Think of Devon, and you probably think of cream teas. Think of Cornwall and it’s pretty likely you’ll think of a Cornish pasty. Gosh, didn’t we enjoy tucking into them as children on the beach – sadly, my memory is always of pasty with added sand! But this immensely popular dish is a great example of an early packed lunch or convenience food.
There’s lots of historical evidence confirming the existence of the Cornish pasty, the earliest as far back as the 13th century during the reign of Henry III. The pasty became commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries and, by the 18th century, it was established as a Cornish food eaten by poorer working families who could only afford cheap ingredients such as potatoes, swede and onion. Meat was added later.
By the end of the 18th century it was the staple diet of working men across Cornwall. Miners and farm workers took this portable and easy to eat convenience food with them to work because it was perfect for their needs. Its size and shape made it easy to carry – its pastry case insulated the contents and was durable, while its wholesome ingredients provided enough sustenance to see the workers through their long, hard working days.
There are hundreds of stories about the evolution of the pasty’s shape, with the most popular being that the D-shape enabled tin miners to eat them safely. The crust (the crimped edge) was used as a handle which was then thrown away due to the high levels of arsenic in many of the tin mines – ugh!
The Cornish pasty recipes were handed down from generation to generation, often by word of mouth and rarely written down because they were made almost every day. Young girls were often made to practice crimping techniques using plasticine before being allowed to work with pastry!
You’ll find lots of different recipes online, but here’s a nice simple one to try. I personally think the addition of white pepper helps give it that lovely peppery kick that I remember so clearly from my childhood. Enjoy!
To make 4 Cornish pasties
- For the pastry
- 125g chilled and diced butter
- 125g lard
- 500g plain flour, plus extra
- 1 egg, beaten
For the filling
- 350g beef skirt or chuck steak, chopped
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 medium potatoes, peeled, thinly sliced
- 175g swedes, peeled, finely diced
- 1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 tbsp ground white pepper
- Rub the butter and lard into the flour with a pinch of salt using your fingertips or a food processor, then blend in 6 tbsp cold water to make a firm dough. Cut equally into 4, then chill for 20 mins.
- Heat oven to 220C/fan 200C/gas 7. Mix together the filling ingredients with 1 tsp salt. Roll out each piece of dough on a lightly floured surface until large enough to make a round about 23cm across – use a plate to trim it to shape. Firmly pack a quarter of the filling into one half of each round, leaving a margin round the edge. Brush the pastry all the way round the edge with beaten egg then carefully fold the empty half of the pastry across to form a semi-circle, or ‘D’ shape, and pinch the edges together to seal. Lift onto a non-stick baking tray and brush with the remaining egg to glaze.
- Bake for 10 mins, then lower oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4 and cook for 45 mins more until golden. Great served warm for lunch, in a picnic… or on the beach!