If you’re looking for something to eat while you’re on the go, enjoy filled baked goods, or are looking for a food that’s quintessentially Cornish, you’ve most likely encountered the pasty. Aside from being recognized as Cornish, this food is more than just the traditional equivalent of the modern fast food hamburger. Aside from meat, potato, rutabaga (often called swede or turnip), onion, seasoning, and a pastry crust, this food-on-the-go contains 2 ingredients that many modern competitors lack: history and identity.
The word pasty comes to us from the Anglo-Norman paste and the Old French pasté, both of which mean dough or pastry. Though pasties may now be known as rather common fair, they were initially considered a food for the “upper crust” of society. One of the first mentions of a pasty appears in the reign of Henry III, who, in the 1200’s, granted a charter to Great Yarmouth, instructing them to send to him (by way of the the sheriffs of Norwich and the lord of East Carlton) “one hundred herrings, baked in twenty-four pies or pasties.” Even the royals were not immune to the allure of the pasty, as a letter from one of Henry VIII’s bakers to Jane Seymour confirms, with the baker stating, “hope this pasty reaches you in better condition than the last one.” Aside from the patronage of the well-to-do, Lord Berners’ translation of Froissart’s Chronicles (1525) of the Hundred Years War shows some of the variations of fillings, as he discusses, “pasties of salmon, trout, and eel.”
With the passing of time and the rise of the industrial revolution, the pasty soon became popular with the working classes. Nowhere was this appeal more evident than in Cornwall, which was being economically driven by tin mining. For the miners, the pasty was easily portable full meal that could be eaten without utensils and could be easily warmed (on a shovel over a candle, for example).
Though the industrial revolution as well as the days of large-scale Cornish mining have disappeared, the hectic pace of modern life has only increased demand for the pasty. This demand, however, has caused for the pasty to be mass-produced outside of Cornwall. Fearing that Cornwall’s most identifiable dish was losing its identity, Cornish producers successfully lobbied for a Protected Geographical Indication in 2011. Whether or not having an authentication logo on the package will do anything to help Cornish producers or change the production locales of non-Cornish producers remains to be seem, but one thing can be assured: from monarchs to paupers, regardless of location or occupation, with pasties, it was love at first bite….well, except for the eel, maybe.