The 'Pie Floater', Adelaide’s most famous culinary contribution?

At Play Cultural Heart Our Wellbeing

Doesn’t that photo of a traditional South Australian pie floater just make your mouth water? 

Tender beef chunks in a rich gravy, encased in golden, flaky pastry, up-ended in a steaming hot bowl of hearty, green pea soup. Optional condiments, often applied liberally, include tomato sauce, vinegar or Worcestershire sauce.

OK, I guess you’re right: it does look like an unappetising floating blob of mush, half-submerged in a bowl of inedible green gruel. 

But believe me when I say that its unsophisticated appearance belies its delectability. 

It's also important to understand that the gastronomic satisfaction achieved from devouring a pie floater is directly proportional to the number of alcoholic beverages one has consumed beforehand.

And there’s no need for etiquette with pie floaters: tradition dictates that they must be eaten whilst standing up, one hand cradling the bowl close to the mouth, while the other works a spoon-like utensil in a scooping motion. Frontal spillage and a burnt roof of the mouth are the inevitable consequences of partaking of this South Australian delight.

The most famous of South Australian epicurean contributions?

Haigh's Chocolate? Coffin Bay Oysters? Barossa Reds?

Nah mate, it's the pie floater.

- Bloke on his way home from the footy

Long feted as a traditional South Australian dish, the National Trust of Australia recognised the pie floater as a 'South Australian Heritage Icon' in 2003.

The origin of the dish is attributed to our British roots, where ‘pea and pie supper’ and ‘floaters’ (dumplings in soup) are traditional Yorkshire dishes. Historical sources suggest that the South Australian pie floater was first sold at the turn of the 20th century by Port Pirie baker, Ern ‘Shorty’ Bradley, who operated an evening coffee stall advertising ‘floaters’ for theatre-goers.

Pie floaters have traditionally been served from city and metropolitan horse and hand-drawn pie carts and vans, which were a fixture of the city of Adelaide as far back as the 1860s. The central business district supported up to 13 pie carts in the 1880s, suggesting that Adelaideans were partial to a pie, there was dearth of alternative cuisines, and the city centre was awash with inebriated people with the 'munchies'.

A South Australian Heritage Icon

Pie cart north terrace
photo-icon The Advertiser

The North Terrace pie cart in 1982. Source: The Advertiser

Adelaides first pie cart
photo-icon The Advertiser

In recent times, however, purveyors of the pie floater have dwindled. The pie carts became less common and in 1958, the city was served by just two carts – the Cowley’s pie cart in Victoria Square outside the Adelaide General Post Office; and the Balfours pie cart on North Terrace outside the Adelaide Railway Station. The Balfours cart was forced to close in 2007 when the Glenelg tram was extended past the railway station. The last surviving regular pie cart, the Cowley’s cart, closed in 2010.

Where have all the pie carts gone?

In 2016, local baker Vili’s revived the pie floater with a football match day pie cart in the city, although sadly this was short-lived. Some suburban bakeries thankfully continue to offer pie floaters and there are some up-market versions available at various pubs around town.

For our New South Wales brethren, there’s an inferior version of the South Australian pie floater served at Cafe de Wheels in Woolloomooloo, but it’s not a patch on the ‘real thing’.

Will we see the return of the pie cart and the pie floater to Adelaide in the future? Hopefully Adelaideans will again be given the opportunity to partake of our most famous of kerbside delicacies, at our most egalitarian of eateries.

Pie cart north terrace
photo-icon The Advertiser
Cowleys pie cart outside GPO City Archives
photo-icon City of Adelaide Archives (reference 6376.01.0005)

Article by

Clayton Wehner

Clayton Wehner

Clayton is what you would call 'middle aged', but acts like he's much younger, despite little encouragement to do so from others around him. He's a family man with two 'clowns', a border collie that won't stop chewing, and a long-suffering wife. Clayton likes craft beer, Dad jokes, 'nerding out' on a computer, singing 'Chantilly Lace' by the Big Bopper, recounting Army tales from days of yore, and tip-toeing along the fine line between tasteful and distasteful. He's a fan of true crime books, railways, Ben Folds, Indian food, and staying under 100kg.