You don’t have to blow on the pie in a Canadian prairie winter. Sue Hoffart catches up with a South Islander who’s selling classic Kiwi pies to the Canucks.
What may have looked like some kind of extreme northern Canadian obstacle race was in fact a tough day at the office for the immigrant pie maker. This is what happens on a -20°C day, when the company van won’t start and a man must urgently transport his precious home-baked wares through downtown Edmonton without compromising food safety standards.
Fortunately, the appliance was mounted on wheels and Scott’s pies were eventually saved. Both the van and its owner have had to withstand far worse in the weather department – this northwestern slice of North America is not for wimps. Inner-city buildings are connected by a series of underground tunnels and overhead pedestrian walkways, designed to protect office staff and shoppers from the brutality of -30°C or -40°C when they’re grabbing a lunchtime sandwich.
In December, the pallid sun drops below the horizon at 4.15pm and lake ice grows thick enough to support the weight of an articulated truck. On especially frigid days, radio stations broadcast helpful public announcements warning exposed skin will freeze in less than a minute. And every year, a gullible schoolchild is doused in water to unstick his tongue from the playground pole he dared to lick.
Towards the end of the outdoor farmers’ market season, snow can dust market stalls and Scott’s beard has been known to turn white while he’s selling his handmade, frozen South Island Pies to frequently bemused locals.
Edmontonians were initially mystified by the Kiwi meat pie concept. What is a potato top, they wondered? What is mince? (Oh, you mean hamburger!) Surely, bacon and eggs belong on a breakfast plate, not inside a pie? Slowly, customers began to eschew apple or pecan or sweetened pumpkin mix between pastry sheets, in favour of something savoury from that pie guy with the cute accent.
The former Christchurch printing-industry employee landed in Alberta in early May 2006 and immediately donned several extra layers of clothing as hardy residents bared arms and legs because the thermostat had just scraped past single digits. A close friend from home had lured him north with the promise of a spare room and plenty of jobs. Sure enough, the 25-year-old found the oil-rich prairie province was booming, and he easily found print work as the city emerged from hibernation.
By June that year, Edmonton was abuzz. The home-grown Oilers ice hockey team had made the national play-offs and the manic summer festival season had kicked off. While the New Zealander was delighted to discover he could drink garden-bar beer in bright sunshine at 10pm, finding a decent meat pie proved impossible. Bakeries had never heard of them and the meagre supermarket offerings were bland, mass-produced disappointments.
Within weeks, he was phoning home to ask for his nana’s bacon and egg pie recipe. He called home again for steak pie instructions, friends clamoured for more and he began to consider starting his own business.
“It took me years to figure out there was never a good time to do it,” Scott says. “I was going to end up retiring a grumpy old man because I had this dream and I never did it.”
So, in 2013, he marched off to his local farmers’ market with a small batch of pies. The ensuing years have seen his retail list grow to include more markets, food fairs, gourmet butchery stores and, most recently, the shockingly vast West Edmonton Mall. The shopping centre sprawls over almost 50 hectares and encompasses everything from sea lions, penguins and a wave pool to an ice skating rink, two hotels and the world’s largest indoor amusement park. The mall consistently ranks as the top regional tourist attraction, pulling in 30 million visitors a year – including one New Zealand-born pie-maker.
In December, Scott clocked up two new experiences. He smashed his personal baking record, filling 1200 flaky pastry shells in a single week, and he made his first moose-meat pie.
Why did you stay in Edmonton?
I met a girl. I met Janice very soon after landing, in O’Byrnes Irish Pub on Whyte Ave on a Friday night. She’s a civil engineer and we talked and exchanged email addresses. A couple of months later, I was at the same bar – neither of us had been back since – and we started talking again. This time, we swapped phone numbers.
By then, she had already booked and paid for a four-month trip to New Zealand, and I was supposed to fly to South America three months after we met. But the flight doubled in price so I decided to go back home and surprise Mum for Christmas in Christchurch instead.
We ended up living back in Christchurch for a year, but Janice has family here so we came back and got married in August 2009. Now, her brother and family live up the street and her grandparents are close by, which is the way I grew up. We have a son, Foster, who’s nearly three and we’re expecting another baby.
Life here is very similar to the way I grew up. Except we have to drive 12 or 13 hours to get to the beach.
Is the weather as bad as it sounds?
I try and tell friends who’ve never experienced it and they just don’t understand. When it’s really cold, your beard freezes up. I was here when we had the coldest temperatures recorded anywhere on earth for that day, 13 December 2009. It was -46°C, but there was also a wind-chill, which made it -59°C. To put that in perspective, a normal freezer at home is about -18°C and our commercial one is -24°C. When I first got here, the cold made me really angry and it blew me away that people would live here. It still does a little bit. It took me three or four years to get over that and now I like it.
How do you cope?
You have to get out there and do it; cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, biking. It makes me appreciate the summer a lot more. The summers are good, pretty similar to back home, where it’s 20° or 30° during the day. Although it could be five degrees, too.
I love mountain biking in the summer – I can go for a ride at 8pm after work and it’s still light for hours. But I love riding in winter, too. I never had any idea you could even do that, ride on trails that are covered in hard packed snow, which is basically riding on ice. If you’ve got good snow studs on your tyres, you can do it. Riding in the river valley in the city, I’ve seen deer, lots of birds, a moose.
Is moose meat good in a pie?
It’s very lean and more gamey but quite similar to the flavour of beef. I simmered it for about two-and-a-half to three hours and it was very tender.
For me, it was never about the late-night pie after the pub. I was always into bakery pies, always visiting new bakeries and tasting new pies, looking for the best. The Burwood Bakery in Christchurch was one of my favourites.
My first pie memory was at Bromley School, east of downtown Christchurch, in 1980. I’d place my order with the classroom teacher and the school caretaker would heat the pies for everyone. Also, my mum would make a big 9 x 13-inch bacon and egg pie and we’d have it cold at the beach on a Saturday.
The ones I make are not petrol-station pies or factory pies, these taste like the pies Mum makes.
Who buys them?
It turns out there are many more Kiwis and Aussies in Edmonton than I thought. Most weeks, I meet new ones at the market and see their eyes light up. Or people who’ve travelled to Australia or New Zealand. There’s a lot of word of mouth. I have the old faithfuls, the same people who come back to buy a dozen pies every week. Some people buy for their older single parents, as an easy meal. I’ve had to educate the Canadians. The idea of a single-serve pie is pretty unique here; a pie is normally sweet and larger, so it’s cut into slices and shared.
What’s the top seller?
The big hit has been steak and mushroom, with the chicken, cranberry and camembert a close second. We also do a limited edition pie; this month it’s a Ned Kelly, which is a steak pie with an egg cracked on top. I also do a mac and cheese and bacon – the Canadians love it.
It’s definitely growing. We have some outlets in Calgary now and this year we’re adding a whole heap more. I’ve teamed up with people who make dumplings and ice cream and we have a stall together in West Edmonton Mall. We’re three individual companies, but we’re working together to open retail space and a commercial kitchen downtown, too. My goal is to get the pies into supermarkets. We’ve already had a bit of local press and that helps. We were voted among the top 100 things to eat in the city by local foodie magazine Tomato.
Will you ever come back to New Zealand?
My mother passed away in 2009 and a lot of cousins have moved to Australia, so I think I’ll stay here. My mum, she’d be very, very proud of what I’m doing. My nana passed away the February before last, but [before then] every time I’d go home, I had to make a couple of different pies for her and she loved that. I was there last in November 2016. Maybe when I’m retired, we’ll live in New Zealand. Business is keeping me here now.
This was published in the June 2018 issue of North & South.