Let’s start with the basics: what exactly is a Cornish pasty? In essence, a Cornish pasty is a circle of pastry, folded in half and sealed, with a savoury filling inside – traditionally beef, potato, onion and swede in gravy. One edge of the pasty is crimped into a thick crust.
Although the concept of the pasty was actually developed in the 13th century, as a seafood-filled delicacy for the upper classes and for royalty, by the 17th and 18th centuries the pasty had been adapted to become a staple meat and vegetable-based lunch for workers in the thriving Cornish tin-mining industry. Made by their wives or mothers as an easily transportable, all-in-one lunch that was both filling and tasty, the Cornish pasty was ideal for miners also because it was so easy to eat: it could be safely held in dirty hands by using the crust as a handle, which was then thrown aside.
The miners believed, however, that the crust would not go to waste even if it was discarded on the floor of the mine: legend had it that the ghosts or sprites of the mines, known locally as ‘knockers’, would eat the leftover pasty crusts and therefore be placated, meaning that they would not cause any mischief in the mine.
Miners either brought their pasties pre-cooked to work, as the pastry would keep the filling warm for many hours, or cooked them by hand on-site at the mine. Such was the popularity of Cornish pasties as a hearty lunch that some mines even had stoves installed specifically for cooking them!
Despite the decline of the Cornish mining industry and the closure of the last Cornish tin mine in 1998, pasties have retained their popularity, both in Cornwall and beyond – although, did you know that the Cornish pasty has since 2011 had formal protected food name status, meaning that only pasties made in Cornwall can legally be called Cornish pasties?
Many rituals and beliefs surrounding Cornish pasties endure to this day. The Cornish rugby team still uses the pasty as a symbol of good luck before important matches, and legend states that the Devil will never cross the River Tamar into Cornwall for fear of being made into a pasty filling – based on the myth that Cornish women will use anything that is to hand to fill their Cornish pasties!
And now a final Cornish pasty-related fact: the largest ever Cornish pasty was made by the Proper Cornish Food Company in August 2010, weighing an incredible 728kg!