And so we resume our quest to determine the finest county in the South West. Part I considered nomenclature, music, celebrity chefs, and beachbreaks. Part II turns to the no less pressing issues of pasties, surfing pedigree, reefbreaks, pointbreaks, and cream tea.
The debate over the origins of the so-called Cornish pasty — it’s often prefaced with the epithet traditional — has been raging fiercely for centuries, and clearly it is a debate of supreme national importance. After all, the pasty is Cornwall’s national dish — but perhaps in the same way that England’s national dish is sometimes said to be Chicken Tikka Masala.
In 2011 the foodstuff was granted Protected Geographical Indication by the EU, which meant that only pasties prepared in Cornwall, and containing beef (at least 12.5%), swede, potato and onion, could be labelled as “Cornish pasties”. The ruling was welcomed by the Cornish Pasty Association but not by food historian Peter Brears, who argued that the habitual inclusion of red meat could be traced not to Cornwall, where pasties were traditionally vegetarian, but to 19th century London.
Nor was it welcomed by the native population of Devon, whose historical claims to the pasty had been bolstered in 2006 when archivists discovered a pasty recipe among Plymouth’s 16th century civic accounts. It was dated 1510, making it the first reference to pasties in either Devon or Cornwall, and 236 years older than the first known Cornish recipe for pasties. “Devon Invented the Cornish Pasty”, proclaimed the BBC, but not everyone was convinced by the apparent breakthrough. “There are caves at the Lizard in Cornwall,” retorted self-styled pasty expert Les Merton, “with line drawings of men hunting a stag and women eating a pasty. At that time it was wrapped in leaves and not pastry, but the leaves were crimped, so I would say there is positive evidence of pasties in Cornwall from primitive times.” Argument with such people is clearly futile.
Anyhow, perhaps the earliest known reference to the pasty in English can be found in a 13th century charter, by which the town of Yarmouth was bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich twenty-four pasties of fresh herrings, which were then to be delivered to the lord of the manor of East Carlton, who would in turn convey them to the King.