If Cornwall and Devon go to war–and nothing’s too crazy these days–it will be about either who baked the first pasty or who knows the right way to make a cream tea. You’ll agree, I’m sure, that these are reasonable things for neighboring counties to shed blood over, but they may have to wait until people aren’t quite so distracted by the cost of living crisis that the important things slip past them unnoticed.
In the meantime, allow me, please, to stoke the fires of cultural warfare by exploring, in my usual even-handed way, the history of the Cornish pasty. Or possibly the Devon pasty.
We’ll skip that business about cream tea for now.
What’s a pasty?
Basically, a semicircular pie made of beef, potatoes, onions, and turnips, only the turnips are called swedes. It might just possibly have other stuff as well, but before we get to that let’s dive down the closest rabbit hole and ask why turnips are called swedes.
According to one gardening catalog’s website, “The swede is thought to have been introduced into Britain around 1800. It is said that King Gustav of Sweden sent the first swede seeds as a gift to Patrick Miller (1731 – 1815) of Dumfries and Galloway, and that this act resulted in the vegetable being called ‘swede.’ ”
The website also says they’re called rutabagas in the US, from a Swedish word meaning thick root. Well, maybe and maybe not. I grew up in New York and remember turnips being called turnips, although I don’t remember that we ate them. Rutabaga, I think, is a regionalism. Or else calling a turnip a turnip is a regionalism. But that’s the wrong rabbit hole, so we’ll back out before we get stuck.
A different gardening catalog site says the swede is “bigger, tougher skinned, yellow fleshed and much hardier than a turnip.“ So basically, by this definition they’re the same thing but different.
You needed to know all of that, right? Now we’ll leave the rabbits and their burrow in peace and get to something vaguely resembling the point.
Before Britain left the European Union, the Cornish pasty got protected status from the EU, meaning that if a pasty wasn’t made in Cornwall, it couldn’t claim to be a Cornish pasty. Or, since no pasty makes claims on its own behalf, the person selling it couldn’t make that claim.
To translate that into handy bureaucratese, “At least one stage of the production, processing or preparation of the product must currently take place in Cornwall.”
If I’m reading that correctly, you could run the length of Cornwall with a potato and a knife and just as you’re about to cross the Tamar River into Devon cut the potato in two, then use one or both halves to make a pasty in Devon, and still call the result a Cornish pasty, although you’d have gone to a lot of trouble without getting much benefit from it.
Besides, Cornwall left the EU along with the rest of Britain, so the pasty lost its protected status. I admit, that’s well down the list of problems Brexit caused, but the Devon pasty never had protected status to lose, so if we’re keeping score that’s one point for Cornwall. Unless you’re a Brexiteer, in which case you’ll give that point to Devon anyway.
Do pasties always have beef, potatoes, and whatever?
As far as most people are concerned, yes. If someone asks for a pasty, they’re expecting beef, potato, onion, and swede, wrapped in pastry and crimped along the edge. You might slip in a bit of carrot or five army-green peas, but I understand they’re controversial. These days, though, you can also buy cheese and onion pasties, vegan pasties, gluten-free pasties, steak and stilton pasties. In Padstow, I’ve even seen apple pasties and chocolate pasties in displayed shop windows.
The tourists don’t know any better, but Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is in despair and rumor has it he’s taking applications from other counties, hoping they’ll show more respect for their traditional foods.
Was that always what was in a pasty?
Of course not. Where’s the fun in writing about something that has a simple history? If we go back to medieval times, we can find recipes that use venison, beef, lamb, seafood, and eels, flavoring them with gravies and fruits.
Okay, someone else can find the recipes for us. I’ll surprise no one if I admit to relying on secondary sources.
Were those the first pasties, then–the pasty pioneers? Once again, of course not. Those are the ones that got written down. Folk pasties, like folk songs, had to make their way in the world without benefit of written records.
In addition to their having been written down, what tells us that these aren’t folk pasties is that only the rich (along with a lucky poacher or two) ate venison. So if ordinary folk ate pasties–and they probably did–that’s not what they wrapped their pastry around, and if you’ll follow me further into the realm of guesswork, I’m going to assert that they used whatever they had, because most people lived on the edge. Food was scarce. They made what they could out of what they had. And before 1586, that wouldn’t have included potatoes because they hadn’t reached Britain yet. They’re a New World import.
The ordinary Cornish pasty–what we could call the folk pasty, although no one else does–first becomes visible with the rise of the Cornish mining industry in the 1700s. Pasties were filling enough to keep a miner going through a hard day’s work at a time when not even the wildest of wild-eyed radicals were suggesting the 8-hour day or the 5-day week.
The website of the Cornish Pasty Association (of course there’s Cornish Pasty Association) tells us that “the wives of Cornish tin miners would lovingly prepare these all-in-one meals to provide sustenance for their spouses during their gruelling days down the dark, damp mines.”
I won’t argue with dark or damp, but I will argue with the double L in grueling because I’m American by birth and spelling. I’ll also argue about every last pasty being prepared lovingly. Some wives and husbands were loving. Others were disappointed and bitter. A few were baffled or indifferent or repelled. Either all or almost all were exhausted, which takes a good bit of the love out of cooking, and sometimes out of love itself. Still, make them they did, because carryout (or takeout, or whatever you want to call it) hadn’t been invented, and neither had disposable income.
In everything I’ve read about miners and pasties, no one’s bothered to mention whether the bal maidens–the women who worked above ground at the mines–also ate pasties. It’s always the men eating and the women cooking. Interesting, isn’t it?
Bal? It’s the Cornish word for mine.
The standing belief is that the reason pasties were (and are) shaped like a capital D was to allow miners to hold the crust at one end with a work-grimed hand, then throw that final piece away. Arsenic was a presence in Cornish mines–so much of it that in the nineteenth century mining companies dug it out and sold it as a pesticide, and it was from that humble start that arsenic went on to power many a British mystery. How else was a mere woman to kill her husband?
That business about holding the pasty by the crust isn’t an established fact, though. Some people argue that miners carried their pasties in muslin bags, or in paper ones, and used the bags to hold the pasty while they ate. At least one photograph supports the argument, and it only makes sense considering that they had to not only carry their pasties to the mine but set them down someplace filthy until lunchtime.
According to legend, miners used to leave the final piece of crust for the knockers, who were–well, I can’t find a reliable source for this, so let’s go with WikiWhatsia. Knockers lived underground and were about two feet tall, with big heads, long arms, wrinkly skin, and white whiskers. They dressed like miners and were mostly benevolent. If you listened to their knocking, they could help you find productive seams. They could warn you of an impending collapse. They could also steal your tools or put out your candle. So a bit of crust from your pasty? Sure. You’d want these guys to like you.
How did these creatures exist if they were all guys and all had whiskers? One strand of belief held that they were the spirits of miners who’d died underground. Another held that they were the ghosts of Jews who worked the mines in the eleventh and twelfth centuries–or possibly earlier.
Yes, kids, we’re getting deep into the land of unsubstantiated legend here. Some tales have Jews coming to Cornwall in ancient times–ancient enough that you can throw a few Phoeniceans into the conversation and not have it get any stranger than it already is. Others have Jews working the mines in the decades leading up to 1290, when Edward I spoiled the fun by expelling all the Jews from England.
Unsubstantiated as they are, you will find the word Jew in a few Cornish place names. Penzance, for example, has a Market Jew Street. Speaking as a marginally Jewish Jew, I’ve never figured out whether I should be offended by that or not. On a balance of probabilities, my guess is that I should, although I’m not exactly, just deeply weirded out.
Academic guesswork holds that these names are the descendants of unrelated Cornish words, which as the Cornish language was lost became corrupted to match local legend.
The presence of Jews in Cornwall can’t be documented before the eighteenth century.
Didn’t think we’d get here from pasties, did you?
Oggy oggy oggy
While we’re chasing after unsubstantiated beliefs, this would be a good time to chase after the chant “Oggy, oggy, oggy.”
Authoritative sources are too smart to weigh in on this, but Lord Google led me to sources offering various explanations: An oggy is a pasty–a corruption of a Cornish word for pasty. (At least it didn’t end up as Jew.) Or else the chant came from (gasp) those pesky Devonians, trying once again to claim the pasty as their own. Or it’s what the miners’ wives called down the pit when the pasties they were baking on the surface were ready to eat. (Take that with a cup or three of salt. The shafts were deep and the miners were likely to be working far from the entrance. You could call, “Oggy” all you wanted, they wouldn’t be likely to hear you.) Or it’s what pasty sellers on the streets called to drum up business.
Whatever it meant and wherever it was heard, the correct response if you hear it is, “Oi, oi, oi.”
Somehow or other it ended up as a Welsh rugby chant.
Do you begin to understand why it’s easy to think no Jews were involved in the making of Market Jew Street?
So who gets to claim the pasty, Devon or Cornwall?
An account book in Plymouth (that’s in Devon) mentions pasties in either 1509 or 1510. But a Cornish website cites earlier mentions, one involving Great Yarmouth and another St. Albans Abbey. Neither is in Devon. Neither is in Cornwall either, but they do undermine the value of that Plymouth mention.
Take that, Devon.
A BBC article notes, with the print equivalent of a straight face, that a Cornish chronicler of the pasty claims that ancient Cornish cave paintings depict the pasty.
Does Cornwall have ancient cave paintings? Well, no, but let’s not let that ruin a good argument.
Okay, go ahead, rule out the cave paintings. That leaves us with some written records–more of them than I mentioned–but no one’s going to prove much about the pasty’s origins by citing written records. And we weren’t doing all that well with the unwritten ones, were we? It’s entirely possible that no one’s going to prove anything at all. Devon’s case isn’t strong. And Cornwall’s isn’t either, but we’ll say that quietly if you don’t mind. I live in Cornwall. I have to be careful.
None of that is likely to stop the rush to war, but I did try.
Yeah, but what about that cream tea?
Oh, that. We’re out of space. I’ll have to refer you to that notorious non-expert, me, for an explanation.