The great Australian pie looms large in our national psyche.
Whether sweet or savoury, smothered with sauce at the footy or served hot and with love from the family oven, there are few things we love more than a pie.
And there is nowhere that takes pies more seriously than the Southern Highlands region of NSW, just outside Sydney.
The towns and villages in the Southern Highlands are so mad about pies, each June they hold a month-long festival called Pie Time to celebrate this most iconic of pastries.
It’s an entire month of activities, events and special menus that pay homage to the humble pie, from pie cooking classes to a pie art exhibition.
Just about every corner store, local bakery and fine-dining restaurant from Bowral to Bundanoon gets involved, churning out tray after tray of classic pie varieties alongside more avant-garde creations.
It’s little wonder — the Southern Highlands boasts more homemade pie outlets per square kilometre than anywhere in Australia. About 40 of the best are highlighted stops along the Pie Trail, a designated track of scenic country road that snakes through the region.
While Pie Time events happen only in June, the Pie Trail is available all year round, and lets people literally eat their way through the Southern Highlands.
And one recent weekend, that’s exactly what I set out to do.
One weekend, five towns, countless pies
The first lesson I learnt on the Pie Trail was to arrive hungry. The second lesson was that in the Southern Highlands, pies are made from much greater stuff than just flour, butter, salt and filling.
At Samuel Gee Pies and Pastries in the small village of Balaclava, an easy hour’s drive from Sydney, pies carry family stories, represent heritage, and are something a community can rally around.
Owner Nerida Rudolph and her husband Des opened Samuel Gee in late 2019, just in time for an unexpectedly horror year of bushfires, damaging storms, floods and Covid-19.
The support of the local community helped them through the tough times, and their extensive menu of pies and pasties — award winners among them — made Samuel Gee a friendly but formidable rival local cult favourites like Gumnut Patisserie.
Ms Rudolph comes from a long line of pie-makers dating back to the First Fleet, and her apple pie recipe — the first, excellent pie on my recent pie tour — is seven generations old.
I also tried one of Samuel Gee’s more innovative creations, its plump and creamy Yabbie Pie, which was created especially for Pie Time during June. It’s a knockout, but like many of the best things in life, it’s but only available for a brief time.
From there, I took a short scenic detour through Bowral to get to Berrima, the pretty historic village that’s just been named the best tourism destination with a population under 5000 in the NSW Top Tourism Town Awards.
Browsing Berrima’s vintage shops and jam and tea merchants helped rebuild a bit of an appetite, and then it was time for lunch at Schmokin’, a cafe and motorcyclist’s paradise that has also jumped on the Pie Time train, even though it’s not necessarily a pie outlet.
Such is the spirit for pies around here.
We’re treated to the classic meat pie done two ways — a traditional, English-style pie with mushy peas and gravy, and a modern interpretation made with brisket, home-smoked cheddar and red wine.
That was another signature pie made just for Pie Time, but it made an absolute hero of the cafe’s backyard smoker.
Owners Martyn and Pauline Poytress run the Schmokin’ cafe, the bike clothing and accessories shop next door, as well as a third space, a “man cave” that’s become a spot for local blokes and riders to connect socially while tinkering with restored bikes.
They’ve also been running “Pie and Ride” electric bike tours during June, but e-bike tours that take in the scenic surrounds are available the rest of the year too. I made a mental note to book an e-bike tour another time, when I didn’t have my eyes so firmly on the pies.
Pies, literally, everywhere
By the afternoon we’re four pies down and hitting critical mass, although it’s one of the better problems I’ve ever had. But there were so many more to try.
In Moss Vale, we popped into Polly’s Pies and Pastries for a couple of takeaways of their stroganoff pies — we decided to save them for later — and pies were also on offer at the Southern Highlands Brewing taphouse, pretty much next door, where we stopped for a break and a tasting paddle of its craft beers.
Even the restaurant at The Robertson Hotel — the grand manor nestled in the rainforest in rural heartland Robertson — was in on the act. There, we had a gourmet pie of slow cooked lamb and field mushrooms for dinner.
Cherry Tree Hill Wines in Sutton Forest was the last stop on our pie adventure, which we visited the next day. For Pie Time, it’s come up with a particularly clever way to showcase not only the versatility of the humble pie, but its array of delicious cool climate wines — a tasting platter of cocktail pies, each paired with a wine.
There was mushroom and thyme pie to match its Annie Fume Blanc, chicken and leek to match with its Diana Reserve Chardonnay, lamb shank to match with its Hayden Reserve Pinot Noir, and beef ragu to match with its Dave Special Vintage Cabernet Merlot.
Our last pie of the weekend came in the form of a berry tart, served with Cherry Tree’s sparking rose.
At that point I was officially, but happily, full.
Do I recommend spending a weekend eating pies in the Southern Highlands? Yes. Do I need a break from pies for a bit? Sure.
But something struck me as we headed back down the Hume to Sydney — all those pies, and I didn’t reach for tomato sauce once.
That’s how you can tell you’ve landed on a good pie. And it would have been sacrilege, anyway, in a pie mecca such as this.
The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Southern Highlands