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The Cornish Pasty

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The history of the Cornish pasty

There are many references to the history of the Cornish pasty on the electric internet. There are also eighteen pages on this web site that touch on different aspects of their origins:

This page will give an overview, no doubt mentioning some of the above pages in passing but the viewer may like to refer to them for detail.

The truth is that nobody can tell you the real beginnings of the Cornish pasty because they truly are "lost in the mists of time". However, history and folk-memory shed some light on the subject.

You can start the story from wherever you like - from the earliest literature, such as Chretien de Troyes - 1190 AD and Early references to pasties - 13th Century to 1746, not forgetting The Plymouth Pasty - 1510 AD, or at the very beginning - On the origin of life, the universe & the pasty.

Viewers of the Discovery, National Geographic and History channels on Sky TV will know there have been programmes lately about the origins of the universe and the universe includes Cornish pasties!

Only tonight (26 May 2008) there was a 'special' presented by Prof Stephen Hawking wherein he expounded on the Big Bang Theory, when the universe came into being 14,000,000,000 (i.e. 14 billion) years ago - exemplifying the concept of "Creation" described in several world religions. You may ask "what has this to do with the history of the Cornish pasty?" As he said in the programme, everything in the universe is made from 'stardust', in other words, everything, including Cornish pasties, is derived from the debris of the Big Bang and the supernovae that subsequently followed it down the aeons.

Further, it has been theorised that the water on earth may have arrived by a rain of comets or asteroidal ice. Also, it has been suggested that life itself was seeded on earth by the rain of asteroids that occurred early in the life of the planet (see On the origin of life, the universe & the pasty).

Stargazer, watching a meteor

An aside, for those prepared to be amazed on this subject, Google Answers says:

"According to Our Dynamic Earth, "The number of meteorites which survive the journey through the atmosphere, land on the Earth and are large enough to be seen and found is about 2 per day."

What I find more significant is that approximately "40,000 kg of material falls daily on Earth, most of it in the form of micrometeorites." That's a lot of cosmic dust added to our planet.

These figures are confirmed in information provided by the Louisiana State University at Shreveport 's Shreveport/Bossier Astronomical Society at: (meteors.htm) ... that micro-meteorites "... are falling continuously on us at an estimated rate of 10,000 tons daily. This amounts to about 4 ozs. per square mile per year.")

NB meteors.htm seems to be no longer available, but here another reference to it in Google Answers.
 

Comet divider, going right


NOW, from cosmic origins, closer towards the Cornish pasty, .....

If we put aside the evolution of The pasty tree and How the meat got in the wild pasty, recent history is better understood.

It is well documented that Britain is surrounded by remnants of ancient (pasty?) forest that is now submerged in the sea. This occurred at the end of the last ice age which ended 9,500-10,000 years ago, when the sea level rose about 40 meters. Submerged forests are described in:

Clearly, this is evidence for the existence of many lost lands, including Lyonesse.

Incidentally, another interesting web page tells of the formation of the Black Sea, about 7500 years ago, echoing the biblical story of Noah's flood, and the finding of the remains of a house 311 feet below the surface of the water.

Wikipedia - Prehistoric Britain says .....

"Britain has been intermittently inhabited by members of the Homo genus for hundreds of thousands of years and by Homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years ....... At this time the sea level was around 127 meters lower than today so that Britain was joined to Ireland and to the continent of Europe." and

 

"After the end of the last Ice Age (around 9500 years ago) Ireland became separated from Britain and later (around 6000 BC) Britain was cut off from the rest of Europe. By 12,000 BC Britain had been reoccupied, as shown by archaeology. By around 4000 BC, the island was populated by people with a Neolithic culture. However, none of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain have any known surviving written language. No literature of pre-Roman Britain has survived, so its history, culture and way of life are known mainly through archaeological finds."

 

For those interested in early man, the Prehistoric Britain article in Wikipedia is a 'must read' item (however, no mention of Cornish pasties).

Wikipedia - Prehistoric Deluges describes the formation of many seas over time due to geological/glacial events, including .....

"At the most recent glacial maximum, so much of the planet's water was locked up in the vast ice-sheets kilometers thick, that the sea level dropped by about 120 to 130 meters."
 

Comet divider, going left


NOW, from palaeo-archaeology, to the Cornish pasty specifically .....

As said above, the real beginnings of the Cornish pasty are "lost in the mists of time".

What can be said is that the proper Cornish Pasty appears to be inextricably linked to tin mining. This is because tin mining developed into working deep underground where theTin mine engine house silhouette process produced poisonous dust (containing tin, copper, arsenic etc) which the miners became covered in. Therefore, holding a pasty by the crust while eating it with dirty hands, and throwing away the crust afterwards, became a safe way for miners to sustain themselves during the working day. This was probably the origin of the shape of the Cornish pasty, with its distinctive crust down the side.

It is possible that the earliest pasties were not like today's Cornish pasties but more decorated like e.g. Edward Kidder - lamb pasty, venison pasties, circa 1720. This page shows circular, square and scalloped-square pasties as well as the highly ornate elongated D-shaped pasty. These were dishes for the gentry and unlikely to be sampled by the wretches trying to scratch a living from mining or farming.

The shape of the Cornish pasty evolved to meet the needs for safe eating with dirty hands. It also had to be strong enough to survive being carried down into the mines, hence the strong pastry case.  It also had to be reasonably easy to make and to be an all-in-one-meal, perhaps the original fast-food meal?

This being said, the history of the pasty is therefore closely linked to the history of underground tin-mining, even if it wasn't closely associated with the early surface tin streaming which, by definition, allowed for the washing of hands. The development of deep mining, in parallel to steam-engine development, is described here: Cornish-mining: post-1700 AD.

Wikipedia - Mining in Cornwall tells us that tin mining in Cornwall started around 2150 BC. This would have been based on the alluvial deposits in streams. Deep underground mines started in the 16th Century. The industry was at its height in the early 1800's but by the 1850, the decline had begun and miners began to emigrate to other countries, taking Cornish culture with them, including the Cornish pasty.

Wikipedia - Cornish emigration tells of how the miners emigrated to United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa. Quote:

"It is estimated that 250,000 Cornish migrated abroad between 1861 and 1901 and these emigrants included farmers, merchants and tradesmen, but miners made up most of the numbers. There is a well known saying in Cornwall that "a mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it!"

The degree of emigration was such that besides starting pasties in Latin America, Mexico, USA, Canada, South Africa and Australia, their influence was such that Jamaica has a county called "Cornwall", which includes a parish called "Trelawny" and has "Falmouth" as its capital! Also, see: The Diary of Samuel Pepys, quote:

"The sun never sets on the Cornish pasty They are very common in Jamaica, of all places, where they are also extremely spicy."

Much of the mining information above is obtained from:

From the above, it can be argued that the proper Cornish pasty started with underground tin mining in the 16th Century, but again, as said above - "nobody can tell you the real beginnings of the Cornish pasty because they truly are lost in the mists of time".

We are still trying to track down the often-cited reference to the recipe by Mrs Polwhele, 1746 AD, that was found in the Cornwall Records Office, it is cited by:

At the moment, it appears to have been mis-referenced or misplaced in the Records Office as they have not found it during several searches for The Cornish Pasty. However, there is a letter from 1746 written by Jane Barriball, Laaunceston, to John Tremayne, Heligan, St Ewe, both places being in Cornwall.

The Plymouth Pasty - 1510 AD is claimed by some as evidence that Devon was the originator of the Cornish pasty. This list of accounts entries is actually for a high-class feast, not for poor people's (Cornish turnover) pasties.  Samuel Pepys - diary entries 1660-1668 AD indicates how pasties of that time were usually venison, being shared at the table and were  more like what we now call a "pasty pie".  These pasties were unlikely to be typical Cornish pasties, which are made as individual servings.

As always, The Cornish Pasty endeavours to bring 'ee nothing but the facts .....

You will need to check the links on this page to get more detail because, as you can see, the history of the Cornish pasty is a long, old story and this page is only an overview.

Celtic spiral animation