Is this fish head pie Britain's most disgusting Christmas recipe?

Recipe for Stargazy pie

Stargazy Pie done proper - Credit: James Strawbridge/MSC

The tiny harbour village  of Mousehole is Cornwall's Christmas capital - not only for its famous harbour lights - but also for the fable that created a seasonal dish to feed starving villagers that leaves much to be desired, writes Susan Griffin.


If ever there was a dish that requires a soundtrack while cooked, it’s Stargazy pie. At least that’s the opinion of Cornwall chef James Strawbridge who likes nothing more than cranking up “anything that gets my sea shanty singing going” when he makes the iconic Cornish dish with his three young children. 

'We’re big fans of Stargazy in our house with its beautiful golden pastry, and the fish heads protruding through. It’s the recipe that’s guaranteed to get the biggest reaction from everyone whenever we get some Cornish sardines,” says James who runs Strawbridge Kitchen.

James Strawbridge

James Strawbridge with his stargazy pie - Credit: Strawbridge Kitchen

'I’ve studied history for years and written books on food and cooking, but there are very few things I’d put up there in my top 10 that compare with Stargazy for regional celebration and wow factor. It’s such a superb recipe, but it’s not only about how you cook it, it’s such a wonderful story too.'

The Mousehole Cat

Mousehole harbour is home to the Christmas fable of Stargazy Pie - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

Originating from Mousehole, the dish is traditionally eaten during the festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve on December 23 in honour of the famous fisherman’s heroic catch. 
The exact period in history remains a mystery, as all great legends do, but according to the fable, the weather was so wild and stormy one winter, it prevented the fishing boats leaving the harbour. 

With the villagers close to starvation, Tom Bawcock took it upon himself to brave the elements and headed out in his boat, returning with a catch big enough to feed everyone. 

The Stargazy pie, famed for the sardine heads looking skyward, or ‘stargazing,’ is said to have been concocted with the fish he caught, and to this day is a celebration of his courageous endeavour.

The story’s been passed down through generations, and was the focus of Antonia Barber’s children’s book The Mousehole Cat, which referenced Stargazy pie. The dish is also served for free at Mousehole’s The Ship Inn (shipinnmousehole.co.uk) following a lantern parade through the village as part of Tom Bawcock’s Eve each December. The festival was cancelled last year due to lockdown, but it’s hoped an event will happen this year, even if it’s downsized, and donations for the pie will once again go to the local RNLI.

Mousehole at Christmas

Mousehole's The Ship Inn has Stargazy pie on the menu - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

'We tend to visit the Mousehole Christmas lights each year, which is always a lovely tradition, but it’s also great fun to watch that whole folklore come to life,' says James. 

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'I really do feel I’ve got a really deep connection with it. I love the story, love the recipe and I love how it makes people feel when you put it down on the table and enjoy it together.'

He first heard about the dish a decade ago while sailing around the British coast with his dad Dick Strawbridge, of Escape to the Chateau fame, for a series called The Hungry Sailors.

'We basically stopped off at ports and harbours and cooked classic recipes from the local area, and in Mousehole we learnt about the folklore and history of Stargazy from the local fishermen.'

Much like pasties, which were traditionally made with whatever produce was available, Stargazy can incorporate all sorts of fish.

Fishing for pilchards in Cornwall

David-Pascoe, Tom-Pascoe, David-Thomas and Vinnie-Clements on Serene Dawn - Credit: Nigel Millard for MSC

'Really, it’s almost like a ‘make it up as you go along’ kind of pie because every single one will look and taste different according to how you prepare it,' notes James who’s created individual Stargazy pies for guests before, and in 2007, chef Mark Hix won the main course of the Great British Menu with his own take on the dish where he combined rabbit and crayfish.

'If you’ve got good quality fish, there’s no reason not to put some Cornish hake in there, or some nice prawns as well. Just look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified blue label, which means they meet the MSC standard. But if you want to do it properly then I think you’ve just got to be a purist, which means you need a shed load of Cornish sardines, get your pilchard mojo on and have a bit of fun with it,' he explains. James recommends filleting the sardines and mixing it in with the pie filling.

'I tend to use a little bit of bacon or pancetta in the pie because it provides a lovely meatiness alongside the Cornish sardines, and because it’s such an oily fish, you need capers, or something similar, to cut through it. 

'Play with classic herbs, use white wine or cider, and if you can, make your own pastry. It reconnects you with old-fashioned ways of making a meal from scratch, but it’s not essential and you can buy shortcrust or puff pastry instead.'

He also suggests keeping the sides simple: 'something like fresh, wilted greens because even though it’s affordable to make, this is a rich and decadent pie.

And theatrical too, thanks to the Cornish sardine heads poking out of the pastry. 

'My 10-year-old son and I have eaten the fish heads and I have to say, I don’t recommend it. It’s very crunchy, and not the best bit of the dish,” warns James, but don’t forgo them.

'I think not including the heads is a bit like not eating the crimp of a pastry. I have no time for it. If you’re going to do something like Stargazy pie, you’ve got to do it properly and respectfully for the past because it’s a proud story of a community and it’s important to keep passing these traditions onto the next generation.'

Christmas in Cornwall

A slice of Stargazy Pie - Credit: James Strawbridge for MSC

Stargazy Pie 
(Serves 4)
Ingredients
6 MSC Cornish sardines, filleted but keep the heads 
400g butter shortcrust pastry 
1 shallot, finely diced 
1 potato, finely diced 
½ fennel bulb, finely diced 
1 clove of garlic 
150g pancetta 
50g butter 
1 tbsp chives, chopped 
1 tbsp parsley chopped 
2 tbsp of plain flour 
75ml white wine or dry cider 
150ml milk 
150ml double cream 
Pinch of saffron 
Salt and pepper to season 
 
Method
Preheat your oven to 180˚C. Fry off your pancetta in butter. Add diced shallot, garlic, potato and fennel bulb to the pan. Sauté for 5-10 mins. 

Add 2 tbsp of flour to the pan and cook out the flour in the butter until you have a smooth roux paste. Then add 75ml wine or cider followed by saffron, milk and cream. Stir the contents on a low heat for 10-12 mins. 

Roll out your pastry lid to approximately 25m diameter on a floured surface and make slits for the heads to poke through. 

Add your sardine fillets and herbs to the pie filling and transfer to the pie dish. Season to taste with sea salt and cracked black pepper. 

Then add the Cornish sardine heads poking up to the stars. Carefully lay the pastry over the top and crimp around the dish to neaten up the edges and brush with beaten egg.

Bake for 30-35 mins until golden brown and serve with steamed greens or boiled new potatoes. 

Recipe created by James Strawbridge for the Marine Stewardship Council as a celebration of sustainable seafood