I think it’s fair to say that the pie floater has never made as much of an impact on the west coast compared to the appetite our eastern cousins have for it. For the uninitiated we’re talking, traditionally, about a meat pie ringed by thick pea soup. A dish that has been served from South Australian pie carts since the late 19th century. Food writers often anoint dishes as “iconic” but in this case it was the National Trust of South Australia that named the pie floater as a state heritage icon back in 2003.
You might then think that a degree of novelty is at the heart of my craving for Nieuw Ruin’s signature dish, a fancy pie floater, but it’s actually a deeper nostalgia that goes far beyond our shores. I was raised in the north of England where “pie and peas” is a very real thing. Served everywhere from lower league football matches to pubs and working men’s clubs, it’s more pie than floater, but close. Added to this, my first proper meal as a visa holder on Australian soil was a pie floater at the iconic Harry’s Café de Wheels in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. The choice was more about its availability and proximity to my Airbnb but all the same, for me it’s a pie with a side of feels.
The first iteration Nieuw Ruin’s head chef Blaze Young put up was a pork and rabbit pie with cognac gravy and peas. There are no shortcuts. Young tells me she builds stocks the old-school way with roast chicken bones, sometimes duck frames, heaps of veg and a low and slow process that takes three days. She slow-braises the meat with aromatic vegetables, leek tops, fennel, celery, lemon zest, parsley stalks, white pepper, coriander and fennel seed. That braising stock makes its way into the gravy, with the addition of a good measure of cognac, garlic and shallots, more lemon zest and a peppery olive oil.
It was bang on the brief for a menu that is as much about drinking as it is eating, and a tip of the hat to childhood memories. Young’s dad, a Melburnian, would talk about how it defined his pub experience. Young’s mum, up in the Perth Hills, would on occasion make it – and it’s obviously something that stuck.
One of my menu red flags is dishes that are incongruous with the season. So that pork and rabbit, as glorious as it was, is a dish designed for the cooler months. To still be eating it at the height of summer just wouldn’t work. Young has cycled through seasonal variations, from a hapuka pie floater with veg and smoked-fish gravy to a vegetarian crowd-pleaser, a cauliflower and gruyere incarnation for autumn.
The filling is integral to the dish but, when you get down to it, the gravy is just as crucial – as are the submerged peas that offer fresh respite. A gravy lacklustre in flavour, too thick or thin in consistency, would be a disaster. A depth of flavour in that original gravy was achieved through ingredients, yes, but also time. That Young is enamoured enough with her craft to take time and apply technique makes all the difference to me and the memory of that dish. On the night I visited, my two dining partners and I each spooned up the gravy. Sat at the bar there were oohs and ahhs, as natty wine was pushed to one side before a boss move (sadly not mine): the bowl taken, pressed to the lips and tipped to clear every last possible drop. As the days grow cooler, I’m hanging out for my chance to upturn that bowl.