A bountiful batch of bakers will vie to win the top spot awarded in a land of lovers of crust-filled delights.

Anyone would think we're talking about a Michelin rating for gourmet food, not a pie competition, such is the fierce competition and intrigue.

But the great Kiwi pie-makers take it just as seriously, spending hours, weeks and months dreaming up mouthwatering combinations and adjusting the balance between perfect pastry and fabulous fillings.

And on July 16, they will be holding their breath and crossing their fingers while pie experts bite their way through thousands of entries.

From 6am the next day, bakers will stay near their phones, waiting to hear whether they have made the grade. Those selected for a category award will get a "golden phone call" inviting them to the Bakels New Zealand Supreme Pie Awards dinner.

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Although the awards register as little more than a sign on a bakery wall for most consumers, to the country's pie-makers, who fight hard to get the top gongs, they mean everything. Winning gives a bakery a huge publicity boost, the triumphant baker envied by those who may have entered year after year without success. About 550 bakeries are expected to submit 6,000 pies between them. Each baker must offer two examples of a pie in each category they enter.

Pies, it seems, are a serious business. Some even get poetic about it.

Wellington chef Martin Bosley describes a good pie as "a thing of beauty". They're certainly popular. New Zealanders eat millions every year, spending $110 million annually on meat pies and another $11m on fruit pies. The average Kiwi eats 12 pies a year.

Michael Kloeg of Clareville Bakery took the Supreme Pie Award last year with his hearty lamb cutlet and kumara mash pie. Photo / Lynda Feringa
Michael Kloeg of Clareville Bakery took the Supreme Pie Award last year with his hearty lamb cutlet and kumara mash pie. Photo / Lynda Feringa

Bosley says they are popular because they are egalitarian, easy to eat, and a complete meal in one tidy package. "You get people in suits on the run getting one and the guys on the side of the road taking a break having pies, too.

"For a brief moment in time, it does not matter who you are or what you do, nothing else matters when you have a decent pie."

With little encouragement, he'll tell you the secret of a truly great pie - a crisp, shortcrust pastry base, a golden, flaky puff-pastry lid with a crisp but slightly soft underside. A good dollop of filling and just enough sauce or gravy to slightly soak into the pastry but not so much it bursts as you take a bite.

Bosley should know. He is one of a panel of judges who will decide which is New Zealand's best pie.

Bosley was on his way to last year's supreme award-winning Clareville Bakery in Carterton to try their now famous lamb cutlet and kumara mash pie when he received the call asking him to judge this year's selection. Baker Michael Kloeg, who runs Clareville Bakery with wife Rose, sells his winning pie for $10. It is garnished with the cutlet bone sticking through the pastry lid.

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Kloeg says competition is intense. Gold, silver and bronze winners are selected in each category. The gold winner in each goes on to compete for the supreme prize.

"It's a terribly, terribly hard competition to win," Kloeg says. "There is a massive amount of entries. If you go on Facebook the day after the judging everyone is trying to work out who has received the phone call to go up to the awards.

"It's known in the industry as the golden phone call. Every bakery wants to find out who has got one."

Competition is so fierce that top bakers say competitors go undercover to gather pie intel. Kloeg spots people coming into his bakery whom he suspects are other bakers scoping the competition.

"If you're not getting a phone call you want to find out what kind of pie gets the phone call."

Shane Kearns and his wife Kathy were the winners of the NZ Supreme Pie Awards for their fruity port, plum and apple pie in 2012. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Shane Kearns and his wife Kathy were the winners of the NZ Supreme Pie Awards for their fruity port, plum and apple pie in 2012. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Kathy and Shane Kearns of Viands Bakery in Te Awamutu won the supreme award in 2012 with their gingered peach and pear with Cointreau creation, their second win with a sweet pie. The previous year, the couple took out the classic meat pie, winning the supreme award for their spiced plum, port and apple pie, doubling their turnover in the first week after the win.

Kathy is entering every category this year but won't reveal what she has planned. Shane has noticed people coming into the bakery to photograph her pies and buying samples, trying to work out what might give Viands an edge.

Sometimes they pinch ideas. "That's okay. To a certain degree everyone does it," says Kathy.

Kloeg is not afraid to tell people how he makes his prizewinning pieces because it is the technique that really makes a pie stand out. He got the cutlet bone idea for last year's winning pie from baker friends in Australia. "I thought, 'That's never been done before in New Zealand. I'll give that a go'."

Sometimes even a good curry from his local takeaway will inspire him. Not every baker is willing to give away secrets, he says. Some are a little more "stand-offish".

Cartoonist Peter Bromhead says he is well placed to judge a good pie. Photo / Ted Baghurst
Cartoonist Peter Bromhead says he is well placed to judge a good pie. Photo / Ted Baghurst

Chances are you have eaten a pie recently, even if you would rather not admit it. They are the ultimate diet-breaker, a naughty pastry indulgence. And most of us have heard a distasteful rumour or two about the true contents of a traditional meat pie.

A good pie can develop a serious following. Auckland cartoonist Peter Bromhead, who considers himself a bit of a pie connoisseur, is particularly fond of the venison pies from Arrowtown Bakery and Cafe.

He has been known to bring back pies every time he travels south, to distribute as souvenirs.

"They're just excellent pies," he says. "Venison stewed in red wine, and they are not expensive." Bromhead says he is well placed to judge a good pie. Earlier in his career, working at the Auckland Star, he was tasked with eating two dozen to choose Auckland's best mince pie.

These days, he says the best mince pie in Auckland is in Drury. "Strangely I find the meat pies I can buy in places like that are cheaper and better quality than you can get in Parnell."

Arrowtown Bakery and Cafe owner Stephanie Denton says Bromhead's favourite pie is a hit with a lot of tourists. But she has never won an award for them, despite entering four times, and won't be entering this year.

Food historian Andre Tabar spent a month travelling the country visiting bakeries and eating pies for his book The Great New Zealand Pie Guide. He was not a big pie fan before the trip but is now an expert.

Americans are bewildered at the idea of a meat-filled pie. Photo / Thinkstock
Americans are bewildered at the idea of a meat-filled pie. Photo / Thinkstock

Pies have been made here since the first European settlers arrived, Tabar says. The earliest newspaper pie advertisement he can find is from 1863. Cheese in meat pies became common in the 1970s.

But New Zealanders aren't the only ones tucking in. Brits and Australians eat as many as we do. Only Americans are bewildered at the idea of a meat-filled pie.

What we like in our pies seems to vary depending on which part of the country we are in. Tabar says seafood pies are prevalent in Auckland, Northland and Coromandel. In Nelson there are more game-meat pies, with craft beer fillings. In Otago, Scottish mutton pies are common.

The pie awards are now in their 19th year and Brent Kersel, managing director of Bakels NZ, says the approach to baking a Kiwi meat pie has changed a lot.

Where once cheap cuts of meat would have been used, boiled into oblivion and then liberally salted - before being slapped into a pastry case, modern bakers now choose lean cuts, lower-fat pastry and whip the fat off the top of the filling as it's cooking.

More care is paid to the cooking process, too. Bakers of the best pies braise their cuts of steak, make a chicken roux rather than white sauce for their chicken pies and ensure the vegetables are blanched properly.

Since 1999, New Zealand's best pie has been a traditional mince and cheese or steak only a few times.

Other winners have included Viand's sweet creations; creamy bacon, mushroom and cheese; carrot, silverbeet, broccoli, red capsicum and cauliflower in white sauce and caramel baby pears in a vanilla pastry cream.

Kloeg, who grew up making pies in his parents' bakery, says 10-15 years ago butter chicken pies began to appear. "People started adding new things to their recipes. Now you get all sorts - steak and blue cheese, anything you put in a main meal can go in a pie."

Even traditional favourites get a new twist. "Take the bacon and egg pie. Now, we put with the bacon and egg a slow-roasted tomato and add a bit of nutmeg because that goes well with egg.

"You don't want to make one that is just average or good. You want people to say, 'That was really, really nice'."

Over the years, the number of categories has expanded to 12 to cater for New Zealanders' growing willingness to try something new. This year, a new category is more traditional - the humble potato-topped pie.

Potato-top pies are known in the UK and Canada as cottage pies and originated at the end of the 16th-century. Kersel says logistics have previously kept them out of the competition. Pies are sent for blind judging in a standard pie box and potato-top pies were too tall, but this year new boxes have been used.

Tim Aspinall, pie award veteran and chief judge for three years, says the change in trends has been noticeable. "In past years we've had entries of pork and puha, pork and watercress, a myriad of sweet pies and last year the impressive lamb cutlet pie took away the supreme award.

"It's always interesting to see what the competition turns up as our bakers continue to push the boundaries."