A Pasty Primer

The modern packaged foods industry is on fire for what it calls “hand-helds”: foods that can be consumed with no muss or fuss while walking, driving, operating heavy machinery, etc.. The hand-held is old news to the Cornish, who have become world famous for maintaining the tradition of the hand-held, pastry-enclosed supper: the pasty. So popular has the pasty become in the last century that in many parts of the world it is considered a fair rival to the sandwich, the slice of pizza or the hamburger.

The Cornish didn’t invent the pasty. The custom of enclosing savory foods in crusts and baking them dates back at least to the Middle Ages, and was commonplace around England and around the Continent. The Cornish, however, embraced the technique with a particular verve. There, it is the archetypal working man’s lunch, and indeed there are some aspects in which it is unique.

Today we think of pasties as “miner’s food”, since the Cornish are (or at least were) famous for their tin mining skills. However pasties were common fare among Cornish field workers and sailors as well. It was the ultimate failure of the Cornish tin industry, and the subsequent diaspora of Cornish miners around the globe that spread the pasty and the modern concept of it. Today pasties can be found not only in Cornwall but in Argentina, Australia, Mexico and of course the US. I myself have eaten pasties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the Iron Range in Minnesota, in Montana, Pennsylvania and southern Wisconsin — mining territories all. This is only a partial list of course. There are many other regions where pasties reign.

Being as popular a food as it is, the proper method for preparing a pasty is a contentious topic. It’s that way even in Cornwall, where every family has its own traditions. Over the next several days I’ll lay out the rules for an authentic Cornish pasty as I know them. I once spent a year of my life in Devon, England, which is but a stone’s throw from Cornwall, and in fact more than a few stones have been thrown back and forth between the two counties over the years. To this day the Devonish claim to have invented the pasty, and that the Cornish stole it. Be that as it may, what’s true is that there are great pasties all over that region, and while there I did my best to eat as many as I could — at least one every day, usually more.

Large, small, fancy, plain, top-crimped, side-crimped, glazed, unglazed, meaty, vegetarian, I think I’ve eaten just about every kind of pasty under the sun — beef, mutton, pizza, chorizo, even Indian “tandoori” pasties. For all that it’s the simple pasty that satisfies best, as the Cornish have long known.

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