The Cornish Pasty

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Pasty rolled out like a plate,
Piled with "turmut, tates and mate."
Doubled up, and baked like fate,
That's a "Cornish Pasty."
(An old rhyme from over Breage way!)

Perhaps Cornwall's most well known export of recent years is the pasty, it is now almost as ubiquitous throughout the UK as the sandwich and has sprouted a whole variety of fillings from beef and stilton to chicken tikka.
However, the wide range of fillings used in pasties is not a new thing. It is said that the Devil had never crossed the Tamar into Cornwall, on account of the well known habit of Cornish women of putting everything into a pasty, and that he was not sufficiently courageous to risk such a fate! Traditional fillings include:

  • Cornish pasty (Beef, potatoe and turnip)
  • Eggy pasty (Bacon and egg)
  • Jam pasty
  • Mackerel pasty
  • Rabbitty pasty (Rabit)
  • Parsley pasty (Lamb and parsley)
  • Rice pasty (Like rice pudding but in a pasty)
  • Sour sauce pasty (Sorrel leaves)
  • Star-gazing or starry-gazey pasty (Usually a whole herring wrapped in pastry with its head sticking out one end!)
  • Windy pasty (Left over pasty pastry baked and served with jam and cream)

Cornish pasty
Cornish pasty

A breif history of the pasty

Although now irreversibly associated with Cornwall, the pasty is thought to date back to the 13th century when it was not exclusively eaten in Cornwall. In fact it was a dish more associated with the nobility than the working classes and often filled with game such as venison or salmon. It has been said that Henry VIII's wife, Jane Seymour was known to be partial to a pasty now and again.
It was not until the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century that the pasty became the Cornish pasty. Being the ultimate hand-held convenience food with its crimped pastry to hold it by made it ideal for miners' "croust" or lunch as the rest of us call it!

Back in those days each member of the family had their own pasty baked for them and marked with their initial. The correct way to eat the pasty is to start at the opposite end to the initial, so that should any of it be uneaten, it could be consumed later by its rightful owner - and woe betide anyone who takes another person's "corner"!

Another pasty tradition that has more or less died out is that of having a meat filling in one end of the pasty and a sweet course at one end, containing fruit, jam or treacle. Indeed a 1905 dialect dDictionary defined a pasty as "a meat and potato or fruit turnover (Cornwall)". Possibly not a bad thing you don't see those these days, but then again I guess it beats having a fish head sticking out of one end and the tail out the other!!

Since then the Cornish miners who left to find work in the four corners of the world (the Cornish Diaspora) introduced the pasty to places such as USA, Australia, South Africa and South America. Indeed in some regions they are almost as proud of their pasties as we are here in Cornwall.

But this wasn't the end of the global spread of the pasty. If figures are to be beleived pasties are now one of the Duchy's biggest exports. Recent figures put the total pasty revenue within the Duchy at £150 million per year, with 90 per cent of the pasties produced being sold over the Tamar Bridge.

Recipe for Cornish Pasty

Any good pastry may be used but it should not be too flaky as it'll leak nor too rich. A very useful pastry is:
1lb flour, 1/2 lb lard and suet, 1/2 teapoonful salt, mix with water.

When pastry is made, roll out about 1/4 inch thick, and cut into rounds with a plate to the size desired.

For the filling use beef (usually a cheap cut such as chuck or skirt), potatoes, onions, and swede (or in Cornwall, turnip). Tradition states that the meat must be chopped and the vegetables sliced. Add a little salt and black pepper to taste.

Lay the rounds on the pastry board with half the round over the rolling pin and put in the filling, damp the edges lightly and fold over into a semi-circle. Shape the pasty neatly and "crimp" the extreme edges where it is joined between the finger and thumb. Cut a slit in the centre of the pasty, lay on a baking sheet and bake in a hot oven so it keeps its shape (approx 40 minutes at 450 F)

Pastie myth and legend

Perhaps the best known pasty superstition is that held by fishermen who beleive it to be bad luck to take a pasty on a boat. I can state from experience that it's definitely bad luck to go surfing right after eating a pasty!!

Another legend is that miners would leave the corners of their pasties for the 'knockers', a mischievious, leprechaun folk who lived and caused all manner of trouble down the mines if they weren't kept happy with such offerings

The future of the pasty

Since the recent explosion of popularity the pasty has enjoyed it is sad to point out that many of the articles sold as Cornish pasties are not quite up to the name. However, this might be about to change under new EU directives. At present the pasty is being considered for the status of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) which will mean that any pasty sold as a "Cornish pasty" will have to have been made within the county.