The snack that went into the mines
A brief history of Cornish pasties
Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:
Photo by David Johnson via Wikipedia Commons
One of the world’s many variations on handheld meat pies, this one with a shortcrust pastry exterior and a filling of meat and/or vegetables. Slight crunch on the outside, soft in the middle.
Also: These are definitely not to be confused with the non-food version of pasties, as Freakonomics author Stephen J. Dubner, an American, learned when he tried to correct The Economist on the matter.
Find it in
England, primarily. Most famously associated with Cornwall.
“We are a great nation of pie eaters,” an English baker named Elaine Ead told the BBC in 2008. It’s an excellent, resonant quote, one that’s hard to read without a smile, one that—for me, anyway—conjures images of great crowds of Brits (in town squares, in the Tube, on the beach in Brighton) all snacking on pies together. But Ead was making a serious point, arguing for the cultural importance of pasties, on behalf of the Cornish Pasty Association (CPA), as part of a long and successful push to get Cornish pasties an official recognition “Protected Geographical Indication” from the European Union, like champagne or Roquefort cheese.
Pasties have a long history and, like much of the past, parts of it remain in dispute. What’s known is this: pasties originated sometime in the 1200s as an aristocratic food, often with meat fillings like lamb or eels. Sometime in the 1600s or 1700s, they made their way to the mines of Cornwall, where workers realized they were a perfect meal for the job: nutritious, delicious, and portable. In some cases, there were even stoves built into the mines to heat up the raw pasties the workers brought from home—which is to say that if you’ve ever warmed up a Hot Pocket or anything similar in a workplace microwave, you’re basically doing a historic reenactment.
Part of the lore is that miners held onto the pasty’s thick crust—where the whole thing is crimped together—as a handle “so they didn't poison themselves with arsenic or tin oil that might be on their fingers from working,” but recent scholarship has indicated this may well be false. (The same scholars also note that hand pies are hardly a Cornish invention, which is both true and scandalous.)
Technically speaking, a genuine Cornwall pasty—as recognized and protected by the EU—must be slow-baked and have a filling that is “chunky, made up of uncooked mince or chunks of beef with swede, potato and onion and a light seasoning.” There are lingering questions these days about whether or not that protection will continue into the future because, because of Brexit and all, the implications of which are still being sorted out. In the meantime, Cornish pasties clearly aren’t going anywhere, and while some sticklers might not endorse the non-traditional varieties, there are plenty to choose from if you’re so inclined. These include gluten-free and vegan pasties, of course, but also the likes of Tex-Mex pasties, Scottish Reuben pasties, and jalapeño popper pasties. (People of England, please discuss in the comments.)
Anyway, here’s a video of a pirate band at the Cornish Pasty Festival singing “The Cornish Pasty Song,” which features the immortal line “Well, no one makes a pasty like the Coooornish.” Volume up, friends.
Get it here
Takeaway shops around the UK (and elsewhere), including:
Sarah’s Pasty Shop in Looe, England
Cornish Deli in St. Ives, England
The Cornish Vegan in Truro, England
Cornish Pasty Co., a mini-chain in the southwest USA
Will you like it?
The Guardian: “A Short History of … Cornish Pasties”
Historic UK: “The Cornish Pasty”
Cornwall Live: “Historian claims miners never actually used Cornish pasty crust as a handle” (Special thanks to Mike Sowden for directing me to that. You should also check out his excellent newsletter about exploring the world around you.)
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