Regional food: the Cornish pasty

The Spanish have their empanada and the Italians their calzone. In Cornwall, it’s the humble pasty, with its meat and three veg, that’s filled hungry stomachs for longer than anyone can remember.

This meal in the hand was perfect for the region’s miners, who needed sustenance during long days underground. However ravenous, though, you never gobbled it all: a morsel always had to be left for the Knockers, little men who supposedly haunted the mine and could take offence if not placated.

Who better to teach me the pasty’s peppery secrets than Ann Muller, high priestess of the pasty and the crispest crimper in the county?

Her modest shop, on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, where England’s southern tip slips into the Atlantic, pulls in pasty pilgrims from all over the world. One lady recently turned up from Australia, having heard about Ann on her local radio station.

The shop-cum-kitchen, once the garage beside the family home, is painted a yellow as bright as the gorse that dots the windswept headland. It’s as cheerily unpretentious as Ann herself, and when I arrive at 9am it is already abuzz with chat among its four female pasty makers.

“As you can see, plenty of hot air goes into our pasties,” laughs Ann, scattering diced potatoes on to floury discs of raw pastry that husband Tony prepared several hours earlier.

Pasty memories go back as far as Ann can recall. “Mother made them on Saturdays after breakfast. They’d take an hour to make, an hour to bake. Each pasty was marked with our initials, as one brother liked his without onion, and we often kept some for later, so we needed to know which pasty was whose.

“We’d eat the pasties for lunch – either in the hand, or if we couldn’t wait until they’d cooled, on a plate with a knife and fork,” says Ann. “We’d then have junket with nutmeg and clotted cream. The aroma of pasties always reminds me of those Saturday mornings. It’s the smell of home and comfort.”

As a girl, she remembers patrolling the streets of Gunwalloe, the Lizard hamlet where she lived, for wafts of pasties cooking inside the houses of her various aunts. “I’d listen out for the smells then casually drop by in the hope there’d be a pasty left. Each aunt’s pasty tasted different.”

Traditional taste

The true traditional pasty (in Cornwall, never call it a Cornish pasty) was made from what was available on the peninsula, which wasn’t much.They were humble ingredients, but ones that filled the stomach. First there’s the meat, usually cheap, unloved cuts of beef.

“Skirt is best, then chuck,” says Ann. “I buy it from Colin Retallack,” she says, pointing down the road towards the village butchers. “The potatoes and turnips are usually grown locally, too.”

The turnips may look like swedes, but in Cornwall, swedes are called turnips. The third veg is onion, which Ann always gets the men to sort.

“My husband used to peel the onions to stop me crying – he didn’t like seeing me in pain. Onions don’t seem to affect men as much,” laughs Ann. Then, turning serious, she adds: “The ingredients must always be raw. Some TV chefs have suggested pre-cooking them, but you don’t get the same flavour.”

Ann’s change from eater to maker was, like so many things in life, an accident. One summer her mother was making and selling pasties at a show in Brittany, and ran out of swedes and flour.

“She rang and told me to get out there as quickly as possible with my auntie Joyce and some supplies,” laughs Ann. “We managed to hitch a lift with a coach that was going over from Truro. When we got there, I thought I’d be able to enjoy the show, but mum said ‘I need you to help with the crimping, the queues are building up.’ I’d never crimped pasties before, but by the end of the day, I was a master.”

When they got home, mother, daughter and aunt established a market stall at Helston twice a week but demand soon outstripped what they could bake. So they set up shop, first in Porthleven, then later in the Lizard, next to the family home so they could keep an eye on the offspring at the same time.

Now it’s my turn to have a go at crimping, the arcane Cornish art of sealing the pastry. I watch Ann’s deft finger ballet and try to copy, but it’s hopeless. Maybe the smells wafting out of the ovens are too much of a distraction. Marianne, one of Ann’s crimpers, runs to the rescue, sealing the gaps before sticking on a pastry letter C then popping it into the oven.

Ann dismisses the theory that miners held on to their pasties by the crimp but never ate it, lest it had been contaminated by their arsenic-covered hands.

“That’s rubbish – a pasty would collapse immediately. True Cornish eat pasties end to end,” she says.

She’s saddened by the tendency of Brits to knock their native foods like the pasty. “We often turn up our noses at our own foods. It’s about time we became proud of them.”

Time is up, my pasty is ready. This bit needs privacy and sea air, so I say my goodbyes and slip out past the queues of customers on to the gorse-clad cliffs with my steaming golden crescent. The first bite is exquisite. I take another bite, then another, and soon it’s all gone. Except, of course, a corner saved for the Knockers.


Where to try some tasty pasties in Cornwall:

  • The Lizard Pasty Shop, The Lizard, tel: 01326 290889
  • Hampsons, Chapel Terrace, Hayle, tel: 01736 752427
Comments: 1

The pasty

Sat, 02/10/2010 - 14:17

One thing not mentioned here is the meat and veg at one end and the dessert at the other for a miners meal. Only once have I ever seen and ate one of these pasties.
I always only eat the pasty with pointed ends as to me, this was all you saw years ago, now the half moon shape ones are more popular but to me they are all pastry and not much meat, which is why they are probably pushed by the makers.
My future wife has a caravan on the South Coast and when we are down there, we always have a lovely well made pasty in West Bay.

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