This Side of the Pond – March 13

By Sarah Pridgeon

Somewhere up there, my beloved grandmother is smiling down on me this week. After a lifetime of avoiding the most challenging of baking techniques, I put rolling pin to flour and made myself some pastry. In doing so, I joined the lofty ranks of the cooks on my mother’s side of the family, whose apple pies are renowned for miles around.

Inspiration finally hit while I was browsing the cookery book that my mother gave me for Christmas. Following her usual tradition of loading me up with anything and everything that says “Made in Britain” on the bottom, she sent me home with a book of English recipes.

Browsing through it, I caught sight of a particular dish from my homeland that I have pined for since I moved here: the Cornish pasty. If I could only muster the courage to make some pastry, I could solve that problem by creating little pasties of my own.

My fear of pastry is heightened by its overall sensitivity. Hoping to cure my trepidation, my mother gave me a detailed demonstration – but that only made things worse. My usual approach to cooking is to poke at things until they look right, but I was told in no uncertain terms that pastry must be handled as little as possible and rolled out only once.

The lesson I chose to take from this was that the best pastry is stretched out using the power of imagination and then levitated into position. With this misconception firmly in mind, I wasn’t sure that my baking skills were up to the task – but I was keen to invite the pasty back into my life.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with a Cornish pasty, it’s a delicacy that I highly recommend. Inside the pastry pocket are all the meat and vegetables you could wish for at a single sitting.

The pasty has been around since the twelfth century in one form or another and at first was a treat for the upper classes – you’ll even find reference to them in Shakespeare. But by the 1700s, the tin miners of Cornwall had absconded with the idea and turned it into their daily lunch.

The reason for their interest was simple: you can still eat a Cornish pasty if you’re grubby. They are designed with a fold of pastry that functions as a handle, which you can grip with mucky fingers without damaging the main event.

Thanks to the sheer density of a pasty, its filling usually stayed warm until lunch time and could be heated on a shovel over a candle if it didn’t. Because a pasty is fairly sizeable, the miners would mark one end with their initial so there’d be no squabbling over the leftovers.

To make your pasty, first work up a batch of shortcrust pastry, using 6 fl oz of egg to bind a pound of plain flour and four ounces each of butter and shortening. Place it in the fridge to chill for half an hour, then separate into four parts and roll into circles. Listen for my mother’s whispered praises if you got this right the first time and didn’t ruin the texture.

Next, turn your attention to the filling. In a large bowl, mix together a pound of ground beef with a cup and a half of potato, chopped into very small cubes. Add three quarters of a cup each of chopped onion and rutabaga and season well.
Spoon the filling over one half of the pastry circle. Wrap the other half over the top and press down to seal, creating the handle in the process. Brushing egg over the edges can be helpful to make them stick together, but my mother won’t be happy if you fuss too much.

Brush egg over the surface of the pastry and place your finished creations on a greased tray. Bake them at 375 degrees for 50 minutes to an hour.

The next part is the secret: leave your pasty to cool for at least an hour before eating it. The longer it sits, the more the ingredients bind together and the less likely it is to disintegrate as you take a bite. If you have the time to refrigerate it overnight, the results will be even better – you can warm it in the oven before serving if you don’t fancy a cold meal.

Because I am not a tin miner, I serve my pasties with hot vegetables and brown gravy. I am strongly of the opinion that gravy is an essential element of the meal, which I’m sure will not surprise you.

My finished pasties were delicious but, thanks to the dish’s pedigree, I am not allowed to call them Cornish pasties because they were not crafted in Cornwall. This is due to a long-standing war with the Welsh, who are equally adamant that they invented the pasty in the first place.

There actually exists a Cornish Pasty Association made up of 50 pasty makers from Cornwall, and it took them nine years of campaigning to win the name for themselves in 2011. The Cornish pasty now has Protected Geographical Indication status in Europe, which is a fancy way of saying that it’s not a Cornish pasty unless Cornwall deems it so. That’s a whole lot of effort for a pocket of pastry and meat, which goes to show how delicious these things are.

Most of our supermarkets are still selling the same old pasties, though they’ve had to be imaginative in their naming. The Australians are the only ex-Cornish who are still allowed to use the name, which is just as well considering how far they’d have to travel for one.

So popular is the Cornish pasty that 87 million of them were sold in 2008, making up six percent of the entire food economy of Cornwall. Personally, I’m happy to call a pasty whatever I’m told to if that means I’m allowed to eat it, but for the sake of propriety I shall henceforth refer to my baking experiments without treading on anyone’s toes.

The Cornish will regret being so strict when they find out just how delicious my recipe is, but it will do them no good because I have invoked my own protected status. So if you’d like to try making a pasty but are concerned you’ll invoke fury from the leg-shaped end of England, worry not: my newly christened Sundance Pasty shall forever belong to us.