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An old postcard of a Cornish pasty
Pastie (paste) bought near Metro Revolución,
A Cornish Pasty made by Warrens
The History of Pasties
The word 'pasty' came into English via old French from the Latin word 'pasta' meaning dough. The word pasty has now come to mean meat and vegetables cooked inside an edible pastry case, although before the C18th the dough, made from rye flour, was an inedible casing for cooking and preserving the meat.
Today in Devon and Cornwall pasties are a popular regional, individual, takeaway ready meal. Typically, they are made from seasoned meat cooked together with onion, potato and swede in an edible pastry crust. The pastry is crimped along the top in Devon and the side in Cornwall. Both counties are proud of this popular dish, although there are differences of opinion on which county originated it.
In his research, Dr Todd Gray has found a written record from 1510 of the cost of making a pasty using venison from the Mount Edgcumbe estate in Devon, and from the Cornwall Record office he found that the earliest report of a venison pasty recipe was in 1746. He concluded 'that given everyday aspects of life such as food are not as well-documented as other parts of history, it is likely that pasty making goes back in both counties even further. What is without doubt is that the pasty, as generally known in Devon and Cornwall, is modern - a key ingredient, potato, was only cultivated locally as late as the mid 1700s.'
Mount Edgcumbe House 1869
These early records refer to pasties which contained whole joints of venison or mutton. In Medieval times the pastry case or dough was made of rye flour, and, although often richly decorated, was not intended to be eaten. The pastry acted as a vessel for the meat during cooking and then as an airtight container to preserve the meat afterwards. Butter or beef marrow was often added to seal the pasty, to keep the meat moist, and to prevent bacteria from entering and degrading the contents. Medieval 'pasties' could be very large and might contain a whole side of venison or a whole fowl. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a venison pasty (also called a 'leasing'), was a favourite dish at feasts and celebration meals. They were often also sent long distances from country estates as wedding or other celebration gifts to friends in London or France. To ensure they did not spoil during transportation the pastry was made from rye flour, which after baking slowly in a wood fired oven became rock hard like fired clay. The casing also ensured that the venison or mutton stayed moist during cooking and that the gravy was retained. There are records and drawings from the C17th of great venison pasties over three feet long with the pastry well decorated. The casing was opened from the top like a lid and the meat taken out as required. A whole boned side of venison encased in a pastry crust, if stored in a cool larder, could keep for many months.
In a book published in 1973, C. Anne Wilson quotes an ordinance of Richard III in 1378 for prices charged by cooks and pie bakers, including those for capons and hens baked in pasties. Beef, mutton and game were also used, and occasionally porpoise, which counted as fish for fast days. Venison pasty was popular for many centuries and was a status symbol, as only the rich could afford this meat, which was not domesticated and available all year round. Sometimes beef for pasties was marinated to imitate the taste of venison.
The C17th diarist, Samuel Pepys, recorded in his diary on 12 October 1660, that he dined on a venison pasty at the Dolphin in London. There are 46 other dates in Pepy's diaries when he mentions eating 'pasty', most being made of venison, although, some were of salted pork or beef. Many of the pasties he recorded as good, although one was stinking, which suggests that it had been stored in the larder for too long.
By the eighteenth century the inedible sealing crust of rye paste had given way to a shorter wheaten pastry, which was edible. There are no known exact records of the early hand held individual pasties which we eat today. Pasties differ from 'pies' in that they are usually made free form, whereas pies are made in a dish or mould. Modern pasties are usually made of beef or lamb with root vegetables including potatoes, although anything can be used. In fact, it was said that the devil never crossed the River Tamar and entered Cornwall because he was afraid of the Cornish women's habit of putting anything and everything into a pasty.
There are other superstitions associated with the pasty, which include the idea that the miners always left a small part of the pastry crust for the knockers, who were little people thought to inhabit the deep mines. Another superstition was that it was unlucky to have pasties containing seafood or to have them on ships, as they brought bad luck. Some say that this was to keep the pasty as a traditional food of miners and not seafarers.
A good pasty was said to be able to survive being dropped down a mine shaft. The bal maidens at the surface shouted 'oggie oggie oggie' when the pasties were ready to lower down into the mine and the miners below replied 'Oi Oi Oi'. Pasties were the ideal portable food for mining and agricultural communities and recipes have evolved in these regions in many parts of the UK. In Somerset there is a version called the Priddy Oggy (Oggy is Cornish Dialect for pasty) which seems to have been invented in the late 1960s and contains pork in a cheese pastry. In Bedfordshire there is the Bedfordshire Clanger, which contains a savoury filling at one end and sweet at the other. This was eaten by copper miners in Anglesey, and may have originated from Cornish miners migrating for work.
Cornish miners eating pasties 1893 (photgraph by J.C. Burrows)
In Lancashire there is a version called the Lancashire Foot due to its shape. The pastry is rolled into an oval with one end thinner. The filling is placed on the thick end, the thinner pastry turned over it and the crust finished with two horns as handles. These pasties could contain any cheap cuts of meat including offal, tripe or chitterling, with some vegetables such as fried onions and potato. Versions which include cheese and onion also exist.
Another Northern pasty is called Rag Pie, which was made from scrap meat and vegetables in a suet dough. In Scotland there is a version called the Forfar Bridie which contains steak, onions and suet in a pastry crust. Various legends exist as to the origin of the name: one being that it was a lucky symbol eaten at a bride's meal.
When miners migrated for work to other parts of the world they took their pasty recipes with them. Consequently, there are many variations on pasties, which occur throughout mining regions of the world, such as Australia and America. In silver mining areas of Mexico the pasties are known as 'pastes' in Mexican Spanish, and originated from the Cornish miners who settled there. So it can be said that the pasty is an international dish representing the ingenuity of cooks through the ages who have made a tasty portable meal from a few ingredients. Since 2011 the Cornish pasty has had a protected Geographical Indication status in Europe.
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