In my two months in Arrowtown, I realize I haven’t shared a lot about where I work. I am planning on summing up the whole experience in a post some time soon (some time after I’ve left, that is), but there are a few things it’s worth sharing now. Like the various foods we stock.
Let’s talk about something that could easily qualify as New Zealand’s national dish: pie. In NZ, “pie” doesn’t mean the same thing as it would mean to you or me back home. In fact, you should see the confused look on tourists’ faces when I have to explain to them that no, we don’t sell apple pie, or blueberry pie, or peach cobbler. “But I thought you were famous for your pies!” they insist. And we are: for our venison, lamb and mint, and dozens of other meat-filled little pastry pots baked throughout the day and doled out with a surprising lack of judgment by yours truly.
See, pies in New Zealand are more like what we’d call shepherd’s pie in the States. They are part of the national consciousness, the Kiwi identity, and a staple of the late-night diet. I cannot tell you how many Aucklanders have come back to the bakery 10 minutes after devouring a steak-bacon-and-cheese number to tell me it was the best pie they’ve ever had. Not to mention visitors from Germany, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Canada — these pies get around.
Our pies are made throughout the day and kept in a pie warmer, which is this charming little contraption you see above — the one that looks as if it’s riddled with tetanus and jagged glass edges. Inside, the top of each pie is marked with a symbol so that we know what they are. How do you tell the difference between a hot-n-spicy chicken, a steak-n-cheese, and a butter chicken pie? I hold the answers.
Pies are shuffled out with tongs and shimmied into little brown-paper sleeves, which immediately turn translucent with steaming grease and leave an oily sheen on our countertop. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much people love these things, and the lengths to which they will travel and lines they will endure to get them specifically from this bakery.
Here’s the skinny on custard squares: they’re two layers of flaky pastry with what amounts to a less-flavorful Jello vanilla pudding sandwiched in between, and topped with coconut. Sounds pretty harmless, right? Maybe even day-brightening — I mean, just look at that sunshiney color! But good God — how can something so innocuous-seeming, even so delicious-sounding, make my days so very, very infuriating?
For so many reasons, really. Starting with the fact that these suckers are messy. No one can eat them, let alone try to package them, without ending up looking like a toddler at lunchtime. Because the coconut? It falls off all over the place in horizontal blizzards each time you move the tray. And the custard, it sticks to everything, but is partial to the edges and sides of the bag you’re trying to place it in. Picture trying to place a ship in a bottle once it’s already been assembled. Got it? Now picture the ship’s sails being made of fly paper. Now imagine instead of a bottle, it’s a snow globe. That’s what it’s like bagging up a custard square.
And no one ever wants just one. They say they’re “not very hungry” and they “might just grab… a custard square. Actually, you’d better make that seven.”
Cheese rolls are, I’m told, unique to the South Island. Customers come into the cafe all the time asking if we make “real, South-Island cheese rolls.” Which apparently means, do we microwave budget-brand cheese and milk together, add onion and mustard powder, spread it on a slice of white bread, roll it like a Cinnabon and grill it up with butter? Why yes, we do. And if the smell of the sauce didn’t nauseate me to the point of actually volunteering to make ham sandwiches in the mornings rather than slathering the molten sauce on bread, I might try one.
I know. They’re not round. There are no holes. They’re piped with fluffy lines of whipped cream. They have nothing in common, you could even argue, with doughnuts, so why call them that? Who cares? These things are melt-in-your-mouth, ask-for-seconds, take-extra-napkins good.