Few meals have roots as deep as the Cornish pasty, a hand-held meat-and-vegetable pie developed as a lunch for workers in the ancient English tin mining region of Cornwall.
When going on holiday to Cornwall, you’ll probably find a Cornish pasty between your hands at one point or another. What you might not realise, however, is that the origins of the pasty go back at least eight centuries! Here we give you a brief rundown of what has made the pasty Cornwall’s most treasured food.
Although it is widely believed that we can thank the wives of the Cornish miners for the wonderful invention that is the pasty’ its origins do, in fact, date back at least 800 years. First documented in the 13th Century, under the reign of Henry III, bakers in Norwich were accused of reheating three day old pasties and selling them on to make a profit.
Pasties then continued to cause a bit more trouble for the pastry-makers. In 1350, a ban was put in place in London to prevent shops selling their rabbit and pastry concoctions for more than a penny!
Despite these pasties being assembled a little differently than to how you would expect today, it did allow people to discover that meat could be wrapped up inside the pastry this way.
It wasn’t until the 19th Century that the Cornish pasty that we all know and love first became recognisable to us. After the third mining boom in the 18th century, the Cornish mining industry was flourishing. Some of the areas, such as Gwennap and St Day, were among the richest in the world and, at its height, the tin mining industry in Cornwall owned around 600 steam engines.
Men going into the mines needed a transportable, yet filling, lunch option that they could take with them. Known as the first convenience food, the filling would often consist of a potato and vegetable filling. The mixture placed in the middle of the pastry would be made very cheaply, but would be highly calorific to provide the miners with the energy that they needed to get through the day.
It was the thick, pastry casing that made it so easy for people to carry with them, as well as the shape, which was the right size for hands to hold. Alongside this, wives could customise the outer pasty shell by engraving family members initials into the crust with a toothpick to ensure that they were eating the right one.
Besides from it being a perfect handful, it has also been suggested that the ‘D’ shape of the snack allowed miners to hold the crust whilst eating before throwing it away, so as not to contaminate the food with their potentially arsenic-ridden hands. Arsenic was a huge problem for the miners, after it was discovered alongside the copper ores at mines such as Callington. In fact, the arsenic issue was so toxic that most people who came into contact with it died before reaching middle age.
Towards the start of the 20th Century, pasties were becoming widespread, produced on an industrial scale and an essential for families. Women cooking pasties would shout into the mines “Oggie, oggie, oggie”, receiving a reply of “oi, oi, oi” when the miners were ready to eat. It is because of this that the British traditional rhyme came about, which is still used today.
Today, there are a wide variety of flavours available across the country. But don’t worry about it losing its place of origin. The pasty has been registered by the European Union as a Protected Geographical Indication, which means that is protected due to being a regional food.
So what should you look for when wanting to get the most authentic pasty possible? The minimum percentage of meat that a pasty should have is 12.5%, with at least 25% more of the pasty being filled with vegetables. No meat other than beef should be used if you want to have the most authentic experience, and the vegetables used in the filling should not deviate away from the specified mixture of potato, swede and onion.
Another interesting element that goes into the creation of the pasty is that none of the ingredients should be cooked before being placed in the pasty, although it does not matter which pastry is used to form the outer shell.
Across the pond
The Cornish pasty arrived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) in the 1840’s, just a few years after Michigan’s present-day boundaries were carved out of the former Northwest Territory. Adventurers crossed the Straits of Mackinac to the isolated U.P. to prospect for minerals, discovering significant iron and copper deposits beneath the northern forests. Experienced miners from Cornwall immigrated to help develop the mines, bringing pasty-making with them. Although Cornish migration was soon supplanted by much larger waves of Finns and Italians, the pasty took hold as a traditional miners’ food.
In their seminal study of the Cornish pasty in Northern Michigan, folklorists William and Yvonne Lockwood describe how the pasty was adopted by Finnish and Italian miners, who looked to their Cornish supervisors for cues on how to behave in American culture. By the mid-20th century, the pasty was so firmly entrenched among all the Upper Peninsula’s ethnic groups that it was common to find locals who assumed that the pasty was of Finnish or even Italian origin. Each culture had their own take on the traditional recipe, with the Finns often controversially substituting carrots for the traditional rutabaga. Other locals emphasized the pasty’s true origins, referring to the dish as the “Cousin Jack mouth organ” – that is, a Cornishman’s harmonica.
After the 1957 Mackinac Bridge opened the Upper Peninsula for tourism from southern Michigan, the pasty shifted from being a food mainly cooked at home by U.P. locals (known as “Yoopers”) to one sold at restaurants to visitors from southern Michigan and beyond (playfully derided as “Fudgies” for their preferred dessert). In a moment of Yooper-Fudgie unity, Gov. George Romney declared May 24, 1968 to be the first statewide Michigan Pasty Day.
Today in Michigan and in Cornwall you can find pasties with all sorts of fillings, but since 2011 the European Union’s rules for what constitutes a true Cornish pasty have been much more restrictive: to be a Cornish pasty, you must have potato, swede, onion and beef, with the filling containing at least 25 percent vegetables and at least 12.5 percent meat. Most importantly, the pasty must be made in Cornwall. Cornish tradition, though, allows for a little more variety. A joke the Lockwoods heard repeated during their work in the U.P. says that “the devil never dared to cross the Tamar River from Devonshire to Cornwall for fear of the Cornish women’s habit of putting anything and everything into a pasty.”
Some facts about the Cornish Pasty:
- In the past people believed the devil would never dare to cross the River Tamar into Cornwall for fear of ending up as a filling in a Cornish pasty
- The pasty was sometimes divided inside into two sections so as to provide both: a main course and dessert
- A good pasty was thought to be strong enough to drop unharmed down a mine shaft
- Fishermen never took a pasty aboard ship for fear of bad luck
(Article source: Various)