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Judging pies . . . it’s no gravy train

Wild Oats manager Crystal Thompson with Wairarapa’s top pie. PHOTO/CAL ROBERTS

Last week’s national pie awards left Wairarapa in the dark on where to go in Wairarapa for a top-quality pie. The Times-Age took on the task of finding Wairarapa’s best steak and cheese pie – and developed a new appreciation for pie judges, writes CAL ROBERTS.

It just didn’t seem right that no Wairarapa pies made it on to the podium in the Bakel’s New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards.

We know for a fact that there are plenty of good pies out there – but not all pies are created equal.

We decided to take a closer look at what’s really going on inside the pastry in the region.

Debate raged only briefly on what sort of pie to choose for our own tasting – after all, you can’t beat a good steak and cheese pie can you?

And to be honest, at least one of the “judges” didn’t like mushrooms.

The lone vegetarian was, well, a lone voice.

The editor drew up a list of likely contenders and on Wednesday morning, 13 pies from around the region made their way to our plates.

A couple of places had already sold out of steak and cheese by the time we reached them, which could itself be a testament to the preference of customers and the quality of the pies.

Pies were picked up by three different reporters, with no prior warning to suppliers that they were being judged.

We wanted to ensure we were getting an everyday offering from each bakery.

Judging may not have been what one would call scientific, but five hungry reporters were looking for a slice of the action.

Contrary to what you might think, it’s a tough gig.

Pies were lined up for the blind tasting, with judges circling the table to grab a piece, before scribbling down notes on texture, flavour and whatever else grabbed their fancy.

Comments ranged from “Firm crust, good dark colour”, “Great filling, pastry a bit thick?”, to the less poetic “Yum-as filling”.

The adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” rang in my ears as pie fatigue began to set in around the table.

Spectators remarked there was almost three pies worth of steak and cheese for each judge to get through and I began to wonder how much gravy a person could eat in one sitting.

Judging pies is more like a marathon than a sprint, and perhaps some judges’ folly was in initially treating it as a pie-eating contest.

The process was hardly perfect – some of the pies had cooled, others were unfortunately a little squashed on arrival.

But it was the taste that mattered.

There was no consultation between judges during tasting but results were remarkably consistent.

The top scoring steak and cheese pie came from Wild Oats in Carterton scoring 39/50 overall.

Second place went to Clareville Bakery on 37/50, and third was 10 O’clock Cookie Company with 36/50.

Next year, Wairarapa may have to rely on the sound judgement of professionals – as the exercise proved taxing.

Production of the paper slumped shortly after official judging concluded.

“Remind me never to let us do this again,” a senior staff member and judge said.

Wild Oats manager and “quality controller”, Crystal Thompson, was thrilled to hear its offering had beaten a dozen others, but was modest about her role, saying “I just put the pie in the bag”.

Thompson said full credit went to the team who baked out the back – Ben Clarke, Daniel Miller and Shane Quirke.

“I’m just lucky to have a very passionate team.”

Thompson marvelled at the Times-Age dedication to sample 13 pies in an afternoon.

She said the secret ingredient to a great pie was an appreciation for food.

“It’s about making food that you would want to eat yourself.”

The pies we tried

The Bach

South End Diary
The Corner Cafe

Pioneer Bakery

Wild Oats
Clareville Baker

Pak’n Save
Village Bakery Kuripuni
10 O’Clock Cookie
Old Bakehouse
Lansdowne Sammies

Pies we tried to try – Solway Pie Shop and Taste Cafe had both sold out of steak and cheese by the time we arrived.

We found pies baked in-house typically ranged from $3.99 to $5.50 in Wairarapa.

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