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pie floater

Doesn’t that photo of a pie floater just make your mouth water? Tender beef chunks in a rich gravy, encased in golden, flaky pastry, up-ended in a steaming hot bowl of hearty green pea soup. Optional condiments, often applied liberally, include tomato sauce, vinegar or Worcestershire sauce.

There’s nothing I like better than devouring a hot pie floater, before stumbling home half-cut after the footy on a freezing cold Saturday night in July. And that’s precisely what I did several weeks back.

pie cart north terrace
The North Terrace pie cart in 1982. Source: The Advertiser

OK, I guess you’re right, it DOES look like an unappetising floating object, half-submerged in a bowl of inedible green gruel, believe me when I say that its unsophisticated appearance belies its delectability.

The Pie Floater returns to Adelaide’s streets

Lovers of Adelaide’s most famous culinary contribution to society, the pie floater (or just ‘floater’ according to some traditionalists), are rejoicing with the recent return of the iconic pie cart (provided by local pie maker Vili’s) to the Adelaide Railway Station on football match days.

Once again, Adelaideans can partake of our most famous of kerbside delicacies, at our most egalitarian of eateries. There’s no need for etiquette: tradition dictates that pie floaters must be eaten whilst standing up, one hand cradling the bowl, while the other works a single spoon-like utensil.

In 2003, the National Trust of Australia recognised the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon. The origin of the dish is attributed to our very British roots, where ‘pea and pie supper’ and ‘floaters’ (dumplings in soup) are recognised as traditional Yorkshire dishes. Several sources suggest that the South Australian pie floater was first sold at the turn of the century by a Port Pirie baker, Ern ‘Shorty’ Bradley, who operated an evening coffee stall advertising ‘floaters’ for theatre-goers.

Pie floaters have traditionally been doled out from city and metropolitan horse and hand-drawn pie carts and vans, which were a fixture of the city of Adelaide as far back as the 1870s. The CBD supported up to 13 pie carts in the 1880s, suggesting that Adelaideans were partial to a pie, there was dearth of alternative cuisines, and the city centre was awash with inebriated people.

The dwindling availability of the Pie Floater

In recent times, however, purveyors of the pie floater have dwindled. The pie carts became less common and in 1958, the city was served by just two carts – the Cowley’s pie cart in Victoria Square outside the Adelaide General Post Office; and the Balfours pie cart on North Terrace outside the Adelaide Railway Station. The last surviving regular pie cart, the Cowley’s cart, closed in 2010. The Balfours cart on North Terrace was forced to close in 2007 when the Glenelg tram was extended past the railway station.

pie cart adelaide's first
Adelaide’s first pie cart, James Gibb’s pie cart in 1907. Source: The Advertiser

Thankfully, Vili’s has revived the pie floater with its football match day pie cart in the city. The inner-eastern suburb of Norwood is also home to a pie cart on Norwood Redlegs Football Club match days. Some suburban bakeries continue to offer pie floaters.

For our New South Wales brethren, there’s an inferior version of the South Australian pie floater served at Cafe de Wheels in Woolloomooloo, but it’s not a patch on the ‘real thing’.

My Pie Floater experience

My Vili’s experience was sensational, although I do admit that my judgement may have been slightly impaired at the time. $10 gets you a ‘floater’ in a big plastic bowl that is filled to brim with tasty pea soup – and they threw in a free stubbie holder to sweeten the deal.

The next morning, the generous serving of pea soup and the 7 (or 8?) pints of porter at the footy combined to deliver a resounding orchestral performance, with multiple encores. Strangely, not all members of the audience were as enraptured as I was. But I will be going back.


2 thoughts on “Pie Floater, Adelaide’s Famous Culinary Contribution #keepadelaideweird”

  1. As a consumer or pie floaters since the early 1960’s I have consumed this culinary delight from many a pie cart at Norwood, North Terrace, Adelaide, Harry De Wheels and of course Cowley’s Pie Cart outside the Adelaide GPO. Recent years have seen the demise of the pie carts as one by one the fell victim to changing tastes and socio/eco/political pressures. Although over time they have been replaced by a number of bakeries who have attempted to fill the pie floater void, they have failed to maintain the true recipe of the soup. May I suggest that he vegetable soup or whatever soup variations the bakeries use is more for economic convenience than supplying the genuine pie floater. The “Genuine Pie Floater” starts with a meat pie placed upside down in a soup plate, it is then covered in “genuine” BLUE BOILER PEA Soup which was made to a specific recipe and has a distinct nose and taste. Of course this culinary delight was then garnished with generous amounts of tomato sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper in whatever combinations and/or quantities the gourmet consumers required. Such has been my disappointment current pie floaters that I have resorted to making my own Blue Boiler Soup and now enjoy the genuine pie floater as prescribed in the original recipe.

    1. David,

      Well is also got to do with that there isn’t the demand for Pie Floaters in Adelaide. The GPO Pie Cart was losing money for years and being in the wrong end of town to get people who mainly party on the northern side of the city, eg Hindley Street, North Terrace, etc.

      I understand about the traditional recipe and I have stated it many times, the traditional soup doesn’t exist anywhere. Vilis uses pea and ham soup.

      Maybe one day in the near future, it will return for special occasions.

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