At the most basic level, a meat pie is a simple dish: a pastry container holding a filling of meat and gravy. However, if you go looking, you'll find this simple recipe provides a basis for an endless number of variations. Alongside the classic beef and gravy meat pie, you'll also see beef mince, mince and cheese, steak and cheese, steak and mushroom, potato-top, and chicken. Gourmet pie lovers can sate their taste for the exotic on teriyaki beef, curry beef, beef stroganoff, thai chili beef, and satay chicken. The New Zealand market, no stranger to pie experimentation, has even seen the meatless pie, although most eaters agree this is a variety whose time has not yet come.
But what makes a good pie?
Pastry is more than just a means of preventing the filling from leaking over your hands, it's an integral part of the pie experience. A pie designer has to consider diverse factors like who will be eating the pie, where it will be consumed, and what kind of preparation it will have. The pie is traditionally eaten at a service station while you're in a terrible hurry, and while a construction worker or network administrator might not be too concerned if his clothes get grease-stained by flaky pastry, a salesman or bank teller would be dismayed.
Since pies are stored in heating cabinets, the length of time they spend there is also significant for the pastry. Some manufacturers choose to undercook their pies at the factory, betting that the cabinet time will be enough to heat them to perfection (and risking soggy pastry if it isn't), some cook them fully in the hope that the pies will be eaten before the pastry has time to harden into razorcrust.
Having pastry on the outside can hide a multitude of sins, so pies have often been used as a way to serve up a cut of meat you couldn't get someone to eat any other way. Biting into a lump of fat or gristle is an unwelcome surprise, which is why down here, the contents of a meat pie are regulated by law and must be at least 80% pure meat.
Some pie makers add vegetables like peas, beans, carrots and corn. Most pie afficionados regard this as an unwarranted dilution of the goodness of meat and believe that at the very least, the pie should be clearly labelled for what it is.
Gravy is where much of the pie's flavour comes from, and where a pie maker can safely show a bit of flair by varying the richness and spiciness. A modest amount of salt and pepper are all it takes to appeal to the masses, but cayenne, chili, garlic and a range of others are also familiar spices to the open-minded pie lover.
The pie experience
Aside from bus stops and train stations, the best place to enjoy a pie is your place. The meat pie is traditionally eaten while watching football from an easy chair, but you can substitute the sport of your choice without too much difficulty. Likewise, the can of lager.
A meat pie break is announced with the ritual invitation: "Get us a pie would you, love?", which is met with the expected response: " off!"
Some haggling follows, and the pies will be cooked. The secret to cooking good pies at home is to first microwave them from frozen for two to three minutes, and transfer them to a hot oven to complete the process. This ensures pie perfection by sufficiently heating the filling without baking long enough to dehydrate the pie into razorcrust wrapped around a meat-flavoured rock.
The pie should be served intact accompanied by tomato sauce (not ketchup), leaving up to the individual the choice of whether to apply the sauce immediately or whether to remove the top so it can be applied to the filling.
Pies you might like to try
1. Big Ben
The Big Ben range is the 'bog standard' pie, crafted to favour economy over other qualities. Consequently, the filling is undistinguished and the pastry can tend towards sogginess. However, this brand will weather the conditions of the heating cabinet longest. Big Ben pastry is also thin enough that the eater is never at risk of razorcrust injury.
2. Mrs Mac
Your reviewer's pie of choice, the Mrs Mac range delivers quality without breaking the bank. Notable for good sized meat chunks and an unusually rich gravy, Mrs Mac also makes alternative varieties like chili beef and curry available to the hungry man off the street.
3. Ponsonby Pies
A suburb of our largest city, Ponsonby is widely acclaimed by people in Ponsonby as being a region of sophistication, intelligence, and quality. As far as meat pies go, their local brand has won a matching reputation. The Ponsonby Pies range is undeniably tops in terms of grade of filling and pastry -- not to mention being the highest priced. If these pies have a fault, it's the occasional air gap -- meaning insufficient filling to meet the pastry cap.
4. Bakery pies
Aside from service stations and bus stop news agents, the other big purveyor of pies is the ubiquitous bakery or 'hot bread shop'. These shops can be found on nearly every street corner, supplying grease, starch and sugar to the nation. Many bakeries boast their own home-made pies, which tend to be much larger than the mass-produced variety, and have yellowish pastry (making me wonder who has the home large enough to supply all the bakeries in New Zealand).
My personal opinion is that hot bread shop potato top pies are the only potato top pies worth eating. These artery-destroying wonders are heaped high with scalloped potato, topped with melted cheese and garnished with a single slice of tomato.