Ask any Australian to list five iconic Australian foods and the humble meat pie will undoubtedly make the cut. As Australia Day rolls around again and we all use the day as an excuse to stuff our faces with this national favourite.
Let us take a step back and reflect on the origins of this invaluable food item:
Somewhat at odds with the nation-wide pride we have for our meat pie is the simple fact that it did not, in fact originate in Australia at all. Not even close. So let us follow the remarkable lineage of the pastry of our nation in order to pay it the homage it deserves.
The first pie in history can be traced all the way back to 9500 BC, during the Egyptian Neolithic period. Even in the New Stone Age, people began to appreciate the simple pleasure of a pie. However those cheeky Egyptians filled their pies with sweets such as honey and used crusty, non-pastry bases (as pastry hadn’t yet been invented) , so they were certainly a far cry from Mrs Mac’s meat pies.
The next culture that the pie decided to grace with its presence was that of the Ancient Greeks, who cleverly invented the pie pastry we recognise today. However, they too chose to fill their pies with non-meat fillings such as sweetmeats and fruit. The Romans, not to be outdone by the Greeks, were also quite quick to jump on the pie bandwagon, making a pie pastry cover to place on top of meats and fowls. They also made pies with cases and tops containing small birds or eggs. As the Roman Empire introduced efficient road transport, the secret of the pie was free to travel around Europe.
Our rotund little friend followed the Roman roads all around Europe, benevolently helping the citizens to get through the medieval times, providing a cheap and easy solution to the working man’s dietary needs. They were filled with whatever items were cheaply available and were called coffins. The twist in the tale however, is that the pastry was rock hard, 7 inches thick and not intended for consumption. It was used as more of a container for the meat than as a part of the meal.
Australia, as usual, is the newest kid on the pie eating block, with the English settlers bringing over their (now entirely edible) pies and kicking off the Australian tradition.
Our Australian pies however, are much more sophisticated than the pies of the past. They are convenient, hand sized pastries, traditionally filled with minced beef and gravy and topped with some squeezy tomato sauce. It is scarcely possible for us Australians to fathom what other food item could be better suited for watching a sports game. Such trifles as the American hotdog seem preposterous to us enlightened Aussies who know the true value of minced meat, perfectly contained in a crispy pastry.
Gardener’s Lodge Café, Kangaroo and Stout Pie
Although pies may not have been invented by us, it has certainly nuzzled itself deep into our culture, where what we fill these pastries with is undoubtedly Australian. We ventured to the Gardener’s Lodge Café to taste a true Aussie pie – the Kangaroo and Stout Pie ($16.95) . This little beauty is filled with chunks of tender kangaroo meat, while the stout beer gives it a bit of a tang that balances with the bush tomato sauce. The hearty pie texture works perfectly with the buttery, chunky garlic mash served on the side.
The Lilli Pilli Refresher ($6.50) cools down the palate with a mixture of bush syrups, ice and mineral water. It gently fizzes as the mineral water reacts to its environment and its dry sweetness is truly refreshing on a Summer’s day.
Yet it’s not just pies and bush drinks to be had here at the Gardener’s Lodge Café! Their menu holds true to the roots of co-owner Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, an Aboriginal Elder from the Gamillaroi people of North-West NSW. Foods inspired by Australia abound in the form of Buttermilk and Wattle Seed Pancakes and the Spinach and 3 Cheese Pie to name a few. Located in Victoria Park near the University of Sydney, Aunty Beryl is particularly pleased that this area was “an Aboriginal meeting spot where kangaroos came down to drink at the water hole.”
It’s a sad moment for all Australians when we realise that something we prized as being uniquely Australian turns out to be just another import from the English. However, like Rugby League, Olivia Newton John and Pavlova (which, in fact was created in New Zealand), we shall continue to proudly lay claim to things we didn’t actually create. Multiculturalism is something of which Australians should be proud, so let us hold our heads high and embrace foreign inventions, such as the pie, and make them our own!
Gardener’s Lodge Café
Corner City & Parramatta Road, Camperdown NSW
(near Broadway Shopping Centre)
Phone: (02) 9682 9778
Open 7 days
Breakfast 8am – 11:30pm
Lunch 11:30am – 3pm
This post was written in collaboration with Delia Deng
Photography by Delia Deng