By Rebecca Musgrave
Bibiana Binstorfer and Caroline Aitken have taken on a truly noble challenge: Introducing the humble pie to Austria. And by both the sounds and the looks of it, on your average Tuesday afternoon, they are succeeding. Almost everywhere in the world that the British have been to, they appear to have left behind a pie legacy, passing on a passion for pastry in New Zealand, the Americas, Australia and beyond. For some reason however it never seemed to quite reach Vienna. Until now.
If nothing else, the smell of The Pie Factory, located on Spitalgasse in the heart of Vienna’s student land, should be enough to lure you through its doors. Creeping out from under the door comes the most magnificent smell of baking and butter reminiscent of my favourite local pie making institution, Newens, in England. There is something wonderfully comforting and nostalgic about pies and something even more wonderful about having that humble slice of British culture (or pie shall we say) here in Austria’s capital.
Childhood friends Caroline (41) and Bibiana (40) opened The Pie Factory in Vienna in May 2011. Having left Austria and travelled around the world working in the food industry for most of their adult lives, they had cooked and come across pies in all shapes and forms. On returning to Vienna in 2009 the two decided to go into business together, contemplating opening up a soup shop but eventually settling on pies. As the German language doesn’t even have a direct translation of the word “pie” it was safe to say that it was a part of the market that was yet to be cornered. “It is after all just meat, vegetables and pastry” Caroline and Bibiana explained, something they didn’t think could be too hard a product to introduce to the discerning Austrian public.
From day one the pies were a hit, flying off the shelves faster than they could get them in the oven. Despite having prepared enough pastry and filling for three days, their first day of opening saw them eaten out of house and home. With a big range of fillings both savoury and sweet the pies appear to have a universal appeal, bringing in customers young, old, local and foreign alike. The number of accents and languages which could be heard coming to pick up a pie on my first visit was quite astounding each of whom, much to my amusement, appeared to fulfil their countries’ individual stereotype. There was the American who had been a big fan since the shop opened for business, coming for his regular pecan pie fix, the Dublin contingent doing the steak and Guinness pie run for the barmen in the local Irish pub and the Austrian who opted for the Kartoffelgulasch filled pie, just to be on the safe side.
“We wanted to ease the Austrians gently into the pie thing so created a new traditional Austrian pie filling every month,” explained Bibiana. But with students frequently forming queues outside the shop and others travelling from Lower Austria to Vienna with the sole purpose of picking up some of their pies, Austrians do not seem to be too daunted by the more British fillings. “There are pies all over the world. The concept is British but what you put in them doesn’t have to be,” said Caroline, whose menu more or less reflects the course taken in her own adventurous life.
Having spent eight years in Singapore and travelled in South East Asia, before living in South Africa, pies with curry or at least a bit of a kick are an absolute must for Caroline and feature on the menu which changes its meat and vegetarian options every two months. What doesn’t change on their savoury selection however is the Pie Factory’s signature smiley face appearing on each perfectly prepared pie, something which, in turn, never fails to put a grin on each and every hungry customers face. “On a purely practical note it helps us identify what each one has in it,” said Caroline.
Despite having seats for about 10 people, the Pie Factory is fundamentally a take away shop, creating what they like to call “fast slow food”. “It is food that has been cooked slowly and carefully but is just as quick to grab at lunch as a kebab and a lot healthier.” The gastro-fashionable industrial interior is however a very pleasant place to sit if you are lucky enough to get a seat. The pies are served on smart clean white china and with proper cutlery, something which the high quality product certainly warrants. The chunky wooden tables, steal overhead lights and black and white prints reflect the industrial “factory” element yet it is a sufficiently cosy environment to lap up the smell of cooking pastry and of course to enjoy the wholesome pie.
And it seems that the Austrians do in fact know how to prepare a seriously impressive pie. The pastry was crisp, golden and rich, something which is nigh on impossible to achieve with homemade puff pastry and even more impressive, it was not soggy. Bibiana and Caroline sell the pies priced at just 3.95 Euros, at such a rate that the filling does not sit inside the freshly baked pastry cases long enough for it to get mushy, a fate suffered by so many honourable pie efforts.
Thankfully, what lies in side is just as praiseworthy. The fabulous “Chicken Deluxe”, a traditional mix of root vegetables, white wine, chicken and herbs, takes the so often insipid regular chicken pie, associated with British canteens, and gives it a whole new lease of life. The filling is fresh, colourful, packed full of flavour and more comforting than anything else, each individual ingredient is easily identifiable, not overcooked beyond recognition.
January and February’s “G’standener Pie” of Kartoffelgulasch with debrecner, a family recipe from Bibiana’s mother, certainly packs a punch. The fiery paprikary sausage and potatoes work, much to my surprise, perfectly with the rich pastry and is a very welcome Austro-Hungarian addition to the already international menu of Thai Red Veggie Curry, Chili con Carne and Pepper Steak Pies.
Anyone visiting the Pie Factory however is well advised not to fill up too much on the irresistible savoury treats as the sweet that follow are just as incredible. The warm Chocolate Pistachio Tart left me and my companion speechless. Somewhere between a soufflé, a mouse and a brownie, the tart with its sprinkling of salty sweet bright green pistachios on top, was every wonderful chocolate indulgence rolled into one. For those wanting to enjoy one more spoonful of nostalgia however the cherry crumble fits the bill. Warm, sweet and tangy, a mini homemade fruit crumble that you are guaranteed to finish no matter how many feeble attempts you make to put your spoon down. Whilst I’d rather not admit to trying yet another pie, it would be a travesty to not say that I also sampled a modest morsel of the pecan pie, Bibiana’s favourite, and it was quite spectacular.
Whilst the pies are perhaps not a light lunch snack or a substitute for a quick sandwich, they are a good value, fresh alternative to so many fast food products. “It is not diet food but it is good wholesome, meat and two vegetables with no hidden ingredients. For parents in a rush, who haven’t had time to cook dinner for the kids there is nothing out there and a hearty pie is a seriously healthy alternative to Mc Donald’s and the guilty conscience that comes with it,” said Caroline.
And with hopes of expanding and breaking into the frozen pie market, fans may soon be able to have Caroline and Bibiana’s homemade produce at hand in the freezer at home.
As someone who enjoyed steak and kidney and apple pie when growing up, it is a joy to see pie being so well received here in Austria. Whilst the word “pyes” may first have appeared in England sometime during the twelfth century, the Pie Factory in Vienna is by no means British. It is run by two enterprising Austrian mothers, as loveable as the pies themselves, and is the bringing together of endless traditions and ingredients all under one flaky pastry roof.
For more information and to call ahead to guarantee your favourite pie visit: http://www.thepiefactory.at/