The pie floater is an Australian dish particularly common in Adelaide and, to a lesser degree, Sydney.
The Pie Floater (or, as some experts call it - 'Floater') is a meal available in Australia, which commonly consists of a traditional Australian-style meat pie, usually sitting, but sometimes submerged (sometimes upside down) in a bowl of thick pea soup. It is usually garnished with tomato sauce, and the pie-eater may also add mint sauce, salt, pepper and/or malt vinegar as a personal preference.
The pie floater can be made easily at home but was often purchased in the street from pie-carts as a late evening meal.
The addition of the pea soup provides extra flavour and dietary fibre, and extends what otherwise may be considered a snack to a full meal. High profile fans of the pie floater are: Anthony Bourdain, Joe Cocker, Billy Connolly, Nigel Mansell, Shane Warne, Angus Young and Hugh Jackman.
Clearly, culinary licence is taken over the degree to which the pie is submerged, and consistency of the soup.
The floater was originally served 'fresh' from a mobile pie cart on the streets of Adelaide. It is a connection which would ultimately help launch the dish into history.
To this day, most Adelaideans of a certain generation would have an enduring memory of the Balfour's Pie Cart outside the Railway Station on North Terrace in the CBD.
In 2003, the National Trust of Australia recognised the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon.
Pie Floater Origins
The origin of the Pie Floater 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.
Ern Bradley operated a bakery in Port Pirie and, from 1914, advertised an evening coffee stall in the Port Pirie Recorder. This may have been a pie cart like the ones that operated in Adelaide from the 1860s onwards. It was positioned near the Casino cinema, and Bradley invited patrons to “slip across to the Coffee stall and have Good Supper”. He offered “Hot Pies and Pasties and a Specialty. Hot Saveloys, Rolls and Floaters.
Whether it is an original South Australian creation or an idea borrowed from abroad, there's no question it has become "Adelaide's own".
History tells us pastry-cook James Gibbs emigrated to Adelaide from Scotland in the 1880s and set up one of the original pie carts on the corner of King William and Rundle streets.
He had worked at a brewery by day for six years to pay for his venture.
The Floater became a popular dish at the many pie carts that operated in Adelaide in the late 19th and early 20th century. At the turn of the century, there were 13 carts operating in the city. However from the late 1930s, as the operators ceased trading, the Adelaide City Council refused to re-issue licenses and by 1958 only two remained. The last pie cart was closed in 2010, but the pie floater is available through bakeries, including several 24-hour establishments, so late-night revellers can get their floater fix. (update below)
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.
The Pie Floater returns to Adelaide’s streets (2016)
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 this most famous of kerbside delicacies. 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.
Vili's now has Pie Carts available for hire to service various functions. The Pie Carts have the capacity to hold up to 1,800 hot products, with ice tubs for drinks and large service areas. The carts are ideal for large scale events where you need to serve many people with minimal fuss. They are now available for hire in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
An interesting fact…. The pie carts were used at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games for the majority of the sporting events.
Pie Floater Variations
Click on the links below for some variations of this iconic Australian dish...
Pie Floater Recipe
If you're finding it hard to find a Pie Floater from a pie cart or your local restaurant then you can make it easily at home. Here's how it's done...
- An Aussie meat pie
- A can of Mushy Peas (or mash your own with some butter)
- A good helping of mashed potato (optional)
- Your favourite gravy (optional)
- Tomato Sauce (or BBQ or Worcestershire sauce)
- Heat your pie (microwave or oven)
- Prepare your pea soup or slurry
- Option 1. Place your heated pie in a large bowl and pour over the peas
- Option 2. Place your peas in the bowl and sit the pie on top (upright or upside down - it's up to you)
- Pour gobs of sauce over the pie
- Eat & enjoy
- Add a big dollop of mashed spuds to the top of the pie
- Pour on heaps of gravy
If you want to see how it's done the check out Greggo's slap-happy video recipe below.
Video: Greggo from Greg's Kitchen whips up an Aussie Pie Floater meal with a slight twist - mashed potato and gravy piled high on top.