A Cornish pasty history lesson for Cornish pasty week 2020
Ask anyone in Cornwall where to find the best Cornish pasty and, chances are, you’ll receive a myriad of different answers. It’s a hotly contested topic around these parts. Everyone has an opinion; a favourite baker who, in their eyes, produces the perfect pasty.
They’re so beloved and treasured by the Cornish people that pasty recipes are passed down from generation to generation like a treasured heirloom, that is if they’re not taken to the grave with the owner!
The Cornish pasty is one of those rare regional delicacies where the locals love them just as much as the visitors to the area, perhaps even more.
The pasty isn’t a gimmicky food, trussed up and trotted out to draw in visitors to the county. It’s a staple in any Cornishman or woman’s diet; as it has been for centuries.
The pasty is so well-loved by the Cornish people that it even has its own week of celebrations. From the 23rd to the 29th of February the Eden Project will host the third annual Cornish Pasty Week festivities, culminating in the World Pasty Championships on the 29th.
So, in honour of the humble Cornish pasty, and to celebrate Cornish Pasty Week 2020, we’ve cooked you up a Cornish pasty history lesson.
But, before we start; just what makes a Cornish pasty?
Cornish Pasty dos and don’ts
There are certain rules to adhere to when it comes to making Cornish pasties. Knowing these dos and don’ts can help you to identify a flakey fraudster from a trusty traditional pasty.
- Crimp along the side – a traditional Cornish pasty is D shaped with a folded straight edge of pastry and iconic Cornish crimping along the edge of the curved side.
- Fill with chopped beef – a skirt cut is best, but chuck is also common.
- Find the right swede – we tend to call them turnips in Cornwall, in America they’re rutabagas. But only the yellow-fleshed variety of swede; white turnip should go nowhere near a pasty.
- Put all the filling ingredients in raw – the whole point of a pasty is that the pastry houses the fillings while they cook; meaning the juices from the meat and veg are drawn out to create a delicious gravy within the pastry casing.
- Even think about putting a carrot in there – If you spot a carrot in your pasty, put it down and back away slowly; there’s nothing Cornish about a pasty filled with carrot.
- Seal along the top – if your pasty has a flat bottom and a seal along the top like a seam holding in a plump stomach that’s not Cornish, that’s a Devonshire disgrace.
- Be stingy with the meat and veg – according to the Cornish Pasty Association, for a pasty to be considered truly Cornish it must be a minimum of 12.5% meat and 25% veg.
- Mess with perfection – While some bakers have started to experiment with unusual flavours, to be classed as a ‘proper job’ Cornish pasty it’s best to stick to beef and veg.
So, now you know how to identify a perfect pasty out in the wild, let’s get started with our Cornish pasty history lesson.
The origins of the Cornish Pasty
While many attribute the Cornish pasty’s history to the 18th-century mining industry in Cornwall, it’s thought that the pasty actually dates a lot further back, to around 500 years earlier.
Historians have found the earliest mention of the pasty in a cookbook dated from 1393, almost 630 years ago. While the Oxford English Dictionary believes it was first identified in written form around the start of the 1300s.
While today the pasty is considered a great grab and go meal for the hungry masses in Cornwall, that wasn’t always the case.
Originally, due to its expensive ingredients, the Cornish pasty was reserved only for the richer upper classes and royalty. The rich rough puff pastry housed decadent fillings of meat and vegetables and sometimes even game or seafood.
A historic letter uncovered from the 1500s from a baker to Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, reads; ‘… hope this pasty reaches you in better condition than the last one…’.
So, when you eat a Cornish pasty you can claim to have eaten like a king.
Tin mining and the Cornish pasty
By the 1800s the pasty had reached the common people and become a firm fixture in the diets of the Cornish lower classes. Tin mining was the dominant industry in Cornwall at the time and the pasty quickly rose to prominence as a Cornish staple for miners’ lunches.
Its high-carb, high-calorie properties made it the ideal choice for keeping the whole family full throughout the day. Although, these were not the rich meat-filled pasties we know and love today.
Meat would have been too expensive to use day to day in pasty fillings, so wives and mothers would pack the pastry casing full of vegetables to keep their husbands and children full during a long day in the mines.
Some say the iconic crust of a Cornish pasty, running along the curved side of the D shaped food, was used by miners to hold their pasty so they wouldn’t ingest any of the arsenic their hands came into contact with during the mining of tin ore.
The thinking behind this was that miners would hold the crust as a sort of handle to eat the main filling of the pasty and then throw it away in the mines when they were done.
However, as times were hard for many Cornish mining families, it’s unlikely that they would have casually wasted good food in this manner. It’s much more likely that the miners would have held the pasty in the paper bag or muslin cloth that they were wrapped in to transport the pasties from home to the mines.
What may have caused this historic rumour to arise is the supposed tradition of leaving crusts behind as an offering to the Knockers. Knockers were thought to be fairies or sprites that inhabited the mines and warned the miners of danger from things like a loose tunnel or beam.
Miners were thought to offer pieces of their pasty crusts to the Knockers to keep them happy so they’d continue to watch over the miners.
The international history of the Cornish pasty
As the mining industry in Cornwall collapsed, many Cornish miners emigrated to far-flung places across the globe. Cornish miners were known to have found new lives and founded settlements in the Americas, Canada, Mexico and Australia.
Of course, they couldn’t survive without a taste of home and as such, continued to produce pasties for their trips down the mines of their new countries. But, without access to all the ingredients of a traditional Cornish pasty, the ex-pats had to get inventive.
There are records of Cornish miners in Mexico replacing the traditional seasoning of black and white pepper with chillies; giving their pasties a fiery kick.
The pasty is, in fact, still so popular in Mexico that there is a museum and an annual celebration of the pasty in Pachuca de Soto, Hidalgo. It was this Mexican festival which inspired Cornwall’s Pasty Week celebrations.
The Cornish pasty today
The pasty’s popularity has never waned amongst the Cornish people.
The pasty shops that populate every town and village in the county aren’t just there to attract visitors in search of an authentic taste of Cornwall. They’re staples of the community frequented by hungry Cornish folk in need of a hearty pasty to see them through the day.
The Cornish pasty is so esteemed and iconic to Cornwall’s heritage that in 2011, following a nine-year campaign, it was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Union.
This protected status gives the pasty protection against imitation from producers in other areas. The Cornish pasty joins other protected geographical products such as Champagne and Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese.
A trip to Cornwall wouldn’t be complete without sampling a traditional Cornish pasty and when you visit St Ives you’ll be spoilt for choice. The Cornish Bakery, St Ives Bakery and Pengenna Pasties all sell delicious pasties at their stores throughout the streets of St Ives.
And, if you want to venture just outside of St Ives, Philps Pasties await you in Hayle; a firm favourite among the locals.
Make your own traditional Cornish pasty
Follow this recipe from the Cornish Pasty Association to make your own traditional Cornish steak pasty. Although please be aware that, according to PGI guidelines, if you’re not in Cornwall you won’t be able to commercially advertise your creations as a Cornish pasty.
For the shortcrust pastry:
(rough puff can also be used):
- 500 g strong bread flour (it is important to use a stronger flour than normal as you need the extra strength in the gluten to produce strong pliable pastry)
- 120 g lard or white shortening
- 125 g Cornish butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 175 ml of cold water
For the filling:
- 400 g good quality beef skirt, cut into cubes
- 300 g potato, peeled and diced
- 150 g swede/turnip*, peeled and diced
- 150 g onion, peeled and sliced
- Salt & pepper to taste (2:1 ratio)
- Beaten egg or milk to glaze
- Add the salt to the flour in a large mixing bowl.
- Rub the two types of fat lightly into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.
- Add water, bring the mixture together and knead until the pastry becomes elastic. This will take longer than normal pastry but it gives the pastry the strength that is needed to hold the filling and retain a good shape. This can also be done in a food mixer.
- Cover with cling film and leave to rest for 3 hours in the fridge. This is a very important stage as it is almost impossible to roll and shape the pastry when fresh.
- Roll out the pastry and cut into circles approx. 20cm diameter. A side plate is an ideal size to use as a guide.
- Layer the vegetables and meat on top of the pastry, adding plenty of seasoning.
- Bring the pastry round and crimp the edges together.
- Glaze with beaten egg or an egg and milk mixture.
- Bake at 165 degrees C (fan oven) for about 50 – 55 minutes until golden.
When you stay in one of our luxury coastal self-catering cottages in St Ives, you’ll be surrounded by fantastic Cornish bakeries and pasty shops from which to sample a true taste of Cornish history.