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It was a retirement project like no other.
In 2010, after Austrian-born chef Franz Lieber moved to the family holiday home in Fairlie in south Canterbury, his dream to extend the Kiwi taste in pies beyond mince or mince and cheese was met with some scepticism.
He was a relative newcomer to pies – as he tells Frank Film, there are no pies in Austria, “just schnitzel and goulash.”
And expecting travellers to turn off the main highway to Lake Tekapo, Mt Cook, Wānaka and Mt Cook for a pie stop was a big ask.
“Now,” says Lieber, “everyone comes around the corner.”
As judges test and taste around 4500 pies competing in the 25th Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards, queues of hungry travellers brave a cold winter’s day deep in Mackenzie Country for one of the Fairlie Bakehouse’s legendary pies. On one memorable day, it sold over 3000 pies.
“It never stops,” says Lieber’s daughter, Sophia Osborne, who manages the Bakehouse with her husband Sam. “Sometimes the queue can wrap its way round the road and nearly to the park.
“Some people will eat two pies in the morning and then another for lunch – every day.”
Despite increasing competition from hamburger bars and other fast food outlets, our love of the humble and not-so-humble pie, eaten with knife and fork, fingers or straight from the bag, has put us at the top of the global pie-eating charts.
This year Taste Atlas ranked the meat pie at number 7 in the 50 most popular New Zealand foods, above fish and chips but below pavlova at the number 1 spot.
The exact number of pies sold in New Zealand is impossible to know for sure because most pies aren’t sold with a barcode but, according to 2020 data from Food Standards Australia/New Zealand, the average Kiwi eats 15 meat pies a year, three more than Aussie pie lovers. That put the number of pies eaten that year at just over 74 million – more per head than any other country.
Our favourite flavour is a close call. A 2020 Canstar survey found Kiwis’ favourite pie flavour is traditional mince and cheese (at 22%) followed closely by steak and cheese (21%). Steak and mushroom and potato top ranked third equal at 9% each. But there are regional differences. Seafood pies are commonly found in Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel; Nelson has a taste for game-meat pies; Cantabrians are the most likely to insist on tomato sauce as a pie accompaniment.
Our passion for pies dates back to the arrival of the first European settlers in the early 19th century – food historian Andre Tabar, who has written a book about the New Zealand pie, traces the earliest mention of a meat pie to a newspaper advertisement in 1863. The mutton pie, a speciality in Dunedin and across Otago and Southland regions, is thought to also have existed since colonial times.
Since opening its doors in 2010, the Fairlie Bakehouse had raised the pie bar far above such humble offerings.
Its current menu includes bacon and salmon, smoked chicken and mushroom, Mackenzie lamb, silverside, and venison and cranberry, ranging in price from $6.00 to $10.00. The most popular variety, says Lieber, is the pork belly with apple sauce and crackling – the Bakehouse goes through six tonnes of pork a month. Their vegan pies are also growing year-on-year in popularity.
Lieber’s recipe for the perfect pie includes good cooking knowledge (the Bakehouse’s website insists they are bakers, “not manufacturers”), high quality, seasonal, preferably local ingredients for the fillings and two different type of pastry – non-flaky pastry for the base and flaky for the top.
A sense of flair is important and there is his “secret ingredient” that even his daughter doesn't know.
Whatever it is, the Fairlie pies have been a boon for the small town. Now open seven days a week, closed only on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the Bakehouse employs 65 staff and brings a constant stream of visitors to Fairlie. It has won the People's Choice Award at the South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Awards in 2015 and 2018, and the region’s hospitality award in 2013.
As Lieber says with a smile, “There’s no time for retirement now.”
Producer/Director/Cameraman/Interviewer: Gerard Smyth
Editor: Tracey Jury
Online Editor: Andy Johnson
Writer: Sally Blundell
Production Manager: Jo Ffitch
Sound Design/Mix: Chris Sinclair