Everywhere you go in Cornwall in England, you can see a sign for the Cornish pasty. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that the Cornish pasty industry adds £65 million into Cornwall’s economy. I am a big fan of anything encased in a pastry (Indian samosas, Jamaican patties, American pie etc) so was really looking forward to trying a Cornish pasty in Cornwall. I was not disappointed! Real Cornish pasties are delicious and an easy, quick dinner for all of us after a long day of travelling. As with any traditional dish, there’s a lot of tradition, culture and stories associated with the Cornish pasty. Here is a quick introduction to this traditional favourite and twelve fun facts about the Cornish pasty.
What is a Cornish Pasty?
The traditional Cornish pasty is a pastry filled with chunky vegetables and meat. The standard vegetables used are swede, potato and onion. When cooked together with a light seasoning, the meat and vegetables forms its own gravy. The slow-baking process ensures that the delicately seasoned flavours are maximised.
In the old days, the pasty flour itself would have been tough and made from barley flour. Poor mining families would not have been able to afford wheat flour for the pastry.
The pasty was a good way to use up leftovers in a time when every little bit of food had to be used. Fillings can be as varied as the protein available, such as bacon, rabbit, eggs. There is some question on whether fish can be an appropriate filling. I would think not because these miners needed a solid meat and potatoes meal as fuel for the hard labour they did.
The pastry itself is shaped in the form of the letter “D” with one side crimped. The crimped side is handy for holding the pastry. (The purists will tell you that a Cornish pastry should be crimped on the side and not the top). Some people have said that the crimped side could have served as a handle. I expect the miners eating the pasty would have been so hungry the whole thing would have been eaten.
Nowadays, we saw lots of different types of Cornish pasty. My daughter was a big fan of the cheese and onion vegetarian pasties. The rest of us preferred the traditional steak variety. We saw lots of variations in the fillings of the Cornish pasty in Cornwall. I can just imagine the Cornish miner’s face if his wife had packed him a Thai Chicken pasty!
The History of the Cornish Pasty
You say the word pasty to sound like the ‘a’ in past not paste. The word comes from an old English word that means made from pastry. The Cornish pasty started off as a convenience food for working men to take for lunch similar to the Bunny Chow in South Africa. Men working in the tin mines or the clay pits needed an easy but filling meal they could take to work.
Wrapped in paper or cloth, the pasty was a self-contained hearty meal complete with vegetables, meat and carbohydrates. These men worked long shifts underground. If the pasty was baked in the morning, thanks to the pastry crust, the filling inside could be kept warm for up to 10 hours.
As we discovered in our tour of the salt mines in Salzburg, getting down to the mines was quite the task and so going back above ground to get lunch would have been a serious waste of time and effort. Keep in mind also that miners were paid for the amount of ground they had broken. Dilly-dallying for lunch would seriously cut into their take-home pay.
In the 18th century, Cornish miners would have produced half the world’s tin supply. The work would have been long and gruelling but better paid than any other work they could have gotten at the time. It is said that 19 out of 20 of Cornwall’s men under 25 would have worked in a mine during the peak of the mining boom. After their shift at the mine (or clay pit) ended, the men would have gone to do a second shift as farm labourers.
12 Fun Facts About the Cornish Pasty
- The oldest pasty recipe we have is from 1746. It is kept at the Country Records Office in Truro. The pasty though is a much older type of making food. In the Middle Ages, pasties (and meat pies) were the food of the aristocracy.
- There are 120 million Cornish pasties made every year.
- Since 2011, according to European Union regulations, a genuine Cornish pasty needs to have a minimum of 12.5% meat and 25% vegetables. Moreover, the pasty needs to be made in Cornwall.
- Using carrots in a Cornish pasty is considered heresy. The only sweetness allowed is from the swede!
- A pasty may be an easy portable meal but don’t take a pasty on board a ship. It’s considered bad luck! This myth was probably started by the miners who didn’t want the fisherman to take their pasties.
- Some say the traditional Cornish pasty crust should be tough enough to drop down a deep mine shaft and not fall apart. Can you imagine how tough your teeth have to be to chew that?!
- The ‘oggie oggie oggie’ chant heard at rugby games came from the Cornish pasty. According to legend, pasty sellers would yell Oggie, Oggie Oggie at the top of the mine shaft and the miners would yell Oi Oi Oi back to signal they wanted a Cornish pasty thrown down at them.
- Oggie comes from the Cornish word ‘hoggans’ which were an early pasty filled with pork encased in barley bread.
- You can get a ‘rounder’ which is a round pastry filled with the same ingredients but bigger (and round!). You get rounders served for Sunday lunch or on special occasions in Cornwall.
- The largest Cornish pasty ever made was 32 feet long!
- Sometimes the Cornish miner’s wife would put his initials on his pasty so he could tell his pasty apart from that of a co-worker. Moreover, the miner may have left a bit of pasty for the magical sprites who lived in the mines who could be placated with bits of food. If he lefts some of the pasty with his initial on it, the sprites would know who not to trouble.
- The Cornish pasty emigrated worldwide along with Cornish immigrants. For example, pasties are popular in Michigan because they have made it to the mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1840’s. Thanks to EU regs though these pasties can not be called Cornish pasties because they are not made in Cornwall. I wonder if Brexit will affect the terminology – deregulation of the Cornish pasty could be coming soon.
Where To Buy Cornish Pasties
As I said, every little village in Cornwall seems to have home made (and delicious) Cornish pasties. I was really surprised because the one I had previously tried in London was nothing special.
There is a World Pasty Championship held every year at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Just when I thought Rick Stein had taken over all of Padstow, I found out that the Chough Bakery in Padstow is the current reigning champion. Within the United Kingdom, you can mail order their Cornish pasties to your home. Alternatively, you can follow the recipe on the Chough Bakery website.