There is a whole lot of pie out there. Not just the traditional American apple pie, though that’s definitely one of the best. We’re talking about the whole wide world of pie, from Iceland to Indonesia, with little stops along the way. Let’s travel:
While we could scour the earth for the best fruit pies, I’m going to just go ahead and say it: the best fruit pies in the world are here in the United States. I’m biased toward berry pies and peach pie.
My grandmother in Parsons, Kansas makes the most incredible blackberry pie and gooseberry pie, but I’m not giving you her address. Aside from Grandma Nora’s pies, the best fruit pie I’ve ever had was a cranberry raspberry pie at Dottie’s Hometown Cafe in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Every day they sell the standard pies–peach, apple, blueberry, etc., but they also have seasonal pies. Raspberries grow like crazy in northern Minnesota, so if you’re up in those woods you have to get yourself a raspberry pie in late summer.
Most people claim that places like Vermont and Maine have the best pies, but I imagine any place with lots of trees and cold winters have great fruit pies. It seems counter-intuitive that fruit and cold weather would go together, but it makes sense when you think about ways to use all the canned fruit from the summer.
Mince pies don’t have the same popularity in the United States as they do in Europe. While they were originally a Middle-Eastern import into the UK, where they were a mixture of meat and fruit, today they’re rather small, filled with a puree of raisins, apples, apricots, candied citrus peels, and spices.
The UK has boasted the best mince pies in the world until recently; now Iceland claims the prize. These aren’t pies that you’d discover as you stroll the streets of Reykjavik, however. You have to buy them at a department store or online where they come in a box of 12, and they sell for £1.50. All you math geniuses have already calculated: that’s $.19 a pie.
Handheld Savory Pies
You can find a version of a handheld “pie” in dozens of countries. The pasty is a British handheld pie filled with a delicious combination of meat and root vegetables. The upper Midwest in the US is famous for its pasties (there’s a pasty festival in Michigan every year).
I prefer South Asian samosas–deep fried pockets of spicy potatoes and vegetables. I had the best samosa I’ve ever had from a street vendor in Kathmandu, Nepal. I ate it out of a piece of greasy newspaper, and relished every nibble. My favorite way to eat a samosa is samosa chat, a samosa smothered in garbanzo beans and sauce.
Another handheld pie worth mentioning is the empanada. While empanadas originated in Portugal, there are now versions of the pastry in every country that encountered Spanish or Portuguese imperialism. Sometimes it’s deep-fried. Sometimes it’s baked. And you can find them filled with any possible meat, vegetable, fruit, or cheese combination imaginable. If you’re headed to Argentina, which many people associate with the empanada, the competition is stiff for the best empanada in Buenos Aires.
Custard pies are a close second in popularity to fruit pies in the United States. Lemon meringue, coconut cream, french silk. I could go on and on. Just swing by the nearest Village Inn and peruse their pie case.
But let’s talk about the key lime pie. It’s so uniquely American, in a weird sort of Close to Cuba way. As you probably know, key limes are tiny delicate limes that grow in the Florida Keys. Because access to fresh milk was nearly impossible on the Florida Keys before refrigeration, the pie is made with sweetened condensed milk, which, when combined with key lime juice and egg, makes an insanely rich, sweet, and tart pie. Some people serve it with meringue, others with whipped cream.
When I was a kid we lived in Tampa for a while, and my favorite key lime pie was at Frenchy’s. This was a long time ago, but I imagine their pie is still as delicious as I remember.
Another unique custard pie that I love is always available on the dessert cart when I go to dim sum at Star Kitchen in Denver. This egg tart is a tiny custard pie that first made its way to China in the 1920s, and the art of perfecting the egg tart has become an incredibly competitive endeavor in parts of Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
While shepherd’s pie (cottage pie) lacks the pastry crust that pie-lovers love, it’s still one of my favorite. You can make it with any type of meat, but purists often claim that it should be mutton or lamb only. Combine that with vegetables and herbs, top it with mashed potatoes, and bake it. It is so, so good.
The British Bulldog, a bar that serves both English and Pakistani food, has my favorite shepherd’s pie in Colorado. Creamy mashed potatoes, vegetables, and meat, topped with gravy. I’ve tried my hand at making a vegetarian version, and I have to say it’s pretty good. I top mine with cheddar cheese before baking it because, well, I love dairy.
Indonesia has its own version of shepherd’s pie, Pastel Tutup, which is kind of like a chicken pot pie (which I sadly neglect in the post), topped with mashed potatoes instead of pastry crust. While I’ve never tried one, some recipes call for chicken and sausage, as well as the traditional frozen vegetables you’d find in most chicken pot pies.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all pie, but every time I travel I try to discover a new type of pie or indulge in an old familiar one. Food tourism can either be the focus of your travels, or an added bonus to a trip you’re already taking. I like to think that I travel for other reasons, but food really is 90% of it.