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The Cornish Pasty

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The learnings of Henry "Oggy" Trelissick, Esq - IV

About pasties, pastes, pies, pastez, pâte, pâté, en croűte etc.


The following comments etc. about the Cornish pasty are kindly contributed by Mr Henry "Oggy" Trelissick, a fellow pasty historian and Member of the Ancient Order of Pasty Antiquarians ...........

They were prompted by my asking: "I am confused between pasties, pastes, pies, pastez, pâte, pâté, en croute etc., I know about cofyns/coffyns where the meat etc. was baked, and the pastry case discarded, but not really when these items all came into being?"

Oggie's reply .......

I think you have most of the answers on the pasty history page. The references for the ‘historical’ pasty suggest that in olden days when knights were bold, a pasty was a pretty mighty affair and often sent out as a gift. The classic pasty is the venison pasty, but all sorts of fish and meat seem to have been sealed in a pie crust and sent out. However, there are not a lot of details, so some scholarly speculation will have to be employed.

Since the classic pasties often contain game, and most game is fairly dry meat not and really suitable for roasting, a pastry crust would allow the meat to be cooked without drying out and to retain generous quantities of gravy or added fat.

Cookbooks were just a sort of aide memoir  for professional cooks: see here. Instructions like ‘Past for a pasty: Lay down a peck of flower work it up wth 6pd of butter & 4 eggs wth cold water’ (Ed. Kidder (circa 1720) were fine for someone who had been working in kitchen since he could crawl (the BBC production of Gormenghast gives a good picture of what that must have been like). The modern cook would want to know what sort of flour, does it matter, what does 2 gallons of flour weigh, (a pint of flour weighs about 12 oz. so 2 gallons would be in the order of 12 pounds) salted or unsalted butter, have I got a big enough mixing bowl? Since the other pastry recipes in Kidder involve pounds of flour and ounces of butter, we can assume that in Kidder’s mind a pasty was to be a fairly massive affair made with (in modern terms) short crust pastry and containing a great slab of the animal to be pastified. This pastry would be edible, but I would guess it might be infra dig (beneath one's dignity) to eat it. To serve, the (usually decorated) lid of the pasty would be removed and the contents spooned out.

Kidder and John Nott suggest that there are two forms of pasty; a sort of square, low rise raised pie; and an oblong turnover arrangement similar to a modern pasty. In both cases, the Historic Food web page suggests that the ‘lid’ was removed before serving.

The earliest recipe I can find for pasties in ‘English’ is the 14th Century cookbook Le Viandier de Taillevent (do a ‘Find’ for pastez in the French or Lorey pastries in the English). Here the pastry is not intended to be eaten, at least not the base, as the instructions suggest it should be cooked hard. The contents of one of the Lorey pasties (Minced meat, pine nuts, currants, cheese, sugar and salt) are more ‘modern’.  These seem to be more like amuse bouches than the normally massive pasties.

Whatever was in it, a pasty to be served hot seems to have been the main meat plus some form of fat and gravy in a piecrust, whereas if it was going to travel the contents would be sealed with melted butter poured in after cooking.  Similar to modern potted meats, I suppose, but on a huge scale.

Anyway, as to the difference between a pasty and a pie: both are made of pastry, paste or pâte; a pasty was usually square or oblong and expected to contain a savory, i.e. game of some sort (see Pepys ref.), whereas a pie was usually more or less round and could contain just about anything, sweet or savory. The circumflex accent indicates the absence of an historic ‘s’ so pastez, pâté and pasty should mean the same thing, but pâté seems to have come to mean chopped meat in fat.

In modern French a pork pie is un pâté de porc en croűte, i.e. fatty chopped pork in a pie crust, so, with a bit of imagination, it might represent the nearest thing we have nowadays to the historic travelling pasty.  I prefer to think the Boeuf en croűte or Saumon en croűte is closer to the original concept, though. These days the pastry is puff but it still serves the same purpose – to stop the contents from drying out during baking.

Now, as regards the modern Cornish Pasty or tiddy oggie, we are dealing with poor people’s food, so there is unlikely to be much in the way of proper history. Speculation is more or less obligatory.

        The potato didn’t really become popular in Britain until the late 18th/early 19th Century.  It appears that they were introduced in 1580 by Francis Drake, following his circumnavigation of the world. In 1780 it was adopted by the people of Ireland to become a staple food - see here. In 1801, 5% of Cornish arable land was planted with potatoes – more than in most of the country except Lancashire. In mining areas this rose to as much as 25% (St. Just).  The Swede Brassica napobrassica was introduced (from Sweden!) at more or less the same time. I don’t know that the old white turnip is really suited to Cornish conditions.

So the, as presently understood, Cornish pasty can’t be much more than 200-250 years old.

That’s not to say that a plain old oggie didn’t exist back into the mists of time, possibly leek or cabbage based with a bit of bacon or whatever for flavour. In the Berry, France, they make a pie or flan based on leeks and bacon with beaten egg and cream added and very tasty it is too. I can imagine something like that in a pastry or bread dough case – although it might be more practical to have the crimp running across the top with a wetter filling. The bread/pastry in the olden days would probably have been based on Barley or Oatmeal rather than Wheat flour , or wheat flour ‘stretched’ with one or both of the others (from Elizabeth David, English Bread and Yeast Cookery).

So here we have a bit more about the origins and history of the Cornish pasty.


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