Recipes from a Cornish Kitchen (2024)

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Traditional Cornish Recipes

Each part of Great Britain has its own unique identity and none more so than Cornwall.
We, who are from Cornish bloodlines are very proud of our heritage and history. And within the category of heritage, lies our food and culinary delights! Pasties, saffron cakes, to name just two.

But in this age of fast food, many of our recipes are dying out and will be lost forever.
I am hoping to halt and preserve a lot of them on my Blog and FaceBook pages. Recipes like Squab Pie. I have yet to post this old recipe and its ingredients are very strange. Where did the old Cornish learn to mix meat and fruit? Why do they use citrus peel in just about everything? Why did they call raisins figs? The generous use of spices too, not least saffron, is commonplace. When was saffron first introduced in Cornwall? Cornish cuisine was the only one in the world that used saffron in a sweet recipe. It is generally believed that it was brought over by the Phoenicians, that great seafaring nation of traders who came to our land over two thousand years ago to mine and trade for tin. They came from the Middle East from what is now Lebanon. If they came over in numbers to mine, as they would have done, then many would have settled, even intermarried and brought over their foods and it is logical that it would have been mixed with our own. I believe that that is the probable root of our peculiar culinary heritage. The Romans invaded our island and were here until the middle of the 2nd C and within their ranks would have been soldiers or mercenaries from all over the Mediterranean. Could these also have been contributors to our culinary history?

For centuries saffron was grown in Cornwall, as it was known to be an improver of land and would grow in indifferent ground. It was harvested in September, after a dry summer. Twice a day, three or four blades from each blue crocus flower would be gathered for the month, then dried. In the late 1600s an acre of land could yield between £40 - £50 worth of saffron and that was a lot of money!

A Squab was a pigeon but the bird was substituted by veal or lamb in the Pie recipe a long time since. Apparently cormorants were sometimes used as well and they were very tough! But the Squab Pie epitomises the use of middle eastern ingredients with our own. Layers of mutton [lamb], with apple, dried fruit, sugar and onion made into a pie.

Pastry rolled out like a plate,
Piled with “turmut, tates and mate.”
Doubled up, and baked like fate,
That’s a “Cornish Pasty”.

The pasty has been around since the late 13thC at least and probably long before that. The pasty seems to have been eaten by rich and poor alike, except the wealthy would have used ingredients like beef or venison or even fish and the poor working classes filled theirs with cheaper ingredients like potato, onion and turnip [swede]. But it was another 300 years before the pasty was in general use, by farmers and miners alike. Easy to carry and eat, the pastry held the filling together and sustained the worker throughout the long working day in the field or mine. But not at sea! It was supposedly bad luck to take a pasty out to sea. It would probably have been sometime in the early 1800s before beef and vegetables merged and the pasty as we know it today was born and by the beginning of the 1900s pasties were started being produced commercially on a huge scale.

When mining was at its heyday whole families often worked in the mine and mother would mark each pasty with an initial to show who it belonged to. [my mother did this and we did not work in a mine!] The pasty was held at the bottom by the crimping end joint, which would have been discarded, as the arsenic would have transferred from the miners hands. Many mines had large ovens where workers placed their pasties at the start of their day, then the shout of “Oggie Oggie Oggie” would signal croust time [lunch]. Their Oggie [the old colloquial term for a pasty] was eaten at the corner furthest from the initial, so if there was any leftover, then the owner could claim it later! Miners also reheated their pasties on shovels if there were no ovens!

I do not think there has ever been found an ancient written down recipe for a pasty as it was passed down by word of mouth, daughter’s watched their mothers make them and so on… It is said some pasties held savoury on one side and fruit on the other? Maybe! I do not know. How would they have kept the flavours apart without them merging? Or could the legends have sprung from early attempts to mix the flavours, as in Squab Pie? Pasties are part of our culinary heritage, part of our daily life and we love them!

I posted the Cornish favourite, Heavy Cake early on in my Blog and that is steeped in myth as well. But after much reading and research I think it stems from the fisherfolk, especially in the west of our county. Whole families would be summoned to the beaches to haul in the nets of herring and pilchards. Womenfolk needed to make a quick dish when they finally got home and could not wait for the yeast to rise, so left it out and the Heavy Cake was born. Does Heavy mean weighty, because there is no rise in the dish, or is it named after the hauling shout of ”heave”? I think it is the latter. But even this is full of the eastern Med ingredients of peel and currants. The crisscross design on the cake resembles a fishing net and for me is the biggest clue as to its origins.

Does anyone reading this have anything to add - or take away? I am open to ideas and would like this little essay to be as authentic and complete as possible, so I am making this a first draft to be amended at any time!! Lets make this a joint project!
Comments please, and email me lauriemburley@gmail.com

Recipes from a Cornish Kitchen (2024)

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