What’s a Cornish pasty?

Let’s break this question down into two parts. A pasty (or pastie) is a parcel of pastry filled with meat and vegetables. It’s baked and eaten hot or cold as a quick and convenient snack. Cornwall is a region on the western tip of the UK, bordered by the Celtic Sea to the north and west and the English Channel to the south. So, a Cornish pasty is a savoury pastry from Cornwall. Simple, right?

Well, no actually. Although Cornish pasties are sold across the UK, not all pasties are genuine Cornish pasties. The Cornish Pasty Association says the real thing has a distinctive ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side, but never on top. At least 12.5 per cent of the filling must be minced or roughly cut chunks of beef mixed with swede, potato, onion and have “a light peppery seasoning.” And most importantly, the true Cornish pasty must be made in Cornwall.

History of the Cornish pastie

The Oxford English Dictionary documents that the Cornish pasty has existed since the  1300s. However, at that time they were only really feasted on by the upper classes and royalty. But by the 18th-century, it was firmly established as a Cornish dish usually eaten by poorer families. This is because they could only afford cheap ingredients like potato and swede.

Records from the 1860s show that children employed in Cornish tin mines took pasties underground for lunch. This dish was very popular amongst working men and women because it was portable and easy to eat without a knife and fork. It was also tough enough to survive being bounced around in a bag or dropped down a mine shaft!

But why the ‘D’ shape? Apparently it was so that miners could hold a pasty by its thick crust while eating it. They discarded the crust afterward because there were high levels of arsenic in tin mines and it was easy to contaminate food with your hands.

Nowadays, Cornish pasties are a firm favourite across the UK whether they’re rich or poor. Even former British Prime Minister David Cameron is partial to a pasty (or so he claimed). Cameron got into all sorts of trouble in 2012 when his government tried to impose a tax on hot foods like the pasty. The issue was dubbed ‘Pastygate’ by the media and the Pasty tax was eventually scrapped.