Stargazy Pie, Cornwall
Stargazy (alternatively Starry Gazey, Stargazey) Pie is more than a mere dish; it is part of a great Cornish folk tale. And it belongs to one place, the village of Mousehole near Penzance .
The folk tale is that in Stuart times endless winter storms kept the men of Mousehole from venturing out to sea to catch the fish on which the entire village depended. Supplies were low; and Christmas just a few days away. An old fisherman, Tom Bawcock, had no wife or family left to depend on him. Tom put to sea in spite of towering waves. Even with his boat thrown all over the sea he managed to put his nets in the waters, and was rewarded with a great catch of seven types of fish. When he returned he gave the catch to the village, and much of it was baked in a giant celebratory pie, from whose lid poked the heads of the pilchards he had caught by way of proof the fish famine was over.
Folklorists claim the tradition in fact goes back further than the 16th century story, fishermen in winter putting different fish varieties in a pie to symbolise what they would catch in the coming season. Today stargazy pie is always eaten in Mousehole on Tom Bawcock’s Eve – December 23.
Two alternative explanations are given for the projecting fish heads. First, it was to amuse and entice kids to eat fish; obviously thought up by someone who had never met a child. More realistically, it is a practical measure, the oil from the heads enriching the pastry and moistening the pie.
The filling beneath a pastry crust comprises various types of fish, perhaps scraps of bacon, along with boiled potatoes and boiled eggs, held in thickened milk or a white sauce. The poking fish can be pilchards, herrings or even mackerel, all nicely oily (filleted and skinned behind the head by the way).
Top chef Mark Hix made a celebrated version recently with rabbit and crayfish, which was doubtless delicious but, given the fear Cornish fishermen traditionally have of rabbits, seems somehow a bit wrong.