns across the country are judged almost entirely on the quality of their pies. In the 70s our national car company advertised with a jingle summing up the Australian experience: “Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars.” It is, unquestionably, as close to a national dish as Australia has.
Of course, say this within earshot of an English person and they’ll reply with something like, “You know you guys didn’t invent them, right?”
Well, yes, of course I know that the idea of putting meat inside of pastry was not suddenly thought up one day down under. I’m not that naïve. Although, as the practice of eating stewed meat out of some sort of flour-based shell has been around since the time of the Greeks and Romans, and it was the French who made the pastry edible, I’m not sure where the Brits come off taking the high ground on that front. You weren’t the first to deep fry a piece of fish, either, but we’re happy to give you fish’n’chips.
That bit of cultural cringe aside, pies are undoubtedly an important food both in Australia and here in the motherland. As an expat with a soft spot for my homeland’s product, I had to seek out the British version. I decided to try that classic of working class London: pie and mash.
Going in with no real knowledge of the pie shop tradition, I had very little expectation. After I order from the delightful cockney accented woman behind the counter, she places a reasonable looking hot pie on a plate with an ice-cream scoop of mashed potato.
Then she did something that shocked me. She doused the plate with some sort of sauce, vaguely clear with flecks of green. And when I say doused, I mean drowned. It was as though the pie was on fire and she was using the sauce to put it out, a goal she would have achieved many times over.
I didn’t get this while I watched her serve, and it made even less sense when I started to eat. The sauce, which had, for me, very little flavour, did two main things to the dish. Firstly, it made the pastry soggy. While it’s possible that the pastry crust wasn’t the crispest to begin with (a reasonable assumption from looking at it), drenching it like this took away any real texture it had.
Secondly, it diluted the meat filling. I would cut into the pie and the meat would spill out, mixing with the liquid, dissipating any flavour of the gravy. The whole concept baffled me. I asked what was in the sauce and was told, “Parsley, and the rest is a trade secret.” If forced to guess any other ingredients, I’d go with cornflour, judging by the texture.
On doing some research, it seems that traditionally the pies were filled with the once plentiful eels of the Thames River, and the sauce was the liquor that the eels had been cooked in. In theory, that is still how they make this liquor, but if so the eels added no discernible flavour.
I’m sorry England, but when it comes to pies, just like the Ashes, Australia wins this one. We may play with the fillings, and we may dollop tomato sauce on top, but at least we maintain the integrity of the pie.
That’s not to say you can’t find good pies here in the UK. In particular, those offered by Pieminister, a company working out of Bristol, are exceptional. With stunning options like steak and stilton, chicken and ham, or classic steak and ale, their stall at Borough markets is one of my essential stops whenever I’m South of the river.
Then again, the owners started the company after visiting Australia and recognising that we made better pies. High praise from an Englishman.
So, sure, we didn’t invent the pie. But strewth, we sure got them right.
As an unsatisfied public servant in Australia, Tom Hoschke longed for new adventures. To satisfy this desire he left his job and his homeland, setting out for Old Blighty, where he has spent too much of his working holiday ignoring the “working” part. An enthusiastic devourer of all cuisines, he now writes The Raw Prawn, where he dissects the British food culture in ways only a colonial can.