In times before refrigeration and proper health standards for animal husbandry and food preparation, meat needed to be eaten overcooked. Trichinosis, and hand, foot, and mouth disease were just some of the real dangers one bite away. With the exception of birds, meat today can and should be enjoyed much closer to rare, or in my case, very close to rare. Some traditions die hard, however, and in the British Commonwealth, they die even harder. Although they did not invent wrapping overcooked meat with puffy pastry in New Zealand, they have elevated it to an art form and turned it into the food of choice at nearly every restaurant, food stand, and gas station. Everywhere we went we found pies, and by the end of two weeks we actually started liking them. Kieran and Asher ate the pies with chicken soup in them. Dax found sausage rolls, Anne liked the steak pies as long as she found real meat in them, and I would eat and enjoy any of them. McKane never stumbled across a pie he liked but made do with ham and cheese sandwiches.
Unfortunately we hadn’t quite embraced the pie culture during our first couple of days. Despite many roadside claims to the contrary, we found the best pies in New Zealand at the Cafe in the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which we visited on our third day in New Zealand.
For the rest of the trip they were the standard to which we compared all other pies across county. We found some good variations and I developed a liking for lamb and mint pies. With the incredible number of sheep roaming the countryside, I was surprised to see they had not institutionalized lamb as a fast food, similar to the way Americans have turned beef into an instant meal in almost every country on this planet. I guess I will need to wait until Turkey or Tunisia to get great lamb from a street vendor; of course then it will be wrapped in a pita and not puff pastry. After careful consideration, we came up with three categories to judge our pies. The first and most important is, is the meat recognizable. In no instance did a pie whose stuffing had been through a blender end up at the top of the list. The second was the flavor and texture of the filling.
A good combination of spices was important but so was a consistency more solid than chowder and less squishy than jelly, although meat jelly might just be one of those ideas whose time hasn’t come yet. The final was a great pastry shell which had enough weight to melt in your mouth but also enough crumble to get all over your shirt. The best measurement of course was the amount of food left on the plate at the end of the meal.