A taste for Cor­nish tra­di­tion

Maria Fitz­patrick dis­cov­ers twists and turns in the story of the fa­mous pasty

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

It’s a sim­ple recipe with hum­ble ori­gins and few in­gre­di­ents – how hard can it be? That was my first thought about mak­ing my own Cor­nish pasties from scratch. Now, as I watch Ger­ald Allen, a pasty “mas­ter” with decades of ex­pe­ri­ence, demon­strat­ing his art on my own kitchen ta­ble, I am eat­ing my words. As I take my turn with the crimp­ing – form­ing the dis­tinc­tive crust around the side of the pas­try, with a deft (or not, in my case) pull-and­press ac­tion – it be­comes clearer still: this is a spe­cial craft in­deed. “Don’t worry,” Ger­ald laughs. “As a pasty maker, you would have four weeks of train­ing just on crimp­ing be­fore you’re let loose on your own.” For all of Corn­wall’s cream teas and cheeses, fresh fish and spe­cial­ity ales, it’s still the pasty that’s in­stantly syn­ony­mous with the re­gion, and an es­sen­tial part of the vis­i­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. But the pasties aren’t just rolled out to snare tourists: the tra­di­tion is em­bed­ded in the Cor­nish way of life, largely due to its his­tory as the sta­ple food of the lo­cal min­ers and farm labour­ers, and is still some­thing to be cel­e­brated. So much so that this week­end, the town of Re­druth, home to the Cor­nish Min­ing Unesco World Her­itage Site, will be given over to a fes­ti­val cel­e­brat­ing pasties and their ties to the com­mu­nity. The three­day event was held for the first time last year, and it’s set to be­come an an­nual fix­ture. There will be tast­ings, ex­hibits of arte­facts show­ing off the pasty’s lo­cal her­itage and makeyour-own work­shops – which is where you’ll find Ger­ald. Ger­ald works for Proper Cor­nish, a com­pany that works in part­ner­ship with Pasty Presto, this year’s World Pasty Cham­pi­onship win­ners and a lead­ing pasty re­tailer in Corn­wall and the South West. He grew up in Corn­wall, and be­gan pasty-mak­ing as an af­ter-school job. “I come from a large fam­ily, who loved good food,” he says. “In Corn­wall, ev­ery­one ate pasties for tea; huge ones, which would be sliced up and shared out.” He has since worked his way up to be “mas­ter crimper and pro­duc­tion di­rec­tor” of the premises that makes all of the pasties for Pasty Presto, which sells 2.5mil­lion a year. The se­cret to the pasty he tells me, is “some­thing you can’t put your fin­ger on; it is what it is be­cause it’s be­ing made by peo­ple who have lived and breathed the tra­di­tion for cen­turies”. There are ref­er­ences to a “pasty” in 13th-cen­tury English lit­er­a­ture, but it is thought to have been set­tled in its folded form in the late 18th and the 19th cen­tury, ex­plains Ains­ley Cocks, re­search and in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer at the Cor­nish Min­ing World Her­itage Site. “The pasty sup­plied lots of car­bo­hy­drate in one hit, per­fect for sus­tained phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity – it’s no won­der the min­ers made it their own,” he says. “Beef would have been hard to come by, but labour­ers would have kept pigs, and added a bit of pork. The steak pasty ar­rived in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury.” The pop­u­lar story goes that the crimped crust was for hold­ing, then throw­ing away, so the min­ers’ dirty hands didn’t con­tam­i­nate their meal – but it’s up for de­bate. “I find the idea fan­ci­ful,” Ains­ley says. “They would have been wrapped in cloth, any­way. But th­ese were very poor peo­ple, so throw­ing away good food for that rea­son… I’m not sure they would have been able to jus­tify that.” Un­less some­thing else was at play. Fairy-like spir­its called ‘knock­ers’ or ‘bucca’ were thought to in­habit work­ing mines, and were said to warn min­ers of im­pend­ing dan­ger, from a loose tun­nel or beam, by ‘knock­ing’. “If treated cor­rectly, they would look af­ter work­ers, who could ap­pease them with a morsel of food – per­haps the crust,” says Ains­ley. “If you spent your life in the dark, you’d start to be­lieve all sorts of things.” The pasty was such an es­tab­lished part of life that some mines had stoves to warm them in the room where min­ers changed their clothes. Many work­ers em­i­grated to the Amer­i­cas, par­tic­u­larly Mex­ico, to work in the sil­ver mines. They took their tra­di­tion with them, and the paste, with chilli in­stead of pep­per, still sells there in greater quan­ti­ties than in Eng­land. Iron­i­cally, it was the pasty mu­seum and an­nual fes­ti­val in Pachuca de Soto, Hi­dalgo, that in­spired the fes­ti­val in Re­druth. Ger­ald thinks that the pasty’s pop­u­lar­ity to­day has been helped by the prom­i­nent foodie im­age of Corn­wall. But it also suits our mod­ern way of life. “It was de­signed as your whole­some meat-and-twoveg meal, easy to trans­port and eat on the go, and that’s just as rel­e­vant to­day,” he says. At the same time it’s an anti-fast­food. It must be made by hand. “It’s a sim­ple rough-puff pas­try recipe, with few com­po­nents, but you have to do it with care,” he says. You can’t rush the bak­ing, ei­ther – it needs 45-50 min­utes, plus half an hour rest­ing, so “the steam con­tin­ues to cook and in­fuse the flavour of the meat, veg and juices in the pas­try”. The Cor­nish cli­mate is ideal for the veg­eta­bles that are the pasty’s back­bone – potato, onion and swede (the dis­tinc­tive sweet­ness comes from the swede). “All our veg­eta­bles come from lo­cal farms and their fresh taste car­ries into the pasty,” Ger­ald says. They are chopped “into chunky pieces, not mushed”, gen­tly mixed by hand, and sea­soned with salt, black pep­per and white pep­per. A hand­ful of veg­eta­bles is placed in the cen­tre of a pas­try disc (cov­er­ing only 50 per cent of the pas­try sur­face) and small strips of skirt steak, used for its ten­der qual­ity, are laid on top. The meat isn’t care­fully mea­sured out. “I think of it as the Cor­nish Sun­day roast,” Ger­ald says. “The bites won’t be reg­u­lar, but that’s part of the charm.” No other in­gre­di­ents are al­lowed, if it’s to be au­then­tic. The two sides of pas­try are drawn to­gether with a light pinch, tak­ing care not to stretch the edges, then it’s put on its side and crimped (it’s cru­cial not to get too much loose flour on the pas­try discs, as the sides won’t stick). Start­ing on the right-hand cor­ner if you are right-handed (or vice versa) fold the cor­ner down, then gen­tly tease the pas­try edge to­wards you with your in­dex fin­ger, fol­lowed by a gen­tle tuck un­derneath with the thumb, then con­tinue the move­ment of your in­dex fin­ger to press the edge down. Re­peat this all the way around to cre­ate a “rope ef­fect” to seal

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