My Davis & West mystery series is set in Cornwall, England. A fingertip shaped county at the far southwest of England, it’s not on the way to anywhere (except America) and has only grudgingly acceded to British rule over the centuries (they still have their own flag—a piratical white cross on a black background). It’s a dramatic landscape—storm-whipped on the Atlantic edge, pastoral on the English Channel side. Bronze and Iron Age stone monuments are thick upon the ground. It is an ancient place, full of legend.
Also, great food: pasture-raised beef, lamb, and pork and, because the climate is mild (for Britain), a year-long range of fresh vegetables and fruits. Several of London’s most famous chefs have restaurants in Cornwall. Ah, but the finest Cornish delicacy (and the best lunch on earth) is the Cornish Pasty (not to be confused with the skimpy bits of an exotic dancer’s “costume”).
The pasty has a long and storied history. But first, the recipe itself: a pasty is a folded crescent of short butter crust in which are nestled chunks of skirt steak, potato, onion, salt and pepper, a bit of flour and butter (to create a thick gravy), and “Swede,” or what Americans call rutabaga. Its curved edge is crimped, almost braided, and the whole is brushed with an egg wash and then baked. The golden result is a stunningly savory handful of perfection (to be accompanied, of course by a pint of local Cornish ale. Or two)!
Pasties are first mentioned in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that they became synonymous with Cornwall…and tin mining. The Atlantic coast of Cornwall was the world’s center of the tin (and later copper) mining industry. Vertical shafts were dug deep into the cliffs and drifts (tunnels) often reached a mile out under the ocean floor, often at several levels or tiers.
Pasties were the miners’ lunch deep underground. Their wives baked them, often incising their initials in the crust. They stayed warm in their flaky blanket for hours and some wives would put jam at one end as a sweet. The crimped crust wasn’t just decorative; it was a safety measure: the miners’ hands were often covered with arsenic dust, so they held the pasty by the edge and discarded the last bit.
Now, how do you find the quintessential Cornish pasty? My recommendation, if you’re there, is to ask around. There are pasty shops in any town in Cornwall, but the best are usually family-run bakeries. There is also a chain, called Warrens, which makes downright respectable pasties. If you want to make them at home (it’s not complicated) there are recipes on the Internet.
By the way, pasties are not for dieters. For that matter, neither is the ale…
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