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.
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.
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.