Today is Tom Bawcock’s Eve in Mousehole in Cornwall. First things first. You pronounce it mow- (rhymes with “cow”) –zell. The festival is held in celebration and memorial of the efforts of legendary Mousehole resident Tom Bawcock to lift a famine from the village by going out to fish in a severe storm. During this festival Stargazy pie (reputedly first created in Mousehole) is the featured dish and, depending on the year of celebration, a lantern procession takes place. Mousehole is a delightful fishing village I stayed in once during Easter holidays in 1975. It snowed most of the time, and was bitterly cold, but I have fond memories.
This video gives you the whole idea of the town with its narrow, steep alleys and the progress of the festival:
The first recorded description of the festival was written by Robert Morton Nance, an authority on the Cornish language, in 1927 in the magazine Old Cornwall. Nance described the festival as it existed around the start of the 20th century. Then it goes downhill. Nance also speculates that the name Bawcock is derived from the French Beau Coq, and he believed the cock was the herald of new light in “pagan times” and, hence, the origins of the festival were pre-Christian. Spare me.
The basic legend explains that one winter had been particularly stormy, meaning that none of the fishing boats had been able to leave the harbor. As Christmas approached, the villagers, who relied on fish as their primary source of food, were facing starvation. On 23 December, Tom Bawcock decided to brave the storms and went out in his fishing boat. Despite the stormy weather and the difficult seas, he managed to catch enough fish to feed the entire village. The entire catch (including seven types of fish) was baked into a pie, which had the fish heads poking through.
The children’s book The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber is inspired by Tom Bawcock’s Eve. It is a retelling of the story of Tom Bawcock and his loyal black and white cat, Mowzer, setting sail to catch the fish. When the boat hits the storm, it is represented by a giant “Storm-Cat”, allowing Mowzer to eventually save the day by soothing the storm with her purring. This purring becomes a song and while the Storm-Cat is resting Tom is able to haul in his catch and return to the village. When they arrive back at the village, the entire catch is baked into a “Star-Gazy” pie, on which the villagers feast. Barber points out, rightly I believe, that stargazy pie was a staple of Mousehole diet before Tom’s heroic fishing expedition, whereas according to tradition it dates from his return and legendary catch.
There is an ongoing music tradition associated with Tom Bawcock’s Eve. The words were written down by Robert Morton Nance in 1927 – his exact role is unclear – and set to a traditional local tune called the ‘Wedding March’ as follows:
Merry place you may believe, tiz Mouzel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s eve.
To be there then who wouldn’t wesh, to sup o’ sibm soorts o’ fish.
When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry,
And then us had a bit o’ scad an’ Starry-gazie pie.
As aich we’d clunk, E’s health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high,
And when up caame Tom Bawcock’s name, We’d prais’d ‘un to the sky.
A bit too self-consciously “traditional” for my liking, but it’s taken root. My guess is that Nance wrote it.
The original pie in the legend included sand eels, horse mackerel, pilchards, herring, dogfish and ling along with an unnamed seventh fish. In the pie these days the primary ingredient is the pilchard (sardine), although larger mackerel or herring are used as well. “Sardine” and “pilchard” are common names used to refer to various small, oily fish within the herring family of Clupeidae. They are not used in any precise manner.
Richard Stevenson, chef at The Ship Inn in Mousehole, suggests that any white fish will work for the filling, with pilchards or herring heads added for the presentation. Prior to putting it in the pie the fish should be skinned and boned, to allow for ease of eating. Along with the fish, the other traditional ingredients are thickened milk, hard-boiled eggs, and boiled potatoes, with parsley and pepper for seasoning.
Many recipe variations around the traditional ingredients exist, some of which include bacon, onion, mustard and white wine. The recipes for stargazy pie call for a pastry lid, generally short crust but sometimes puff pastry, through which the fish heads and sometimes tails protrude. There is no pastry on the bottom, and the pie dish should be relatively shallow. Some cooks use whole pilchards in the pie, cutting slits in the lid to allow the heads to poke out. This is certainly an old enough idea, but does make eating difficult. For presentation, one suggestion is that the pilchards are arranged with their tails toward the center of the pie and their heads poking up through the crust around the edge. As it includes potatoes and pastry, the pie can be served on its own or with crusty bread.