Monday, March 05, 2007

Piran’s Pasties.

Today, March 5th …

Today is a special day for everyone who loves pasties, for it is the feast day of St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall. The problem today then, is to clarify just what distinguishes a meat pie from a pasty – is it form, function, or filling? A second problem is to determine what defines a Cornish pasty from any old pasty.

There is an old myth – oft-repeated, so skip this sentence if you know it – that the Devil never crossed the Tamar River into Cornwall, for fear of ending up in a pasty. The implication is that the contents of a pasty may include anything and everything, including some very sinister things indeed.

The Cornish wont agree of course (and they are in the middle of a fierce debate with Devonians over the issue), but they didn’t invent the pasty – it has many incarnations throughout Britain (and the rest of the world), with almost infinitely variable fillings, and all with long histories. Their common characteristics are that they are ‘turnovers’ cooked on flat trays, not in shaped pie-dishes, and they are designed (magnificently) to eat in the hand. One early twentieth century writer observed “When small, a pasty is a snack, when large, it’s a meal”. There is one English version which has a greater claim than the Cornish pasty to being a complete meal – the ‘Bedfordshire Clanger’ has has a savoury filling at one end and a sweet (usually jam) filling at the other.

The Cornish can lay claim to a particular style of pasty, that is all (but it is sufficient). So, what makes a Cornish pasty, Cornish? Traditionally it has a firm twisted edge – said to be the ‘handle’ for Cornish miners, who could then throw this dirty, contaminated piece away at the end of their dinner. But a decorative design is surely not enough? It must be the filling.

The correct filling for a Cornish pasty is debated hotly even in Cornwall. Afficionados argue as to whether meat should dominate, or vegetables. Onions seem to be a given, but are potatoes? or turnips? or both? Use of leftover meat seems fairly definitely to be eschewed by pasty purists, but whatever raw meat is used, should it be minced, or cubed?

The OED pretty well agrees with the general public on what constitutes a pasty (‘usually a small pastry turnover containing meat and vegetables’), but it also gives another definition. The pasty was ‘formerly, a pie, consisting usually of venison or other meat seasoned and enclosed in a crust of pastry, and baked without a dish.’ Sometimes these olden-day pasties were huge – containing a whole haunch of venison and requiring many hours to cook. Samuel Pepys regularly enjoyed a venison pasty, sharing it with several friends over several days.

If you don’t have venison you can use other meats, and Mrs Mary Tillinghast tells us how in her Rare and excellent receipts (1690)

How to make Venison, Beef, or Mutton Pasty.
Take a haunch or side of Venison and bone it, then take off the outermost tuff skin; then take it, and lay it in form for a Pasty; then lay the side that you took the skin from, downwards to the board; then slash it cross and cross with your Knife, then season it with two Ounces of Pepper, and a quarter of a Pound of Salt, and two Nutmegs grated; then you must have four Pound of Beef Suet shred fine, and take one half of it, season it lightly with the seasoning, and sprinkle a little water on it; then beat it with a Rowling-pin till it be all in a broad then Cake, then lay it Suet which you have beat, on the Paste; then lay on the Venison with that side down which is seasoned, then season the top of your Venison lightly: then order the other part of the Suet as you did the former, and lay it upon the top of the meat and close the Pasty.

If you make your Pasty of Beef, a Surline [Sirloin] is the best; if of Mutton, then a Shoulder or two Breasts is the best. A Venison, or a Beef Pasty, will take six hours baking.

My Book ...

There will be more, much more, on pies and pasties in my upcoming book tentatively entitled "Pies: A Celebratory History", to be published by Reaktion Press in the UK in late 2008.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Macaroni: with cheese?

Quotation for the Day …

A pasty costly-made,
Where quail and pigeon, lark and leveret lay,
Like fossils of the rock, with golden yolks
Imbedded and injellied.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Audley Court (1842)


Anonymous said...

I wondered the same thing some time back. I suspect pasties were probably developed simultaneously in various locations, coming about as a way to use excess pie crust and filling - of whatever sort.

Anonymous said...

As a native of Florida, I enjoyed eating Jamaican meat patties, the island's version of a pasty. The dough is colored with annatto, which turns it orange; the filling is minced beef (one hopes) with green onions. Spices include curry powder, chilis and allspice. I make a batch using my own recipe from time to time. It seems to me that just about every culture has its own version of the pasty.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello kitchenhand. I thought pasties developed first as a way to cook 'pies' without an oven - a small pasty can be cooked in an iron pot with a lid, like a Dutch oven, with coals on the lid. Then again, perhaps they developed as you say in several places simultaneously for different reasons.
Nene - that sounds like a fantastic version of a pasty - I wonder how the idea got to Jamaica?

Anonymous said...

Probably brought there by the English and other Europeans in the "old days." It makes sense to me that island cooks would use an Old World food item but utilize local spices for flavoring.

sue in michigan said...

Came across you blog today (2 yrs after the fact)...but thought I would add in that in the Upper Peninsular of Michigan where miners from Cornwall settled in the 1800's..pasties are a mainstay. The debate up there is 2 fold...first..rutabegas or not? and secondly, using gravy or ketchup? BTW you articles are great and I intead on reading regulary. I actually found you by googling "scotch eggs". Food and its history is amazing. thanks, sue in michigan

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Sue - thankyou for finding (and enjoying) my blog, and an especial thankyou for adding to the story of pasties.

Emma G said...

It's a little over 2 years since Sue from Michigan posted and the coincidence was too great for me to pass up! I also found this blog by doing a search for Scotch Eggs (which I recently made and was wondering the history of) and Michigan was the first place I had ever had a pasty, given to me by a friend of my grandmothers and a UP native. It was filled with beef, carrots and rutabaga, and smothered in onion gravy and told on no uncertain terms that THAT was a true pasty! LOL All I know for sure is that whenever I think about it, my mouth still starts to water, and that was a number of years ago! I am so glad I found your blog, and will certainly make it a daily stop, good accompaniment to breakfast I bet ;)

The Old Foodie said...

Hello and welcome Emma G. And my aplogies for the late reply. Have you ever tried to recreate that pasty that impressed you so much?