Whenever I travel home to Australia, high on my list is to have at least one good ol’ Aussie meat pie on my trip, and preferably the kind I grew up with: a National Pie from Tasmania. Although they’re now expanding interstate, for most of my life National Pies have been stubbornly parochial, and none of the pies I’ve eaten on the mainland have been quite the same, although some have come close. Too often nowadays, a meat pie in Oz is a fancy-pants café-bakery creation with too many ingredients and meat that’s too chunky: a steak pie, in other words. The prices reflect their fancy-pantsness: one cafe on my last visit wanted ten bucks a pop for their homemade pies. That’s fine, I suppose, if they’ve made an effort to make a quality item, but it ain’t the real thing.
The real thing is a rectangle of pastry wrapped around a warm bath of mince and gravy and kept at a temperature that can be inhaled without scalding the roof of your mouth. A proper meat pie should taste of nothing much apart from beef; if you want seasonings, that’s when you add a spurt of tomato sauce. Ideally, it should cost fifty cents from your school tuckshop, but as we’re no longer living in 1979, five bucks seems fair. It’s the stuff of Sat’dy arvos at the footy and country-show pie-eating competitions: a complete lunch that needs only tomato sauce on top and a Choc Wedge chaser.
Pie-eating competition, Bream Creek Show, March 1998.
My search for a perfect pie is a quest for the tastes of a Tasmanian childhood, and it needs to be pretty bloody close for the full Proustian effect. It’s achievable when I’m in Tassie and can grab a National Pie from the nearest milk bar—although on my last trip I wasn’t able to find any at the times when I most needed one, and had to make do with staring longingly at posters from their latest advertising campaign. My best result was in 2015, when I was in Hobart for the day and stumbled across the bakery that makes them, an ideal opportunity to snap photos of delivery trucks with their logo of a bowler-hatted gentleman and buy their pies, vanilla slices, and those long cream buns with a blob of strawberry jam in them.
L: Tasmanian Bakeries, Hobart, August 2015. R: Molly’s Cafe, Strahan, July 2019.
Because I can’t always rely on being in Hobart to get my National Pie fix, and because it’s not the sort of food you can stock up on and carry back to the UK in your suitcase, I made it my mission on my last visit to get the right tools to make my own: to wit, rectangular pie tins about 12–13cm long. I tried finding some in the UK, but because meat pies aren’t really a thing here (steak and kidney isn’t the same, and pork pies absolutely aren’t) they aren’t the sort of thing you see in kitchen shops. The last time I looked online, the best I could find were big trays for making dozens of pies at once, for commercial bakeries. And those were from Australia, with a delivery price to match.
So on our last couple of days in Melbourne, I spent some time looking in the kitchen sections of Myer and other likely places for individual pie tins. I could have bought any number of round ones, but round pies are Four’n Twenty pies, not National Pies. By my last day I was ready to give up, but a mate in Melbourne pointed me towards Cuisine World on Elizabeth Street, where I picked up some oval-shaped tins—not rectangular, but better than round ones—to start phase two of Project Pie.
Phase two was finding a recipe that was as close as possible to a National Pie. I found a few for “Aussie meat pies” online, some of which I was able to reject immediately. Eat, Little Bird has a recipe for party (mini-sized) pies that looks tasty, but with ingredients like garlic, bacon and nutmeg which I’m pretty sure have never seen the inside of a commercial meat-pie bakery. As for curry powder being “the ingredient which lifts the beef mince filling to something on par with the iconic meat pie that you will find from any good bakery in Australia”, I’m skeptical already, because no pie-lover I know would put up with curry powder in a pie that wasn’t explicitly labelled a curry pie.
Australia’s Best Recipes has a video showing someone building a massive meat pie in a big glass dish, which means you end up having to bake the thing for 40 minutes, and more importantly can’t hold it in one hand to eat it. The Spruce Eats and BBC Good Food both have recipes that seem to be derived from taste.com.au’s supposedly “classic” recipe, where the mince is flavoured with tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce and Vegemite. Vegemite can be used sparingly as a vegetable stock substitute, so this isn’t as crazy as it sounds, but they seem to be including it just to appear more Aussie.
In the end I went with the taste.com.au version, leaving out the tablespoon of barbecue sauce because I don’t have any, and the Vegemite because I’m not wasting my Vegemite supply on a pie. The result was... reasonable. But because the recipe called for ¾ cup of tomato sauce in the mince itself, it tasted far too tomato-saucy, with all the vinegar and sugar notes that go with it. I resolved to have another go.
The next time around, I wasn’t able to find shortcrust pastry in my nearest Tesco, so went with all-puff. I left out the tomato sauce, barbecue sauce and Vegemite, and upped the amount of beef stock (and cornflour to thicken) to get the overall balance right. I suspect the original National Pies used animal fat, but in lieu of lard I went with plain vegetable oil rather than olive. The lean mince was 5% fat, but 10% or 12% would probably be fine. I kept the onion and the Worcestershire sauce, good solid ingredients I remember from my childhood kitchen.
And these ones worked perfectly. They were uncannily close to the real thing: a rich, beefy gravy with no distracting spices or bits of bacon or any of that. The pastry was perfect: the lid puffed up nicely, and the sides and bottom ended up as firm as shortcrust would have.
In hindsight, I’m not surprised that this close impression of a National Pie has fewer ingredients rather than more; why would you add unnecessary costs, when a simple recipe tastes just as good?
Future experiments will involve my second-favourite childhood pie recipe, the Cottage Pie, which is basically this one (so beef, not lamb) but with mashed potato instead of a puff-pastry lid; Tasmanian-style pasties (similar to Cornish ones, but not identical); and imitation Chiko rolls (it’s a long time since I’ve seen an original in the wild in Oz; they seem to be struggling to compete with 21st-century fast-food options).
Here’s the recipe.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
500g lean beef mince
2 tablespoons cornflour
1¾ cups beef stock
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
4 sheets (around 500–600g) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten
Four rectangular or oval pie tins, 12–13cm long on top
1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until soft but not browned. Add mince and cook until browned, stirring with a wooden spoon.
2. Mix the cornflour with 1–2 tablespoons of stock to form a paste. Add the remaining stock and Worcestershire sauce, then add all of it to the mince. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer until thick, stirring occasionally, about 7–10 minutes. Remove from heat and leave to cool.
3. Place a baking tray in the oven and preheat to 220°C.
4. Cut four lids from sheets of pastry using the top of a tin as a template, then grease the four pie tins. Use the rest of the pastry to line the bases and sides of the tins, then fill each pie with the mince mixture. Brush the rims with water, then place the pastry lids over the meat, pressing the edges to seal. Trim off the excess and brush the lids with beaten egg.
5. Place the pies onto the hot tray and bake for 25 minutes until golden. Leave to cool a bit (around ten minutes) before serving to homesick Tasmanians.