Pies are one of the most British foodstuffs, and Cornish pasties are great reminders of this national tradition – filling, tasty, and nutritious.
Until recent times the little pasties now generally seen were just for the well-to-do. Poorer families made far bigger versions for slicing into portions at the table. The shortcrust pastry would traditionally be made with lard, giving it a crispness pleasing to the eater, and destined to keep better than would be the case with other fats. And as this is working-man’s fare, the pastry should be substantial, a filler in itself.
Cooked on a bakestone, the filling put in raw, with a pot-oven to cover the food as it cooked on or by the fire, the pasty was a very flexible dish. The filling that we would associate with it today – chopped beef (most definitely not minced) with potato and onion – would have been for times when the housekeeping money was plentiful. At other times the beef would be missed out, replaced by a few scraps of bacon or maybe just the herbs to hand.
Holidaying as a child in Cornwall of the 1960s there seemed to be pasties available at every turn of the sunken lanes leading to the county’s endless beaches and beautiful coves, the smell of the pasty wafting out to entice grockle buyers more than any advertisement ever could. The pasty had migrated to the coast by then from the high country inland where it is supposed to have originated. Why the coastal districts didn’t take to it for so long is unclear. Stranger still, there persists a legend that it is bad luck to take pasties on board fishing boats, though nobody can explain why.
The pasty was in earlier times associated with men working the fields or in the tin mines, a meal in itself and not needing any cutlery or crockery. It’s said that wives even made them with a savoury filling at one end, and sweet at the other – generally apple with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon and some sugar if you were very lucky. The two ends were marked before baking to avoid the worker starting at the wrong end. When families were particularly flush the fathers and sons heading off to work with a pasty as snap would have personalised versions, the filling made according to preference – some leeks here, turnips there, some heavy peppering for those who liked spice – and initials or marks put on the pasties to identify them.
Wonderful hand-made pasties can still be found in Cornwall. Don’t be put off by the thin crusted and over-chilled cellophane-wrapped versions found in too many motorway service stations, the pastry lacking that crispness and egg-glaze shine that sets the real thing apart. And look for the crimping to be away from the curved edge, another telling mark of authenticity.
At its best, ideally facing the rolling sea or with the wind whipping off the Cornish hills to stir the appetite, a real pasty is a wonderful culinary experience.
From Wine Pleasures on 10th July 2009
History of Cornish pasties is not unlike that of Spain's paella. Traditionally paella was made and eaten on Thursdays - indeed if you go for a menu del día on Thursday you will find for sure paella. Reason for Thursday is that it was the end of the week and so an opportunity to use up all the scraps of previous meals. Again paella was a dish for the poor but now if you ask for a paella expect to pay around 20 Euros per person.