Thursday 30 August 2012

Mysterious Pies of the Baltic (Part 1)

Gdańsk was beautiful, sure... but who
was cooking up its mysterious pies?
It looked like a pie. It tasted like a pie. But what was a dinky-di Aussie meat pie doing in a Polish city on the Baltic coast?

The place: Gdańsk.

The year: 1994, only five years since the Solidarity trade union had swept Poland’s communist regime from power.

The month: November, in the week containing All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

As most of the week was a public holiday in Poland, Narrelle and I had some time off our English language teaching jobs to visit the Baltic port city of Gdańsk.

Enter the paj

And this is when we came upon the pie, at one of the many food kiosks scattered around the centre of the city. Or I should say the paj, for that was its Polish spelling, close to “pie” in pronunciation.

Intrigued by the sight of these familiar-looking objects in what appeared to be classic pie-warmer ovens, we proceeded to a taste test. They were much – but not exactly – like an Australian meat pie. 

Square or round, the right size, but with slightly thicker pastry and solid mince fillings sans gravy. And presumably made of pork rather than beef... but still eerily similar.

Pie mania

I’m ashamed to admit that in the following days we went on a paj-eating frenzy, consuming significant numbers of them. Call it research. But more honestly, call it nostalgia – we’d been away from Australia for two and a half years at this point, the sort of time period that has expats’ eyes inexplicably moistening at the thought of Vegemite.

Tasty as they were, these pajs were a conundrum, though definitely bearing an  Australian connection. One of them was handed over in a paper bag bearing the legend paj australijski, which translated to “Australian Pie”. 

At that point I really was intrigued, but there was no time to unravel the mystery, and in any case my Polish wasn’t up to quizzing stallholders on the provenance of their products.

The legend of the pie

But it turned out the puzzle could, like a cheap milk bar pie, be left on the top shelf for quite some time while still staying warm. Twelve years later I returned to Poland, now a travel writer on an assignment for Lonely Planet.

Researching the Poland chapter in the Eastern Europe book, I was obliged to cover the entire country over several weeks in sub-zero temperatures, thanks to the unseasonable dictates of publishing schedules.

The paj was low in my priorities, but not quite forgotten. Before leaving home I’d done a quick Web search, locating, to my mild surprise, the company that manufactured them in Gdynia, north of Gdańsk.

Their mysterious creator and convenience food mastermind
agreed to tell me all about them when we met at the bar of the Willa Lubicz, a posh hotel on a hill with a view of the Baltic Sea...

Next: The story of the Polish-Aussie pies continues, as I learn about the Dutch guru, the trouble with gravy, and the reason why 'pies' isn't a good look in Polish... [click here to continue]

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