In lieu of a distinctive Australian cuisine, many consider the meat pie our national dish. As we approach winter and AFL round nine, Melburnians are munching Four'n Twentys and swapping lunch-break sandwiches for steaming pastry parcels. But when I asked around for favourite meat pies in Melbourne, responses were limited to country bakeries. For the sake of the 'Strayan spirit, someone had to dig up the best in the city.
After compiling a hit-list, I rang Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery. Half an hour later we'd invented a meat-pie rating system inspired by the Good Food Guide: filling accounts for 50 per cent of the score, a single point is awarded for appearance and the rest is split between pastry top and base. James, who has noticed pie sales double since Easter, says the recent spike comes down to "that classic thing in cooler weather where people crave comfort food"."
After two weeks of eating pies and a car of crumbs I learnt that: the jury is out on chunky versus minced; meat pie-induced headaches are real; you always get what you pay for; and only the brave should ever go within 10 metres of a Zumbo hamburger pie. To make this list, pies had to be beef or steak, available to take away, and exceptional. Here are Melbourne's top 10 meat pies in descending order.
Beef ragu ($11) from Baker D. Chirico | 9/10
Full points for presentation, Baker D.; that's one good-looking pie. "Everything has to be aesthetically pleasing," explains Carlton manager Millie Lowndes. "It takes longer, but that's part of what Baker D. is so well known for." Braised beef stew (meat from Karalee Fine Foods in Balaclava) is wholly encased in buttery, short crust pastry. The shell bulges from the filling but is strong enough to contain it, which mightn't be the case if puff pastry – traditionally used for the pie lid – replaced it. The pie is luxurious without being heavy and comes with spiced kasoundi.
149 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 03 9534 3777 or 178 Faraday Street, Carlton, 03 9349 3445
Beef and red wine from Cafe Alcaston ($11.95) | 8.5/10
Tucked away at the Parliament end of the city, Cafe Alcaston is proof that you don't need to drive to the country for a homestyle pie. It took the owner six months to perfect his beef and red wine recipe and he's sold out almost daily since he began baking them a decade ago. Porterhouse beef is bought locally from a butcher near his eastern-suburbs home before being slow-cooked with vegies in red wine. The generous filling tends to burst from the pastry, so have a handful of napkins nearby.
2 Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9650 9387
Beef, cheddar, Guinness and thyme from Pure Pie ($8.90) | 8.5/10
This pie is owner Michael Carthew's tribute to his New Zealand home. "Everyone there goes for steak and cheese pie; that's the go-to instead of the meat pie," says Michael, who's lived in Melbourne for 15 years. "We get a lot of Kiwi customers happy to see it." Pure Pie has Victorian Farmers' Markets Association certification, enabling Michael and his wife to sell at farmers' markets and guarantee use of Victorian produce. Their beef bone stock cooks for 48 hours to produce hearty Guinness gravy, while sour cream added to the pastry makes it extra flaky and the best of this bunch.
383 Bay Street, Port Melbourne, 03 9041 5004
Beef, burgundy and mushroom from Babka ($6.50) | 8/10
"Burgundy" is a bit of a misnomer, I'm told by Babka's kitchen staff. "In Australia it's just red wine, but that doesn't sound the same." It's the quantity of red wine in Babka's pie – and the restrained use of water – that produces the rich flavour. There's nothing unusual here: sweated onions, chopped rosemary and thyme, beef from Largo Butcher nearby, tomato paste and dijon mustard. The noteworthy puff-pastry lid, golden from an egg wash glaze, is so raised it threatens to fly away.
358 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 0091
Wagyu beef and beer from Cooper's Handmade Pies (RRP $8) | 8/10
First thought when chomping down on a Cooper's wagyu beef and beer pie: there goes the roof of my mouth. Second thought: what a wonderfully simple, sweet pie. Jamieson Mountain Ale in the gravy cuts through the natural marbling of chunky wagyu mince. It's available at their store in Yarrawonga, and – good news for city dwellers – at Fredericks Fine Grocer in Richmond, Hams & Bacon next door to Pope Joan, and at Jack Horner, Matt Wilkinson and Ben Foster's new corner store in Brunswick. Check the website for upcoming farmers' market appearances and online ordering.
cooperspies.com.au, 03 5743 1922
Beef, oregano and tomato from Green Refectory ($4) | 7.5/10
When Sandy Green opened 12 years ago she was selling nine pies a day. Now the cafe charges through 120 daily, handing brown paper bags to a determined line of customers. At $4 a pop, it's the best value on this list. Beneath an initial whack of oregano, the beef mince is enriched with onion, garlic and spices. "It tastes real because we use real ingredients and no preservatives," says Green, "they're baked with love." The pies, whose pastry is endearingly wonky, taste like a distant, childhood memory.
115 Sydney Road, Brunswick, 03 9387 1150
Classic beef from Candied Bakery ($5.60) | 7/10
Candied Bakery's classic beef pie is Four'n Twenty's immeasurably more sophisticated cousin. The mince from Cherry Tree Organics is sweet, rich and saucy; the base holds together and the lid flakes off in layers. There's also a secret ingredient – Vegemite. "It gave us the component that we wanted and it adds a really nice colour and flavour. There are no carrots or celery; it's pretty much all meat," says baker and co-owner Orlando Artavilla. He cooks the mince for nearly five hours and has a three-day pastry-making process.
81A Hudsons Road, Spotswood, 03 9391 1335
Gluten-free organic beef from Fatto a Mano ($7) | 6.5/10
Bonus points were not awarded for pies with that little something extra, which is unfortunate for Fatto a Mano's gluten-free, organic beef pie. The pastry shell is made from tapioca, rice and corn with a grated potato lid. There's a non-GF version available too and both contain chunky beef (also from Cherry Tree Organics) cooked with red wine, peas, fresh herbs, cinnamon sticks, cloves and bay leaf. "You have to do each one individually," says owner Sandra Cucuzza. "You can't roll the pastry, you have to use your hands to form the shape in the pie tin."
228 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9417 5998
Yarraville Pie from Heather Dell ($4.80) | 5.5/10
Heather Dell has been in Keith Prentice's family since his grandparents opened in 1951, but the Yarraville Pie has only been on the menu for 12 months. Asked what makes the pie so popular, Prentice is upfront. "It could have just as easily not worked, but you just have to try these things." A few bites towards the centre reveals melted tasty cheese and a few slices of (bland) tomato, while the saucy mince – made from steak, as opposed to "mystery meat' – is nicely rounded out with pepper.
7 Anderson Street, Yarraville, 03 9687 1721
Shepherd's Pie from Boscastle ($5) | 4.5/10
The word "gourmet" is a cliche, but Boscastle has been offering consistently decent, widely available "gourmet pies" for decades. Its Brunswick shopfront stocks the whole range – curried beef, Moroccan lamb and chunky beef burgundy to name a few – but I put the shepherd's pie to the test. Almost-too-perfect potato forms a lid over a particularly sturdy pastry shell. Filling-wise, someone's gone to town on tomato paste and salt, but still, it ain't bad. It's the least "gourmet" in this list, but Boscastle is the happy medium between an $11 blowout and a Four'n Twenty.
260 Barkly Street, Brunswick, 03 9092 8113
How does Four'n Twenty stack up?
I waited until the day before deadline to eat a Four'n Twenty. My last experience was in middle school at the tuckshop, before they were ditched for healthier alternatives along with my beloved potato gems. When not at the footy, you can buy them individually frozen from supermarkets ($3.30) and defrost them in the oven over 45 minutes or the microwave for five. I did the former with the Legendary Angus Beef Pie.
It emerged steaming so I set it aside for a couple of minutes to cool. I took a bite. The sugary, crumbly shell resembles equal parts pastry, shortbread and cardboard, while the gelatinous filling is more gravy than meat (the back of pack indicates 29 per cent angus beef, which, admittedly, was more than expected). There's a little gristle and a lot of salt, but ultimately, this is an iconic pie that serves a purpose. My biggest beef with the Four'n Twenty is its manufactured, mass-produced taste, but I suppose that's the nature of the product.
The verdict: 2/10 when drenched in tomato sauce – although I imagine they taste better at a game.