The traditional Cornish pasty has been a part of the British diet since the 14th century. History books confirm its importance to British culture – although in the early years, it was considered a luxury food item that was eaten only by the upper classes.
Today, Cornish pasties are available for everyone, but back in the 1300s, they were a royal delicacy! The first references to pasties appear during King Edward III’s reign.
A historic cookery book, dating from 1393, contains the first mention of a pasty recipe, although the Oxford English Dictionary maintains pasties were eaten as long ago as 1300.
Cornish pasty origins
The word “pasty” is believed to be derived from the Medieval French word, “paste” – referring to a savoury pie containing any filling that you desire, served without a dish. Over the years, its popularity filtered down to the masses and it ceased to be merely a delicacy for the upper classes by the 16th century.
In fact, it soon became a staple part of the diet for working class families in Cornwall, as filling a pastry case with relatively cheap and nutritional fresh ingredients such as potatoes, onions and swedes, was a good way of feeding a family.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, meat wasn’t something the average working class family could afford, so the pasty would have been made mainly of potatoes and veg, although a few may have contained cheap cuts of meat on occasion.
As the mining industry in Cornwall boomed in the 18th century, so did Cornish pasties. The Cornish tin miners’ wives would make the all-in-one meal to provide a filling and healthy lunch for their husband during the gruelling day down the cold, dark mine.
Working at great depths, the miners couldn’t surface during the day, so they had to eat while in the mine. Adults and children worked down the tin mines and Cornish pasties kept them going!
Historians believe the pasties were wrapped in paper bags or muslin cloth, so the miners wouldn’t eat them with dirty hands contaminated with arsenic – a by-product of tin and copper mining. The Cornish pasty was also known as the “crib” or “croust” among the 18th-century miners. Both of these terms meant “a bite to eat”.
Cornwall’s national dish
The Cornish pasty (Cornwall’s national dish) has been highly praised by writers over the years. Henry Vivian, writing in the Cambrian Archaeological Association journal of 1862, describes how it “admirably comprises a dinner in itself”, with its meat, potatoes and “other good things” made into a “portable” meal.
He said he had bought a pasty at the historic Cornish town of Bodmin and had taken it home to show to his cook so that she might “dissect” it and prepare the dish herself. The Cornish pasty had been the subject of “much admiration”, he added.
James Orchard Halliwell, in his 1861 book, Rambles in Western Cornwall by the Footsteps of the Giants, described how Cornish pasties – made of small pieces of beef, thinly sliced potatoes and pepper enclosed in pastry wrappers – were “very popular with the working classes.” He added they had been successfully introduced into Devonshire.
Cornish pasties are so legendary that competitions and events are organised in their honour. Pasty makers from all over the world gathered at Cornwall’s leading visitor attraction, the Eden Project, in March for the seventh annual World Pasty Championship.
Representatives of The Pure Pasty Co (who had travelled to Cornwall all the way from Washington DC, in the United States), won the Open Savoury category with their filling of barbecue chicken, sweet potato, red peppers, zucchini, pineapple and corn.
An estimated 120 million Cornish pasties are cooked each year, generating around 20% of the total turnover of Cornwall’s food and drink sector. Thus, their importance to the local economy is enormous.
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