As a fully-paid-up emmet (a Cornish derogatory term for tourists that I cannot resist pointing out is derived from the Old English for ant), it makes me feel as nervous as when I was exploring the exotic landscapes in the Southern Gumbo or the Goan Fish Curry.
Pasties were enjoyed in all parts of the British Isles – C Anne Wilson, in her excellent History of British Food, mentions that whole chickens, joints of meat, and even porpoise meat pasties for religious fasts were made in the 15th Century. With their typical grit and determination, the Cornish have hung onto their packed lunches more tenaciously than us.
They have even gone as far to protect them from corruption by granting a European PGI or Protected Geographical Status. This stipulates that the pasty must be a rich pastry filled with raw beef and swede with potato and onion to be considered worthy of its name. It should also be made west of Tamar.
The Old Story about the Devil being afraid to cross the river because “Cornishwomen put everything in a pasty” suggests that strictness was not always the norm. The 1929 book Cornish Recipes Ancient & Modern, published by the Cornwall Federation of Women’s Institutes, contains 15 pastry recipes ranging from apple to turnip. No recipe is given more weight than another. The truth is, we’re stuck with it. I will stick to the official version as an emmet. The Guardian, for which I apologize, refused to send me to Cornwall.
The Cornishwomen also claims that “any good pasty can be used, but it shouldn’t be too flaky or rich.” The PGI stresses that pasties should be “robust” – according to the Oxford Companion to Food, all pasties were made “to recipe and baked so that it would be too hard to eat.” The shell is there only to protect the filling from heat and ease of transport (pasties are popular among the county’s miners).
We prefer eating the stuff these days, but Gary Rhodes’ suggestion for puff pastry in New British Classics is delicious, but it doesn’t produce the type of pasty you can easily pop into your pocket to take down a mine. These fancy foreign pastries have no backbone.
The Cornish pasty is made according to the recipe in Ann Pascoe’s Cornish Recipes, Old and New. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
Everyone else uses a variation on shortcrust – the WI version, using lard, is crumbly and a bit dry. At the same time, the all-butter pastry I take from Ann Pascoe’s Cornish Recipes (a little book published and printed in Cornwall in 1970 and given to me by a kind Cornishwoman-in-exile in Hackney), is better but, conversely, too soft.
Mark Hix uses a butter-lard mixture in his British Regional Food. But my favorite variety is from the Cornish Pasty Association (PDF). Richard Bertinet, in his book Pastry, explains that margarine gives the “traditional flaky softness” required. The CPA uses both shortening (which Richard Bertinet says “gives the traditional flaky texture”) and bread flour instead of plain flour because “you need the extra strength from the gluten to make strong and pliable pasty.” It’s sturdy enough to withstand a few drops down a mine and almost fluffy on the inside. However, I feel, perhaps heretically, that it lacks flavor. So I will replace the shortening by lard. You can still use their version if you don’t like pork.
Cornish bakers say it is essential to chill and rest the pastry before baking pasties. This makes them easier to roll out and helps to keep their shape in the oven. The Cornish bakers wait three hours, but I am impatient and find two is enough.
In Florence White’s Good Things in England from 1922, the recipe attributed to St Ives uses calves’ liver and beef steak in the filling. Today, however, steak is acceptable. The WI only mentions “fresh steak”; however, I prefer a skirt. Mark Hix’s (ahem) rump doesn’t have the right texture, and I don’t think the chuck has enough fat to moisten the pasties. The skirt found just below the cow’s diaphragm has a great flavor, and when cooked gently and slowly, it becomes tender.
Mark Hix takes a further swipe at Cornish tradition by cooking the meat and vegetables before serving. Browning the meat improves its flavor, but it can also dry it out with these small pieces.
The Cornish pasty is made according to the recipe in the WI’s Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
There is no debate: carrots are “sacrilege,” as the Cornish Pasty Association explains: the Swede provides all the sweetness that this dish requires. The CPA clarifies that older recipes are vague about the exact ingredients, but the CPA also states that the potatoes used by Mark Hix should be waxy and not floury. This will help them keep their shape after cooking.
It’s not necessary to precook the onions as he does. If the pieces are cut in equal sizes, they will cook through and caramelize sweetly. The other versions still have a slight hint of raw onion flavor, which seems to be an essential part of the flavor.
I don’t know why Gary Rhodes slices his vegetables thinly and stacks them neatly – maybe to get a bit of each vegetable in every mouthful? It makes it difficult to seal his pasties, and I think they look a bit odd. It’s unlike the artful presentation I’ve seen in their home country.
The Cornish Pasty Association Cornish pasty. Photograph: Felicity Cloake for the Guardian
The WI recipe is sadly dry. Mark Hix goes to great lengths to make his filling. He reduces stock and Worcestershire sauce, coating the meat with a deep, savory stickiness. It’s delicious yet quite different from the plain flavors of the traditional pastry, which don’t need such embellishment.
Gary Rhodes butter adds a subtle richness, but a drop of water will do. The Cornish Pasty Association, blobs of clotted cream, are too good to resist. Two Cornish classics combined.