Wednesday 5 September 2012

Mysterious Pies of the Baltic (Part 2)

The pie-making entrepreneur of Gdynia in 2006
Last week, I recounted a strange 1994 encounter with Australian-style meat pies in Gdańsk, Poland. Next, in futuristic 2006, I meet their maker...

Gdynia is - how shall I put this? - not blessed with the charms of its neighbours in the coastal Tri-City, seaside resort Sopot and historic Gdańsk.

It’s the ugly sister of the three, a functional port city whose straight, no-nonsense streets are lined with blocky concrete buildings, evoking the gloomy stereotype of communist-era architecture.

But none of this was evident in the charmingly art deco setting of the Willa Lubicz. Here I met Beata Zielińska (pictured above), the fast food entrepreneur of the Baltic coast.

As we sat at a table in the hotel’s genteel cafe and ordered coffee, she explained why the paj.

Pies vs pies

“I couldn't make them under the English name, because ‘pies’ [when pronounced pee-es] means ‘dog’ in Polish,” she explained disarmingly. A sound reason, I agreed.

“In Adelaide, I went to a very nice pie factory, run by a Dutch man, and said ‘I want to learn how to make pies’,” she said. “I worked with him, and learned so much.

“We brought the pie tins over to Poland because they're specially shaped tins; if I'm running out of the tins, my family brings them on the way to visit me. If I'm going to try making a new flavour, I ask my son Martin ‘Can you bring a different shape?’”

Changing tastes

The venture was an initially successful one, but there’s no accounting for local tastes. Though she’d started out with a traditional Australian recipe, Beata found she had to tinker with perfection.

“I had to change them to suit Polish tastes,” she shrugged. “The paj australijski had a lot of gravy, but here they like it to be all meat.”

So could anyone achieve success in a similar way, by taking a unique Aussie foodstuff and adapting it to the palates of a foreign population?

Beata shook her head. “I meet a lot of people who come back from Australia, but not many stay. They think it'll be easy to make money here, but it's not. Just like in Australia, you have to work hard for your money.”

Émigré energy

I’ve never migrated to another country myself, but I have Sudanese friends who’ve settled in Australia via the long and stressful route taken by political refugees, and I marvel at the energy and drive they've applied to adapting to their new home.

Despite our relaxed chat over kawa and cake, I sensed something similarly determined beneath Beata’s surface.

Australia has benefited from its many Polish migrants over the years - from explorer Paul Strzelecki to the Solidarity refugees of the 1980s - so it was nice to imagine some of that migrant energy being traded back to its source.

As we left, I took a photo of a bumper sticker on Zielinska’s car, despite her protestations about its need for a wash.

Paj jest dobry i tani”, it read: “The pie is good and cheap”. Well, indeed. And my 1994 mystery was finally solved.

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