Why you should care
It’s a handheld Kiwi national treasure.
It’s near noon on a bright late-summer morning, and my airport shuttle is making its one scheduled stop in a small town called Ngatea, which is perfectly placed for a rest on the three-hour journey between Auckland and my destination. There’s not much here, but I have my sights set on the nearest bakery. Because, as an expat returning home to New Zealand for the first time in more than a year, I need to eat a pie. The pastry of my steak and cheese pie crumbles from my hands as I stand on the street and eat, to the accompaniment of a cicada chorus.
Pies in New Zealand aren’t like the sweet, sugary ones in America, where I live now. They’re also not quite the cousin of Cornish pasties in the U.K. Our pies are hand-size puff-pastry pockets of piping-hot savory fillings — just the right size to eat from a paper bag as you drive, and hearty enough to sustain stocky tradespeople at lunchtime.
Available at every bakery, convenience store, petrol station and most cafés, you can usually find them with old-school fillings: mince (ground beef) and cheese, steak and cheese, chicken, potato top. Immigrant communities have also added their own spins, expanding the pantheon to include flavors like butter chicken, Thai red curry and more. Now, it’s not uncommon to come across pies made with lamb or venison, even alpaca meat, kumara (New Zealand sweet potato), fish, Brie and anything else you could conceivably stuff in a pie parcel.
The pastry should be “flaky, but not too flaky,” and the meat-to-gravy ratio and seasoning have to be just so.
Why the Kiwi — and, inherently, my own — love affair with pies? The key draws are taste and convenience, says Brent Kersel, managing director at Bakels New Zealand, which supplies the majority of bakeries in the country with pie-making ingredients. But a “love of meat” is also a likely factor, he adds. That love has sustained the popularity of the pie despite an increased appetite for health foods like sushi and veggie wraps and cold-pressed juices. Pies get a bad rap alongside health food, says Kersel, even though bakers are continually making improvements in quality, “using nice clean cuts of meat with bugger-all little or no fat.”
So what makes a good pie? Kersel, whose company has been running a nationwide commercial pie competition for more than 20 years, runs down some of the criteria: “The pastry’s got to be baked well, not too thick. It’s got to have a nice appearance,” he says. The pastry should be “flaky, but not too flaky,” and the meat-to-gravy ratio and seasoning have to be just so.
Such was my delicious experience a little farther into my trip, at Nana’s Bakery, an unassuming shop a bit down the road from the main shops in Kingsland. Here I scarfed down a tasty mince and cheese with a moist pastry (NZ$4, or $2.90) and a rich, thick gravy with plenty of ground beef, topped with perfectly gooey melted cheese. And again at Patrick’s Gold Star Bakery in Bethlehem, Tauranga. I’m not normally a fan of bacon and egg pie, but its version (NZ$4.80, or about $3.40) won me over. The pastry was melt-in-your-mouth buttery, the egg yolks were whole and the filling — with a nice tang of onion — was peppered with chunks of bacon and tomato. In both cases, I had to talk myself out of immediately ordering another.