As the name suggests The Cornish Pasty hails from Cornwall, the southernmost county in England, famous for its clotted and ice cream and the legend of King Arthur (he of Camelot fame).
Origins of Cornish Pasties
Although pasties in general have a long history in British cuisine dating back to the 13th century, it wasn’t until the expansion of tin and copper mining in Cornwall in the 18th and 19th centuries that the Cornish Pasty came into existence.
Cornish Pasties were born out of the necessity to feed the miners and other workers, who needed a nutritious meal to sustain them through their long day of gruelling work. Pasties were the perfect food. The thick pastry case made them highly portable as well as acting as an insulator for the hot filling. Furthermore, the crimped edge also acted as a handle which could be thrown away – an important aspect as workers’ hands were more than often dirty and, in the case of tin miners, had traces of arsenic which was frequently present in tin mines.
So popular were these pasties that some mines built huge ovens to keep them hot until it was time to eat and indeed, miners’ wives often marked their husbands initials at one end of the pastry to avoid anyone eating the wrong pasty. This was also useful should the miner wish to save part of his pasty for later, was possibly a contributing factor in the way pasties were eaten, i.e. from one end to the other, starting at the un-initialled end.
If there was no oven at the pithead, another method of reheating pasties was to put them on the blade of a shovel and place it over an open fire.
Over time the Cornish Pasty spread across the country with the suggestion that Cornish miners introduced the pasty to these places when they left Cornwall in search of work. They even took their pasty tradition the Americas when the mining industry was in decline and they found themselves emigrating in search of a better life.
What is a Traditional Cornish Pasty?
Even today, there are many arguments as to exactly how a traditional Cornish pasty is made: from the type of pastry used to the filling to the shape.
Let’s take the shape first of all. If the idea was partly to protect people from the possible intake of harmful substances, then it would be much easier to eat a pasty with a side crimp without fear of the filling falling out.
With regards to the pastry, it has to be remembered that the idea was to transport the pasty from home to the workplace, possibly amongst other equipment, so the pasty shell must have originally been very sturdy so as not to crack or leak. Although today many Cornish Pasties are made with puff pastry, it would be most surprising if working class housewives had the inclination or time to spend on making anything but the most simple shortcrust pastry, probably using lard.
When I view my Country o’er:
Of goodly things the plenteous store:
The Sea and Fish that swim therein
And underground the Copper and Tin:
Let all the World say what it can
Still I hold by the Cornishman,
And that one most especially
That first found out the Cornish Pastie.
The Merry Ballad of the Cornish Pasty
- Robert Morton Nance, 1898
The original Cornish Pasty contained a filling of meat, potatoes, onion and swede but sometimes were made with a savoury filling at one end and a sweet filling at the other, in effect providing a two course meal. This may sound strange, but on hindsight, it was actually not a bad idea for manual workers, as the sugar content in the sweet part would provide an instant energy boost, whilst the carbohydrates in the pastry and potatoes would provide a slower release of energy to keep them going through the afternoon – not that this was given any consideration at the time.
It is now widely accepted that the meat was chopped into small pieces, that the vegetables were thinly sliced and that all the ingredients were raw when sealed in the pastry.
Today’s Cornish Pasty
the Good, the Bad and the downright AWFUL
The Cornish Pasty industry in the UK is big business with most supermarkets and grocery stores selling them. Manufacturers have dropped the savoury and sweet pasty tradition, use either shortcrust or puff pastry and often minced beef.
The addition of carrots is frowned upon by many Cornish Pasty gurus, as is the addition of too much seasoning, with some ready made varieties on sale being positively “spicy”, and for those who believe the vegetables should be layered in the pasty, the now common practice of chopping everything so finely so as to make the ingredients almost indistinguishable is sacrilege.
In truth, you have to go a long way to purchase a traditional ready made Cornish Pasty, so if you want to get the true taste and experience, it’s best to make your own or buy from www.leekandthistle.com
Cornish Pasty Superstitions & Legends
Miners used to leave a corner of their pasty (preferably the one with their initials on it) for the ‘Knockers’ who were mythical ‘little people’ who dwelled in the mines and who would cause bad things to happen unless they were appeased with morsels of food.
Many Cornish fishermen still refuse to take a pasty on board their boat when embarking on a fishing expedition believing it to be bad luck.
Legend has it that the Devil never crossed the river Tamar into Cornwall on account of the belief that Cornish women were in the habit of putting everything into their pasties, so he was not brave enough to risk that fate.