What's a proper Cornish pasty - and where's the best place to get one?

Cornish pasties by Warrens

Cornish pasties by Warrens - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

The Cornish pasty had the rare distinction of being at the centre of a political storm when it became the flagship food highlighted as at risk due to plans to add VAT to bakery takeaways (the so-called pasty tax was introduced in 2013). And now it faces a new one.  

The Cornish Pasty Association campaigned successfully to have the Cornish Pasty recognised as Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in Europe, but a new pastygate could be on its way thanks to Brexit - PGI status remains in the EU – but not in the UK. Will this pave the way for one from another part of England...? 

It’s a tasty – and valuable asset: the industry is worth around £300 million to the county and employs more than 2,000 people according to the Cornish Pasty Association which represents the industry. Something Cornwall has every intention of holding on to.  

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the word pasty was identified in around 1300, but it was in the 1800s that it became a popular repast for miners and farm workers. A perfectly designed man-sized finger food, the pleated crust provides the perfect structure to eat with your hands without spillage. From the Americas to Australia, pasties derived from recipes passed down by Cornish emigrants over centuries are eaten and enjoyed by many millions of people across the globe. Australia even boasts a number of commercial pasty shops and pop-up stalls, a result of the many thousands of Cornish who landed on its shores during the Cornish Diaspora of the 19th century. How the Oz Oggy compares to its Cornish cousin remains a hot topic. 

A real Cornish pasty - made in Cornwall

A real Cornish pasty - made in Cornwall - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

The pasty originally evolved to meet the needs of tin mining, that other great, but now sadly declined, Cornish industry. A hearty meal wrapped in a pastry casing made for a very practical lunch (or ‘croust’ ) down in the dark and damp tunnels of the mine. Some mines built ovens on the surface to keep the miners' pasties hot until it was time to eat. Recipes were handed down from generation to generation, often by word of mouth and rarely written down because they were made almost every day. Pasties formed a key part of Cornish local life and tradition. Long before text alerts, the famous ‘Oggy! Oggy!  Oggy!’ chant is said to have originated from pasty sellers (or miner’s wives) announcing the arrival of their lunch). The traditional reply was ‘Oi, Oi, Oi’. 

The Eden Project hosts an annual world championship that attracts inventive bakers from across the world (it was sadly cancelled this year). Nicknamed the Olympics of the Oggy – the championships celebrate the traditional Cornish pasty recipe, as well as some more unusual varieties. Judges have gotten their tastebuds around such delights as a beef, pork, mozzarella and parmesan pasty, a chicken, gammon and carrot pasty, steak and kidney pasty and one filled with bacon, brie and chutney. 

Tradition has it that the original pasties contained meat and vegetables in one end and jam or fruit in the other end, in order to give the hard-working men a two-course launch. Cornish housewives also marked their husband’s initials on the left-hand side of the pastry casing, in order to avoid confusion at lunchtime (today pasty bakers will add letters to help identify the fillings). Purists continue to insist that a proper Cornish pasty must contain specific ingredients – but at last count there were dozens of different versions – including vegan Thai curry, a Christmas dinner version and even one filled with ice cream. Warrens – which prides itself as the first commercial pasty bakers – even has its own development kitchen.  

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 Young girls were often made to practice crimping techniques using modelling clay before being allowed to work with pastry. 

Cornishpastyassocation.co.uk 

The pasty file 

A giant spherical pasty in the style of an atlas made by head chef Tony Trenerry who made the pasty over eight hours

A giant spherical pasty in the style of an atlas made by head chef Tony Trenerry who made the pasty over eight hours for the 2015 World Pasty Championships - Credit: Photograph by Emily Whitfield-Wicks

Cornish pasties top the league of more than 70 GI products in the UK, and ahead of Jersey Royal potatoes and Scotch whisky. 

The largest pasty record is held in Falmouth when bakers in Falmouth made their own giant pasty during the town’s first ever Pasty Festival beating the previous record of over 32 feet. 

It was said that women were not judged on their looks or riches but whether they had the right kind of thumb pad thought to be the perfect pasty crimper’s hand. A skilled crimper will crimp three to four pasties a minute (although seven a minute has been recorded). 

A pasty crimped by a left hander is called a cock pasty, while a right-handed crimper makes hen pasties.  

The next World Pasty Championships will return to the Eden Project for a 10th anniversary event in 2022, on St Piran’s Day, March 5 as a fitting end to Cornish Pasty Week. 

The perfect pasty filling 

The perfect pasty filling - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

Pasty purisms 
There are many theories floating around Cornwall that there is only one type of pasty that deserves the name. The ingredients are set in stone and any deviation from this careful balance of potato, turnip (or swede), meat and spices is simply not a proper Cornish pasty. But this writer has always found it slightly baffling that a hard-working miner would be sent off to mines empty-handed, simply because the cook had run out of turnip.  

Classic pasty fillings at Warrens bakery

Classic pasty fillings at Warrens bakery - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

The traditional filling ingredients for Cornish pasties are: 
Sliced or diced potato 
Swede (turnip) 
Onion 
Diced or minced beef 
Seasoning to taste, primarily salt and pepper.  
The meat content must not be less than 12.5 per cent of the whole pasty and vegetable content must not be less than 25 per cent. 

Top three places in Cornwall to get a Cornish pasty

At the risk of serving up a side of ire, here are Cornwall Life's top three pasties

Warren's - dating back to 1860, Warren's are the oldest pasty bakery. The team has helped us survive lockdown with their own pasty hampers and selection boxes - including some vegan, vegetarian and sweet varieties. 

Philps - you only have to see the queues forming at the shop on Hayle's harbour front. to know this oft-mispronounced family bakery chain are serving up something special - and they are. 

Malcolm Barnecutt  - crimping for 90 years, these Cornish bakers offer cafe seating and pasties by post - and their saffron cake isn't bad either. 

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