Great Food From Britain: The Cornish Pasty

February 21, 2002‘Food to a large extent is what holds a society together’Peter Farb and George Armelagos inConsuming Passions: The Anthropology of EatingFood, like language,defines the cultural identityof a people. Both evolve with time and face the threat of global standardisation. In Cornwall, language succumbed first, and food inevitably becamethe pillar of Cornishness, the unique identifier of a culture that tries against hope to remain alive.Perhaps for this reason,the Cornish are extremely touchy about their food, as American food writer William Grimes discovered when he criticised Cornish cuisine in theNew York Times: ‘Cornwall,’ he said, ‘?probably offers more bad food per square mile than anywhere else in the civilised world.’Worse, Grimes was guilty of makingscathing remarks about the pasty: ‘you’ve got this five pound football-shape thing sitting in your hand and there’s nothing you can do with it.’ His comments so angered Lizard pasty maker Ann Muller thatshe burned an American flag.’I am sorry I burned the flag butMr Grimes likened the pasty to a door-stop,’ saysMrs Muller. ‘Cornwall is one of Britain’s poorest areas. With the decline of tin mining, fishing and farming, we are becoming more and more dependent on tourism and the food industry. The last thing we need is for millions ofNew York Timesreaders to think badly of us.”The pasty is our emblem,’ she adds. ‘Its aroma declares we are Cornish.’ Indeed, the pasty (or rather, paastee, as it is pronounced in the county) sits firmly at the heart of all things Cornish, although it hashardly been a Cornish preserve in the past.A medieval recipe, it is mentioned in one of the Robin Hood’s ballads. In theCanterbury Tales, Chaucer reveals that cooks occasionallydrained pasties of their gravyto save on ingredients:Now telle on, Roger; looke that it be good,Now tell on, Roger; look that it be good,For many a pastee hastow laten blood,For of many a pastry have you drawn out the gravy,And manya Jakke of Dovere hastow sooldAnd many a Jack of Dover have you sold

That hath been twies hoot and twies cooldThat has been twice hot and twice coldLater in the centuries, Shakespeare referred to a hot venison pasty inThe Merry Wives of Windsor(Act 1, Scene 1): ‘Wife, bid these gentlemen welcome. Come, we have a hot venison pasty to dinner: come gentlemen, I hope we shall drink down all unkindness.’Venison pasty was also a favourite of Pepys’who wrote in his diary (September 1, 1660) that ‘Mr. Moore and I and several others being invited .. by Mr. Goodman, a friend of his, we dined at the Bull head upon the best venison pasty that ever I eat of in my life; and with one dish more, it was the best dinner I ever was at.’Only in Cornwall, however, did the pasty evolve from the filled pastry typical of the Middle Ages intoa handy meal for farmers and miners. Easy to carry around and very nutritious,it made for the perfect packet lunch. ‘The Cornish pasty wasthe first convenience food in the Western world,’ says Liz Carveth of the Cornwall County Council Trading Standards Agency.The dish was most probably altered sometime during the 18thcentury:the first recorded recipeappears in a Georgian cookery book by a Mrs. Polwhele, which is held by the Cornwall Record Office. Her version makes no mention of onions, swede and potatoes (which were just starting to appear on European tables), consisting instead of a piece of beef soaked in claret, which was encased in pastry and baked.Ingredients varied according to seasons and availability ? leading to the legend thatthe devil never crossed the Tamar into Cornwallbecause it was afraid of ending up in a pasty. Recipes still vary from baker to baker, but a pasty worthy of its namemust contain at least 12.5% of meat.Research carried out by the Agency indicates that the dish developed itsdistinctive D-shapebecause it made it easier for the miners to hold it. Superstition had it that miners had to leave the crimp of their pasty to theknockers? small creatures that inhabited the richest tin mines ? to avoid bad luck (LINK TO SIDEBAR HERE). The truth behind the myth is thatthe crimp was used as a handle by miners– whose hands were often contaminated with arsenic ? and was thrown away afterwards.The decline of the mining industry pushed Cornish miners to emigrate, and with them went the pasty, which made its appearance on Australian, South African, and American tables. In Michigan, where many Cornish miners settled, the dish became so popular thata day was named after it(May 24 is Pasty Day). It is still more common in the state than the ubiquitous – and all American – hamburger.Today, the geographical spread of the pasty ? and the wide availability of commercial products which go under the same name but hardly have thesame flavour ? may make it difficult for the dish to obtainProtected Geographical Indication(PGI) status from the European Union. If the PGI were granted,no pasty made outside Cornwall could be branded as ‘Cornish’.With over three million pasties made in Cornwall every week ? 90% of which are sold outside the county – the industry is worth over ?150 million, so it is hardly surprising that pasty manufacturers, backed by the Cornwall County Council Trading Standards Agency, are trying their best to secure EU protection. To succeed, producers will have to convince Brussels thatthe pasty uniquely Cornish in origin, that it is crucial to the local economy, and that it is an essential part of the Cornish character.’Protecting the integrity of the Cornish pasty “brand” isimportant for the local economy,’ says Miss Carveth. ‘Pasty producers are working together to compile the EU application by collating information from the public and researching areas that need further investigation.’Surely, theknockerswho must be hiding in the depths of the EU offices would resent it if they were fed “Cornish” pasty made in, say, Greece? Perhaps they would inflict some dire retribution on the Brussels bureaucrats?