Australian Food - Pies

Source: The Age

Of pies and men

By CRAIG ABRAHAM - Published Sunday 16 August 1998

Collingwood supporters eat the most pies. It's official. At the MCG - where every third person eats a pie - they move Four 'N Twentys by the truckload, literally, every weekend of every long winter. Sales at the ground are always immense, despite the caterer's mark-up of nearly $1. And if Collingwood is up against St Kilda, Richmond or the Western Bulldogs, the Four 'N Twentys - maybe three trucks of them, up to 30,000 pies - will disappear in their greatest numbers before the game has even begun.

At the end of the first quarter there'll be another mad rush. Halftime is steady but not as frantic. By three-quarter time, they're usually all sold.

Reg Lucas, the special events manager for Simplot Australia, which makes the Four 'N Twentys, remembers the good old days at the MCG - he's been in the pie game since 1975 - when he'd see men staggering through the rugged old Bay 13 with 12 dozen pies in their arms, swaying with the weight. "They were pretty rough in there," remembers Reg, "but the people in the aisles would part to let them through. 'It's the pies,' they'd shout, 'move out of the pieman's way.'"

Now the MCG has 34 self-serve pie outlets and state-of-the-art ovens that can heat 20 dozen in 20 minutes.

The first Four 'N Twenty rolled out of the oven 50 years ago in Bendigo, which curiously is also the birthplace of that other landmark Australian snack, the Chiko Roll.

Local milk bar and cafe owner Les McClure was already selling his homemade Dad 'N' Dave pies, with the odd slogan of "eat 'em here and die round the corner", from his Hargreaves Street cafe, Aunt Sally's. This was just after World War II, in the mid-1940s. Then he developed another meat pie in 1948 and named it after a line in the nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence: "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie."

McClure's original pastry cook, Les Gillies, 69, the patron of Bendigo's Gillies Pies, remembers the prototype Four 'N Twenty as being quite different from the mass-produced modern version.

"They were very small," he says, "and they were what we called boat-shaped. They were more oval than round. And they had no lip - they were flat across. The filling is spicier now, too, much spicier, and our pastry was different."

Les "Mac" McClure, who died of a heart attack in 1966, moved his Four 'N Twenty bakery to the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds in 1950 and then sold out to the Gillies family. Since then, ownership of an ever-growing empire has changed hands with the decades - Peters ran it in the 1960s, the Adelaide Steamship Company in the 1970s, and Pacific Dunlop from the early 1980s until three years ago when it finally fell into overseas hands, the American food company Simplot. It also controls Edgell, Bird's Eye, Herbert Adams and Leggo products.

From its plant in Kensington, Melbourne, Four 'N Twenty makes 60 million pies a year for outlets throughout Australia, Singapore, Japan, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.

And this humble pie - a national icon, like Vegemite - corners two-thirds of the domestic market, against strong competition.

Most people, if asked to name our national dish, would say, for better or worse, "meat pie and sauce".

The pie's origins are in Britain. History books say they were born in the Middle Ages, when a lot of people had no teeth. They went on to become staple peasant food for centuries - meat in a pouch.

The trend was imported. Primitive camp pies were steamed in billycans by the pioneers in the Victorian gold fields; there were pie-carts at the top of Bourke Street in the 1860s and, by this time, crucially, tomato sauce was being bottled in preserving factories.

At the turn of the century the meat pie and sauce was a common Australian midday meal but, by now, it had been identified as "male food" - meaty and unpretentious.

Later, the link with footy was solidified by heroic figures like Jack "Captain Blood" Dyer, who appeared in Four 'N Twenty's first television advertisement and plugged them on his Channel Seven show World of Sport, with Lou Richards. "Have you seen their new 'rabbit food' ad?," asks Professor John Rickard of Monash University's Australian Studies department, "because that's how Four 'N Twenty still caters so strongly to men."

In the ad two construction workers find unwelcome salad in their lunchboxes and send off for hot pies to be happy. "You bloody ripper," mutters one. "Bloody unreal."

Professor Rickard says the main reason Four 'N Twenty is a national icon is because it's a good pie. "It's also a lament," he says, "because we had no peasant culture.

We had no tradition of growing food for our national cuisine. So now, the well-known Australian foods are all processed foods - Four 'N Twenty, tomato sauce, Vegemite and Milo."

You'll never eat a "fresh" processed Four 'N Twenty - unless you break into the factory. To make the pies last longer, the natural flavours have to be boosted with artificial additives.

The meat will never be the best cut (although the real low-end stuff goes into sausage rolls, not pies - reject pies get turned into sausage rolls) and the pastry contains numerous layers of margarine.

"An average meat pie will contain 23 grams of fat," says Derek Moore from the Australian Nutrition Foundation.

"I wouldn't recommend people eat one every day but some do and that's their choice. Personally I'd recommend lower fat takeaways like steamed dim sims, oven-baked wedges or a baked potato."

Fat aside, there's the risk to your health (and clothing) from attempting to eat liquid from a wobbly pastry cup. The pie meat and gravy can dribble severely and, if it's too hot inside, you'll scald the roof of your mouth.

But eaters find their own way in. Poke a hole in the lid. Nibble the pastry rim first. Remove the lid, add sauce, stir and replace. These are the 50-year-old codes of the Four 'N Twenty meat pie.

Gillies remembers the day 50 years ago when McClure came back to Bendigo from a trip away with two ideas in his head. A new pie recipe and a readymade name from an ancient nursery rhyme. "The success of the pie after all these years is due to that name," he says.

"Mac used to travel a lot and he was one of these people that liked catchphrases, and this name came to him somehow. Once you establish a name, that's it. Like McDonald's. This is how it happens in the food business."


Four 'N Twenty's headquarters in Kensington is the largest pie bakery in the Southern Hemisphere. It runs around the clock with 450 workers, producing 400,000 pies a day. That's 300 meat pies a minute. And this is how they do it:

1. The meat

It arrives at 4am - 25 tonnes of it for pies, sausage rolls and pasties. The company says most of the meat is local beef, with a little mutton. Before anything happens, it goes through a metal detector. Workers aren't allowed to wear jewellery on the factory floor as another precaution. The meat is put in stainless steel bins and wheeled into vast fridges. But before it proceeds down the line it's checked by Four 'N Twenty's in-house vet who looks for bone, gristle or any other "foreign components".

2. The mincer

The inspected meat arrives whole in the meat kitchen by conveyor belt. Then it's put through a giant mincer, which reduces it to the aqueous consistency required for the pie filling. There's another metal detector in here, just in case.

3. The cooker

The minced meat then gets piped into vast "kettles", where it's cooked with boiling water. Then all the other bits and pieces are added to the mix - the thickener, some onion, spices like pepper, colouring and flavour boosters. By this time the substance in the big metal vats is gooey and brown. In here it smells like you're inside the world's biggest pie.

4. The dough room

After the meat comes the dough and, in here, they make 70 tonnes a day for the pies' shells. The dough operation is automated; the workers key in a code on a machine for the dough to be processed, depending on what part of the pie they are making. Margarine appears as concrete-block-sized cubes. They travel along a conveyor belt before dropping into a series of high-speed mixers, which whizz it all up with flour, water and salt.

5. The pastry

The strips are stretched by machines to thin them out, then they're fed into the "wigwag" (technical name: retracting laminator), which folds and stretches the dough simultaneously. At the end of this process, there are strips of dough impregnated with 36 layers of fat.

6. The production line

This is the business end of the Four 'N Twenty process. Pie tins go in underneath the pastry sheet, and then a machine stamps the shape of the pie into the tin, forming a cavity. The meat filling, meanwhile, has been travelling by gravity down a series of pipes from the meat kitchen and it eventually arrives in another huge vat. Thin sprays of meat filling spew down into the pie cavities, which are travelling along a belt. By Victorian law - the Food Act of 1984 - meat pies must contain 28 per cent meat, but as the stuff comes squirting out of the tubes it's hard to tell what's what. It just all looks brown. After this the pie moves down the line and the pastry lids come down. The spare pastry is cut off and slides on to another conveyor to be re-used.

7. The ovens

They're gas-fired, they're computer-controlled and they're huge. The ovens are as big as four tennis courts. The pies come on a conveyor belt - at this point only little sloppy pouches in tin cups. Then they slip into the ovens for 12 minutes at 240C and come out ready. Just like that. Then they are whisked into the ambient cooler room, where they simply cool at their own pace to 20C. If they weren't allowed to, mould could grow inside the wrapper because of the condensation.

8. The de-tinner

After cooling, the pie tins are removed by suction and magnets.

9. The packing hall

This part of the factory - where the cooked and cooled pies are sorted and put in boxes - is becoming more automated but there are still workers who reject dodgy pies and pack others, when wrapped, into boxes by hand. Across the whole factory floor, 85 per cent of workers speak English as a second language. At one time 41 languages were spoken. The sorters put reject pies - the burnt or mutant ones - in big bins to be reconstituted as sausage rolls. The cellophane pie wrappers go on by machine. But they're all packed in boxes by hand.

10. Despatch

The Four 'N Twenty truck drivers start arriving in Kensington at 4.30pm, and they continue filing out, laden with pies, until 7am the next morning. They deliver as far away as Sydney and as close as the milk bar down the road - although pies in the adjacent Four 'N Twenty canteen are simply carried over and only cost employees 50 cents. The trucks are referred to as "chariots"; driver Steve Rusec says in his nine years of service, he's still surprised at the number of motorists who honk at him. "Hey pieman," they shout, "give me a pie, throw one out the window, give me a pie."

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