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Exploring Cornish Pasties: Fascinating History and 8 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

The Cornish pasty is a tasty hand-held meat pie meal

The Cornish pasty is a tasty hand-held meat pie meal

Holding History in Your Hand

The Cornish pasty (rhymes with nasty, not tasty) is a hand-held meat pie. A truly authentic one contains diced beef, potato, rutabaga (called swede if you're in the United Kingdom), and onion, all encased in a shortcrust pastry. Sounds easy enough, but the pasty is more than a simple pie. When you eat one, you are holding in your hand a bit of history. To discuss Cornish pasties, we must first look back in time, hundreds of years ago.

The Bronze Age

In 1825, Dr. Christian Jṻrgensen Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities, developed a system for defining and classifying the archeology and anthropology of artifacts in the museum’s collections. He divided the history he was observing into three distinct periods—the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each of those periods speaks of the cultural and intellectual development of mankind.

If not for the Bronze Age, we might not be speaking of the place where pasties originated—Cornwall, England. Bronze is an alloy, a combination of copper and tin that results in a new metal with greater strength and resistance to corrosion; the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Tin is the key to success and was first found in the alluvial streams in West Cornwall. As the stream-borne deposits of tin were depleted, tin mining progressed to deeper and deeper pits and shafts. By the time the Roman Empire expanded to Britain, the extraction of tin was a thriving industry.

A Savory Meal for Famish Laborers

The development of steam power in the 19th century transformed the extraction process, enabling miners to quarry tin from greater depths. You might be wondering how the pasty plays into this history.

First, it was supremely portable and the thick crust insulated the savory contents for several hours. It was a calorie-dense meal, providing nutrition to weary, hungry laborers. But most important of all was the shape of the pasty. An unfortunate (and alarming) byproduct of tin mining is arsenic dust. With no place to wash one's hands before eating, the sturdy crimped crust severed as a perfect handle that could be disposed of.

By the way, those discarded crusts did not go to waste. The miners were a superstitious sort, believing that ghosts, or "knockers," inhabited the mines. Hopefully, those leftovers would keep the ghosts in good "spirits." I'm inclined to believe that it was rodents who benefited from the spoils, but I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Then They Came to the U.S.

By the 1880s the tin resources in Britain were beginning to dwindle, and so miners emigrated to the New World. They found a new home in the upper peninsula of Michigan, an area rich in iron and copper deposits.

Along with their knowledge of the mining process, the Cornwall miners brought along their Cornish pasties. When they were joined in the mines by Finnish and Italian miners, those workers soon adopted the pies as their own.

The pasty was adopted by Finnish and Italian miners, who looked to their Cornish supervisors for cues on how to behave in American culture. By the mid-20th century, the pasty was so firmly entrenched among all the Upper Peninsula’s ethnic groups that it was common to find locals who assumed that the pasty was of Finnish or even Italian origin.

— Nate Barksdale, "Miners' Delight: History of the Cornish Pasty," Aug. 22, 2018, History.com

Traditional Cornish Pasty

A truly authentic Cornish pasty is made of shortcrust (a butter-rich flour dough) filled with raw minced lean beef, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga or turnip. No liquid is added, and none is needed as the meat cooks within the pastry, releasing its own juices which mingle with the starch of the potatoes and the moisture of the onions to create a perfectly balanced savory gravy.

Michigan "Yooper" pasty

Michigan "Yooper" pasty

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Michigan "Yooper" Pasty

The people of the upper peninsula of Michigan (lovingly referred to as Yoopers) adapted the Cornish treat to their own tastes, improvising with ground beef and more herbs and seasonings beyond the traditional salt and pepper. These Yooper pies would be a fun recipe to make on a lazy weekend and make a great easy-to-eat meal on game day (go Lions!).

Italian-style pasty

Italian-style pasty

The Pasty, Italian-Style

I searched high and low and was not able to locate a recipe for a pasty created by Italian cooks in the upper peninsula of Michigan. However, I was able to find one created by a British ex-pat living on the island of Malta. Liz's mushroom, lardon, and rosemary pasties feature the flavors one associates with an idyllic Italian meal—pancetta, wild mushrooms, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and even a bit of anchovy (which is optional, of course, but adds just the right note of salty-umami flavor).

Thanksgiving turkey pasties

Thanksgiving turkey pasties

Thanksgiving Turkey Pasties

Just in time to rescue you from leftovers, here's a recipe for Thanksgiving turkey pasties. Turkey, stuffing, and gravy are neatly tucked between a buttery crust and baked to a rich golden brown. Serve with some cranberry sauce on the side or (my husband's favorite), more gravy.

Vegetarian pasties

Vegetarian pasties

Vegetarian Cornish Pasties

These vegetarian pasties are just as moist, savory, and protein-packed as their beefy cousins, but without the meat. Tomatoes and spinach provide the umami flavor and lentils are a flavorful protein (and fiber-filled) punch.

Curried vegetable pasties (vegan)

Curried vegetable pasties (vegan)

Curried Vegetable Pasties (Vegan)

Although curry is an Indian dish modified for British tastes, it’s so popular that it contributes more than £5 billion annually to the British economy. In fact, the UK now celebrates National Curry Week every October. For that reason, it seemed only reasonable to include a vegan pasty with curry flavors. This vegan pasty relies on stick margarine rather than butter to keep the pastry flaky; if you prefer, coconut oil can be substituted. Curry powder, garam masala, garlic, and coriander provide spicy heat, and chickpeas, spinach, and root vegetables contribute to the healthy and satisfying filling.

Chicken and leek pasties

Chicken and leek pasties

Chicken and Leek Pasties

Here's a Cornish pasty for those who prefer to not include red meat in their diet. Using rotisserie chicken makes these chicken and leek pasties easy to make in under an hour if you prepare the pastry ahead of time.

Cheese, onion, and potato pasties

Cheese, onion, and potato pasties

Cheese, Onion, and Potato Pasties

The creator of this recipe is a freelance food and travel writer. Karen Burns-Booth makes her home in an old converted schoolhouse on the edge of Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. If that doesn't sound like paradise, I don't know what does.

Her cheese, onion, and potato pasties remind me of the Russian potato pierogies sold at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Shortcrust Recipe

I have several friends who are sensitive to gluten and dairy. This gluten-free shortcrust was created by a baker who understands those problems and how to adjust ingredients for those needs. I hope will be of help to those of you who want to try a pasty recipe but need to omit the gluten and/or dairy.

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