A former mortgage broker on a mission to review every pie shop in Australia has taken his pastry pilgrimage to the furthest reaches of North Queensland – and delivered his verdict on the age-old tomato sauce debate.
Shaun Pyne ran a successful finance business for more than 20 years before selling up and setting out to fulfill his lifelong ambition of visiting every pie shop and bakery in Australia.
In the intervening years, his Pyney’s Pie Reviews persona has developed a huge following on social media, raising tens of thousands of dollars for charity along the way.
Five secrets to a perfect pie
Mr. Pyne is halfway through a schooner of beer at the Peninsula Hotel in Laura – a Cape York town famous for its Quinkan Aboriginal rock art, but not its cakes – when he gets a call from the ABC.
The baked-good gourmand already has a few weeks of travel under his belt on this leg of his Australian tour, with a loaded caravan and an insatiable appetite for adventure, great yarn and the perfect meat-to-crust ratio.
And it turns out he’s distilled the pie judging criteria down to a fine science.
“The five categories that I score on are value for money, meat ratio, taste, pastry and temperature,” he explains.
“They get scored out of 10 … and they are all equally important.
“If you have a hot pie, it’s going to burn your taste buds … if the pastry falls apart while you’re driving, that’s going to be a big problem.
“For me, a real pie is something you have to be able to eat in your car – so it has to stay stable.”
Given the cost of fuel and the clicks his nationwide mission drives, value for money will obviously be a major factor in any pie’s overall score.
“Look, the cost of living is expensive, meat prices are up and yes, pies are up,” says Mr Pyne.
“At the end of the day, that’s life.
“But I have visited so many bakeries where the cheapest is $4.10 to the most expensive $8.50.
“But even $8.50 one, it’s massive, it’s a big pie and it’s good value for money.”
Can Australia really lay claim to the meat pie?
Historical evidence for meat pies can trace their origin dating back to the Neolithic period around 6,000 BC, and more recently they were staples sold by street vendors as convenience foods to the poor in medieval Britain.
The dish offers throughout British literature and nursery rhymes – take, for example, the uncanny “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie” or the sissy about baked blackberries, who now lends her name to Australia’s biggest pie brand, Four’N Twenty.
But even the most heartbroken Briton has to admit that the tradition has taken flight since the cake arrived on a new continent with the First Fleet.
Sir. Pyne’s recent discovery of a crocodile pie at Port Douglas and a crayfish pie at Bamaga provide definite evidence for this claim.
The ‘dog’s eye and dead horse’ debate
Not all Australian pie traditions get the thumbs up from this crust crusader.
Whatever you do, don’t mention the dead horse.
“We’ve had some really heated debates,” he warns.
“For me, a good Aussie pie doesn’t need any sauce whatsoever.
“The only time I put gravy on my pies is when I go to cricket or football.
“The flavors just have to permeate the pie.
“By putting tomato sauce or any other sauce on it, you take away the aroma and the actual true taste of the pie.
“Square pie, round pie, oval pie — that’s been a separate debate.”
Mr. Pyne falls into the square pie camp, but acknowledges that rules are made to be broken when it comes to this beloved food item.
Controversy erupted from the recent 2022 Australia Best Pie and Pastie competition, which he helped judge, after the top prize went to a meatless pie.
My Pyne said the creation of the creamed mushroom and truffle was a revelation.
“There was no meat in there … but you know what, I had the privilege of tasting that pie on Wednesday and it was absolutely amazing, beautiful,” he says.
“They’ve come under a bit of fire because the judges awarded the best pie … but it’s Australia’s best pie competition – it’s not Australia’s best meat pie.
“To be honest, I think the referees got it right.
“This was a beautiful, beautiful pie.”
Creativity is just under the lid
That mushroom trump was nowhere near the strangest meal to pass his lips.
“I’ve had a camel pie [at Birdsville] which was fantastic,” he says.
“Roberta from Blackbutt Bakery, she was my first perfect result ever.
“She sells a Big Mac pie and it literally tastes exactly like a Big Mac.
“Whittlesea Bakery in Melbourne, that was another one of my perfect results – it was a slow cooked brisket, camembert cheese and caramelised onion.”
The Cape’s remoteness meant pies were few and far between under Mr. Pyne’s latest trip north, but he made up for it by visiting every bakery from the Atherton Tablelands to Innisfail at least once on the way back down.
“My mantra has always been, don’t go to Bali, go to Broken Hill,” he says.
“Come out and see this amazing country.
“Come out and see North Queensland.
“There’s so much to see up here and I can’t wait to get into the bakeries.”
Pyney’s big lifestyle change
So how does a mortgage broker become a traveling gastronome of the pie variety?
It all started as banter between two buddies on the long and dusty ride to the 2019 Birdsville Big Red Bash.
“One of my mates said, ‘I’ve got to have a schooner in every pub because my lady usually drives, blah blah blah,'” explains Mr Pyne.
“And I said, look, if you do that, I’ll have a pie in every town we stop in while you have your beer.
“So he had lots of beer and I had lots of pies and I just started blogging about it at the end of 2019.”
Covid-19 put Mr Pyne and his wife’s travel plans on hold, but a three-and-a-half-month trip around the NT last year brought the social media reviews back to the fore.
Selling the family mortgage business helped make it all possible, and writing pie reviews was as good an excuse as any to get out and see Australia.
It also helps pay some of the bills.
“It’s a labor of love, mate,” says Mr. Pyne.
“We’re lucky we have older kids and we’ve done really well with our business.
“And I have merchandise that I sell, so pie bikinis, pie board shorts, T-shirts, things like that.
“I have great partners who have sponsored me behind the scenes, which is great.
“But we had to travel anyway, and this is just a great way to get out there and help people.
“Unfortunately, it’s a dying profession, so if I can do my little bit to raise tourism, to get people out there spending money in these small communities, obviously that helps them.”
All things in moderation
Mr Pyne is probably Australia’s best-known pie aficionado behind the late and great Shane Warne, whose fans mourned his passing earlier this year by placing offerings of meat pies, cigarettes, beer and baked beans alongside the flowers at the foot of his statue at the MCG.
Warnie’s shock death in Thailand gave Mr Pyne enough of a scare about his own diet to go to his own doctor.
“It’s funny because with Shane Warne earlier in the year I obviously went straight in,” he says.
“Since Christmas I have lost 14 kg, so I have been on a diet myself.
“My heart was all good, check was all good.
“I go to the gym every day, I work out every day.
“I smash pies, but I do [social media] content on different days.”
You can call them meat pies, dog eyes, maggot bags or rat chests.
As long as the meat ratio is right, it doesn’t send you crushed or skin your tongue, the flavor is spot-on, and the pastry is flaky and structurally sound, what you call them matters very little.
Pyney will happily smash them all.
“Bloody ed mate, every day of the week.”