Culture Trip spoke to Paul Philps of Philps bakery, which has been filling the stomachs of hungry Cornishwomen and men with pasties since the 1950s. He educated us about the rich and storied history of the humble pasty.
The pasty was created as early as 1300, so we’ve been eating them for a whopping 700 years. The word comes from the Medieval French word paste, meaning a pie baked without a dish. It was established as a popular Cornish food throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and by the 1800s, the pasty had become especially popular with working-class families, as it was cheap and filling. Anyone taking a bite of a pasty at this time would have discovered a filling of vegetables and potatoes, although meat would have been added when families could afford it.
It was the advent of tin mining in the 19th century that gave the pasty legendary status. The men and children who worked in the mines couldn’t get to the surface to eat lunch, and pasties were the solution.
Their size and shape, as well as the strength and integrity of the pastry, made them the ideal food to aid the hard physical labour of working in the mines. It’s thought that this gave the food its distinctive D shape, with the crust acting as a handle for possibly arsenic-ridden hands (arsenic poisoning was an occupational hazard of tin mining) to avoid spoiling the food.
‘The miners’ wives would make the Cornish pasties savoury at one end and sweet at the other, to make a full meal,’ Philps explains. ‘The miners would take them down the mines and have them for lunch, held by the crust which became dirty from their hands and was discarded.’
How they’re made
There are strict rules for making Cornish pasties. Philps gave us the list of ingredients for his: potatoes, swede, onion and skirt beef. The latter ‘is a must,’ says Philps, to keep the pasty moist and flavourful.
To be officially classed as a Cornish pasty, there can be no imposter fillings of chicken tikka or chocolate. There must be at least 12.5% beef (no other meat is permitted) and 25% vegetables to qualify. The savoury pastry shell can be made of shortcrust, rough puff or puff pastry, as long as it’s savoury and doesn’t break or crack when baked. All the ingredients must be packed into the pastry raw, and cooked long and slow to create the taste of a traditional Cornish pasty. It’s glazed with milk or egg to turn the pasty golden as it bakes, and the edges must be sealed by crimping them at the side of the pasty, not at the top.
That’s the composition of a genuine Cornish pasty, but there are countless variations, including across Cornwall. Even Philps sells a cheese and vegetable pasty, a minced beef one and a quorn variety.
The Cornish pasty has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European Union, which means that its status is legally secure. This stops stores passing off inferior products as genuine Cornish pasties and sullying the name of the historic food. To advertise and sell the pasty as being authentically Cornish, bakeries and shops must be audited and certified by the Cornish Pasty Association (CPA) or by one of their approved bodies, as the Philps bakery is.
A Cornish pasty is only a Cornish pasty if it’s made in Cornwall. While you can buy pasties elsewhere, they’ve either been produced and baked in Cornwall and sent elsewhere, or made in Cornwall, sent elsewhere and then baked on the premises of where they’re sold. If it’s from west of the Tamar river, which forms most of the boundary between Devon and Cornwall, you’re good to take a bite.
The CPA applied for PGI status to protect the integrity of the pasty, and because the food is important to Cornish culture. The industry accounts for £300 million in trade every year, pays £15m to local farmers and accounts for 2,000 local jobs, most of which are full-time and year-round.
The CPA explains: ‘Pasties are sold in virtually every village and high street in the county and therefore support and uphold the local shops that are often the hub of communities and a lifeline for those without transport. Many bakers shops say their existence depends on the pasty.’
Philps bakery is a clear example of how pasties are a vital part of Cornish life. ‘In the height of summer we sell between 5,000 and 6,000 pasties a day,’ Philps says. ‘There’s myself, my brother and my sister in the bakery and all our children are now involved in it. It’s very much a family business. It will get passed down to future generations.’
How to eat them
There’s not really a wrong way to eat a Cornish pasty. On a fishing boat, down a tin mine or on a beach blanket, an authentic, fresh pasty is always going to be delicious.