Mar 052021

Today is Saint Piran’s Day (Cornish: Gool Peran), or the Feast of Saint Piran, the national day of Cornwall. The day is named after one of the patron saints of Cornwall, Saint Piran, who is also the patron saint of tin miners. St Piran’s Day started as one of the many tinners’ holidays observed by the tin miners of Cornwall. The miners of Breage and Germoe observed St Piran’s feast day as that of their patron saint until at least 1764.

Piran’s identity is not entirely clear. He is said to have been an abbot, possibly in Perranzabuloe, in the 5th century – originally from Ireland.  Legends associated with Piran include:

  • The heathen Irish tied him to a mill-stone, rolled it over the edge of a cliff into a stormy sea, which immediately became calm, and the saint floated safely over the water to land upon the sandy beach of Perranzabuloe in Cornwall. His first disciples are said to have been a badger, a fox, and a bear.
  • He was joined at Perranzabuloe by many of his Christian converts and together they founded the Abbey of Lanpiran, with Piran as abbot.
  • St Piran ‘rediscovered’ tin-smelting (tin had been smelted in Cornwall since before the Romans’ arrival, but the methods had since been lost) when his black hearthstone, which was evidently a slab of tin-bearing ore, had the tin smelt out of it and rise to the top in the form of a white cross — hence the image of a white cross on a black background on the Cornish flag.

“St. Piran’s Day was said to be a favourite with the tinners who having a tradition that some secrets regarding the manufacture of tin were communicated to their ancestors by that saint, they leave the manufacture to shift for itself for that day, and keep it as a holiday.” There is little description of specific traditions associated with this day apart from the consumption of large amounts of alcohol and food during Perrantide, the week leading up to the 5th of March. The day following St Piran’s Day was known by many as ‘Mazey Day’, a term which has now been adopted by the revived Golowan festival in Penzance. The phrase ‘drunk as a perraner’ was used in 19th century Cornwall.

The modern observance of St Piran’s day as a national symbol of the people of Cornwall started in the late 19th and early 20th century when Celtic Revivalists sought to provide the people of Cornwall with a national day similar to those observed in other nations. Since the 1950s, the celebration has become increasingly observed and since the start of the 21st century almost every Cornish community holds some sort of celebration to mark the event. Saint Piran’s Flag is also seen flying throughout Cornwall on this day.

Cornish pasties would be ideal to celebrate this day.  You can find my recipe here —   You can also make Cornish clotted cream.  It is possible to buy clotted cream in some markets in the UK but it is not the same as homemade.  I used to make it all the time.  This video gives the basics, which are to place a shallow tray of heavy cream in an oven set at 80°C/175°F for about 10 to 12 hours.  The cream reduces to a buttery, creamy concoction which is perfect for topping scones and jam at tea time.


Nov 192018

Doom Bar sounds like it ought to be a sketchy nightclub that you frequent only if you have no regard for life or limb, but, in fact, it is a sandbar at the mouth of the Camel estuary on the north coast of Cornwall that has been a danger to shipping for centuries. On this date in 1911, two ships, Island Maid and Angele, foundered on Doom Bar. All five of the Island Maid’s crew were rescued, but all but the captain of the Angele perished. The Doom Bar has accounted for more than 600 beachings, capsizings and wrecks since record keeping began early in the 19th century, the majority of which are wrecks.

The bar is composed mostly of coarse sediment carried up from the seabed by bed load processes, and it has been shown that there is a net inflow of sediment into the estuary. This inflow is aided by wave and tidal processes, but the exact patterns of sediment transport within the estuary are complex and are not fully understood. There is only a very small sediment contribution from the River Camel itself: most of the river’s sediment is deposited much higher up the estuary. A large proportion of the sediment in Doom Bar is derived from marine mollusk shells, and as a consequence it includes a high level of calcium carbonate, measured in 1982 at 62%. The high calcium carbonate content of the sand has meant that it has been used for hundreds of years to improve agricultural soil by liming. This use is known to date back to before 1600. High calcium carbonate levels combined with natural sea salt made the sand valuable to farmers as an alkaline fertilizer when mixed with manure. In a report published in 1839, Henry De la Beche estimated that the sand from the Doom Bar accounted for between a fifth and a quarter of the sand used for agriculture in Devon and Cornwall. He also stated that around 80 men were permanently employed to dredge the area from several barges, removing an estimated 100,000 long tons (100,000,000 kg) of sand per year, which he said he had been “assured by competent persons” had caused a reduction in height of the bar of between 6 and 8 feet (180 and 240 cm) in the 50 years before 1836. An estimated 10 million tons of sediment was removed from the estuary between 1836 and 1989, mostly for agricultural purposes and mostly from the Doom Bar.

There is a submerged forest beneath the eastern part of the Doom Bar, off Daymer Bay. It is believed to be part of the wooded plain that existed off the current Cornwall coast before it was overcome by sand dunes and beach sand during the last significant rise in sea-level, which ended around 4,000 years ago. Exposed as they are to the Atlantic Ocean, the sands of the area have always been prone to sudden shifts: several houses were said to have been buried one night during a powerful storm. According to tradition one such shift led to the formation of the Doom Bar during the reign of Henry VIII (1509–1547), causing a decline in the prosperity of Padstow. Today, the sandbank covers approximately 0.4 square miles (1.0 km2), linking the beaches near Harbour Cove by sand flats, although the actual size and shape varies.

The name “Doom Bar” is a corruption of the older name Dunbar which itself derives from dune-bar. Although the bar was commonly known as “Dunbar sands” before 1900, the name “Doom Bar” was used in 1761 (as “the Doom-bar”), and it was also used in poetry, and in House of Commons papers in the 19th century. According to local folklore, the Doom Bar was created by the Mermaid of Padstow as a dying curse after being shot. One local legend says that a Padstow local, Tristram Bird, bought a new gun and wanted to shoot something worthy of it. He went hunting seals at Hawker’s Cove but found a young woman sitting on a rock brushing her hair. Entranced by her beauty, he offered to marry her and, when she refused, he shot her in retaliation, only realizing afterwards that she was a mermaid. As she died she cursed the harbor with a “bar of doom”, from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay. A terrible gale blew up that night and when it finally subsided there was the sandbar, “covered with wrecks of ships and bodies of drowned men”.

For centuries, the Doom Bar was regarded as a significant danger to ships—to be approached with caution to avoid running aground. When sails were the main source of power, ships coming round Stepper Point would lose the wind, causing loss of steerage, leaving them to drift away from the channel. Sometimes, gusts of wind known colloquially as “flaws” blew over Stepper Point and pushed vessels towards the sandbank. Dropping anchor would not help, as it could not gain a firm hold on the sand. Richard Hellyer, the Sub-Commissioner of Pilotage at Padstow, gave evidence in 1859 that the Doom Bar was regarded as so dangerous that in a storm, vessels would risk being wrecked on the coast rather than negotiate the channel to Padstow harbor.

In 1761 John Griffin published a letter in the London Chronicle recommending methods for entering the Camel estuary during rough weather, particularly while north-northwest winds were blowing and described the bolts and rings he had fixed to the cliffs to assist ships trying to enter the harbor. Mooring rings were still there in 1824, and around 1830, three capstans at the base of the cliffs and bollards along the cliffs, by which means boats could be warped safely past the bar were installed.

In 1846, the Plymouth and Padstow Railway company took an interest in trying to remove the Doom Bar, hoping to increase trade through the harbor at Padstow. The plan was to create a breakwater on the bar, which would stop the build-up of sand, and the railway would transport sand from the nearby dunes to where it was needed for agricultural purposes elsewhere in the south west. However, neither the breakwater nor the railway was built, but the issue was re-examined by the 1858 British Parliamentary Select Committee on Harbours for Refuge.

During the 20th century the Doom Bar was regularly dredged to improve access to Padstow. By the 1930s, when Commander H.E. Turner surveyed the estuary, there were two channels round the Doom Bar, and it is thought that the main channel may have moved to the east side in 1929. By 2010 the original channel had disappeared. The estuary is regularly dredged by Padstow Harbour Commission’s dredgers, Sandsnipe and Mannin.

In 1827, the recently founded Life-boat Institution helped fund a permanent lifeboat at Padstow, a 23 feet (7.0 m) rowing boat with four oars. The lifeboat house at Hawker’s Cove was erected two years later by the Padstow Harbour Association for the Preservation of Life and Property from Shipwreck. Reverend Charles Prideaux-Brune of Prideaux Place was the patron. In 1879, four of his granddaughters and their friend were rowing on the Doom Bar and saw a craft go down. They rowed out to save the drowning sailor. All five girls received a Royal National Lifeboat Institution Silver Medal for their bravery.

Despite the safer eastern channel and improvements in maritime technology, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution still deals with incidents at the Doom Bar. In February 1997, two fishermen who were not wearing lifejackets drowned after their boat capsized. Two anglers had been killed in a similar incident in 1994. On 25th June 2007, the Padstow lifeboat and a rescue helicopter rescued the crews of two yachts in separate incidents from the area.

Doom Bar has lent its name to a bitter (4.0% abv) brewed by Sharp’s Brewery originally at Rock, a village on the estuary opposite Padstow and in Burton-upon-Trent. It is the brewery’s flagship beer, accounting for 90% of sales and with an output of 24,000,000 imperial pints (14,000 kl) in 2010. In 2011, sales increased by 22%, making it the UK’s fastest growing beer for three years in a row. In June 2013, Doom Bar bitter became the number one UK cask ale, by volume and value.

In honor of Padstow, Doom Bar, and Cornwall, here is a recipe for Cornish Game Hen marinated in a beer brine, and then roasted.

Doom Bar Cornish Game Hen


2 Cornish game hens
12 oz Doom Bar bitter
¼ cup kosher salt
2 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp whole cloves


Combine the beer, salt, sugar, cloves, and 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until all the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Place the hens in sealable plastic bags, and divide the beer brine between them. Squeeze out the air, seal tightly, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning remove the hens from the brine and let them air dry.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Place the hens on a rack in a roasting pan, and roast until golden brown and cooked through (about 40 minutes).  Serve with roast potatoes and other roast vegetables.

May 012017

The 1st of May is a global celebration in one guise or other. I’ve already dealt with 2 important celebrations, International Workers’ Day (throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and beyond)  and May Day which is mostly an English custom . It is also Walpurga’s Day which is celebrated in Germanic countries, typically more on the Eve than the day itself . Now it’s the turn of Celtic traditions. Beltane was not historically associated with an exact date, but in modern times it has been pegged specifically to May 1.  As always, there’s a great deal of nonsense written about the nature of Beltane historically, with precious little in the way of primary sources to back it up. Romantic, and wishful, speculation always trumps proper historical method, largely because people have a (bad) habit of believing what they want to believe. Having fun in whatever way you want is fine with me.  I’d just prefer that you leave historical justification out of the picture. Here is what is reasonably certain.

In Irish Gaelic, the festival is usually called Lá Bealtaine (“day of Beltane”) while the month of May is Mí Bhealtaine (“month of Beltane”). In Scottish Gaelic, the month is called (An) Cèitean or a’ Mhàigh, and the festival is Latha Bealltainn. Sometimes the older Scottish Gaelic spelling Bealltuinn is used. In modern Scottish Gaelic, Latha Buidhe Bealltainn or Là Buidhe Bealltainn (“the yellow day of Beltane”) is used to describe the first day of May. This term Lá Buidhe Bealtaine is also used in Irish and is translated as “Bright May Day”.

Despite more fanciful etymologies of recent years, it is commonly accepted that the Old Irish word Beltaine is derived from the conjectured archaic Celtic *belo-te(p)niâ, meaning “bright fire”. The element *belo- is probably cognate with the obsolete English word “bale” (as in bale-fire) meaning “white” or “shining.” Middle English “bale” comes from Old English bǣl (“funeral pyre”) which derives from Proto-Germanic *bēlą (“pyre”), from Proto-Indo-European *bʰel- (“to shine; gleam; sparkle”). Old Norse bál is also a cognate and may have been the direct source for the English word via Norse invaders. The most important point from all of this is that Beltane is a FIRE festival.

The best historical documentary evidence of the Celtic celebration of Beltane comes from Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, but something akin to it has been noted in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. Beltane in pastoral communities is associated with the beginning of the summer season when the animals of the community were driven up into summer pasture. The reverse traditionally occurred on Samhain (~ November 1) when they were driven back down to the village for winter.  Because timing was determined by climate and not by the weather, the exact date varied. In solar terms, Beltane is approximately a cross-quarter day – that is, in Northern latitudes, about halfway between the vernal equinox, and the summer solstice.

There are a number of customs that were once associated with Beltane, many of which died out but were revived in the second half of the 20th century: bonfires, May bushes, visits to holy wells, and house decorating. The Beltane bonfire was probably the most widespread tradition historically, and is the most common today.  There are references to Beltane in Old Irish literature, notably the (perhaps 10th century) glossary Sanas Cormaic and the anonymous, The Wooing of Emer by Cú Chulainn in the 15th or 16th century Tochmarc Emire, where we read:

For the druids used to make two fires with great incantations, and to drive the cattle between them against the plagues, every year.

I don’t trust this statement for one minute. What did early modern chroniclers actually know about druid customs that had died out a millennium earlier? In fact, we know virtually nothing about druids anywhere in the British Isles, but there is no end of idle speculation.  It’s possible also that Beltane bonfires were a conscious revival in the 18th and 19th centuries based on these old MSS, rather than the continuation of an ancient tradition.  In the 19th century, the ritual of driving cattle between two fires was documented in parts of Ireland and Scotland. Sometimes the cattle would be driven around a single bonfire or be made to leap over flames or embers. The people themselves would do likewise. In the Isle of Man, people encouraged the bonfire’s smoke to blow over them and their cattle. Subsequently people would daub themselves with the fire’s ashes and sprinkle it over their crops and livestock. Burning torches from the bonfire would be taken home, where they would be carried around the house or boundary of the farmstead and would be used to re-light the house’s fire which had been doused the night before.

Food could also be cooked at the bonfire. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth). Afterwards, they would drink the caudle.

According to several 18th century writers, who may or may not be reliable sources, in parts of Scotland there was another ritual involving the oatmeal cake. The cake would be cut and one of the slices marked with charcoal. The slices would then be put in a bonnet and everyone would take one out while blindfolded. According to one writer, whomever got the marked piece would have to leap through the fire three times. According to another, those present would pretend to throw him into the fire and, for some time afterwards, they would speak of him as if he were dead.

The use of yellow flowers such as primrose, rowan, hawthorn, gorse, hazel, and marsh marigold as garlands was a common Beltane custom, analogous to customs throughout Europe. These were placed at doorways and windows at Beltane in 19th century Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows and sometimes they were made into bouquets, garlands or crosses and fastened to them. They would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.

The May Bush was a common custom in parts of Ireland until the late 19th century. This was a small tree or branch—typically hawthorn, rowan or sycamore—decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. There were household May Bushes (which would be placed outside each house) and communal May Bushes (which would be set in a public spot or paraded around the neighborhood). In Dublin and Belfast, May Bushes were brought into town from the countryside and decorated by the whole neighborhood. Each neighborhood competed for the most well-decorated tree. A certain amount of rowdiness associated with this custom led to the May Bush being outlawed in Victorian times. The practice of decorating a May Bush with flowers, ribbons, garlands and bright shells is found among the Gaelic diaspora, most notably in Newfoundland.

May garlands are a part of the Cornish May 1st celebrations in Padstow. On the evening of the Eve of May the town is thoroughly decorated with flowers, green bowers, and bunting. On May 1st there are two processions through town accompanying their ‘Obby ‘Oss – a unique custom of unknown origins. In the early part of the 20th century it was a very obscure event. But it was popularized by folklorists mid-century so that it is now a gargantuan tourist attraction, laden with the usual nonsense about ancient pagan origins despite the fact that the earliest reference to an ‘Obby ‘Oss in Padstow is 1803.

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, as well as at Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking “sunwise” (moving from east to west) around the well. They would then leave offerings; typically coins or clooties (cloths). The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. It could (theoretically) be rolled in or collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. You might notice my skepticism. Ever tried collecting dew in a jar?

Most Beltane customs died out a long time ago and in many locations traces are seen only in place names and a few landmarks. There are a number of place names in Ireland containing the word Bealtaine, indicating places where Bealtaine festivities may have once been held. It is often Anglicized as Beltany. There are three Beltanys in County Donegal, including the Beltany stone circle, and two in County Tyrone. In County Armagh there is a place called Tamnaghvelton/Tamhnach Bhealtaine (“the Beltane field”). Lisbalting/Lios Bealtaine (“the Beltane ringfort”) is in County Tipperary, while Glasheennabaultina/Glaisín na Bealtaine (“the Beltane stream”) is the name of a stream joining the River Galey in County Limerick.

I suggest that you play around with the idea of oatcakes and caudle on this day since they are so commonly mentioned in old sources. They both come in kaleidoscopic variety in the Celtic world. The traditional Scottish oatcake or bannock was a heavy, flat cake of unleavened barley or oatmeal dough formed into a round or oval shape, then cooked on a griddle or, before the 19th century cooked on a bannock stone, a large, flat, rounded piece of sandstone, placed directly on to a fire, then used as a cooking surface. Most modern bannocks are made with baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent, giving them a lighter texture.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word “caudle” in 1297. The earliest surviving recipe, from 1300–1325, is simply a list of ingredients: wine, wheat starch, raisins, and sugar to “abate the strength of the wine”. In a description of an initiation ceremony at Merton College, Oxford in 1647, caudle is described as a “syrupy gruel with spices and wine or ale added”. Another recipe from the late 14th century has more ingredients and more details on the cooking procedure: “mix breadcrumbs, wine, sugar or honey, and saffron, bring to a boil, then thicken with egg yolks, and sprinkle with salt, sugar, and ginger.” A 15th-century English cookbook includes three caudle recipes: ale or wine is heated and thickened with egg yolks and/or ground almonds, then optionally spiced with sugar, honey, saffron, and/or ginger. This is one version of caudle you can make without much effort. Just be sure to keep an eagle eye on the pot; it burns without much effort also !! This recipe is for one serving, but can easily be multiplied.



1 cup milk
1 tbsp oatmeal
2 eggs, beaten
grated fresh nutmeg
whisky or ale


Heat the milk in a pan with the oatmeal and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, then turn down the heat and simmer until it starts to thicken.

Whisk in the eggs, plus honey and nutmeg to taste and simmer for about five minutes, constantly stirring to avoid sticking.

Remove from the heat and stir in whisky or ale in the quantity you want. Serve hot (“caudle” means “hot”) in mugs, or, if you prefer, you can pour it over a bannock as a dessert.

Jul 312016


Today is the eve of Lammas which is not in itself a church celebration, but is recorded in Shakespeare as Juliet’s birthday, giving rise to one of my most popular posts:   Today is also the feast of St Neot, a Cornish monk who is mostly remembered in the names of towns. Neot is mentioned in an interpolated passage in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. He died around 870 and is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.


Neot, who is said to have been four feet tall (121 cm), some sources say even shorter, may have begun his adult life as a soldier, later renouncing the army for life in a monastery. He first served as sacristan at Glastonbury Abbey, then was ordained as deacon and then as priest.  However, he was never happy in a community and asked leave of his abbot to live as a hermit. He moved to a place near Bodmin Moor where he lived in solitude for some time. Apparently he became known for his strictness in devotion as well as his charity for the poor, so a group of monks eventually gathered around him. It is also said that birds and animals were charmed by him – a sort of St Francis in miniature.

According to Asser, King Alfred visited him for his counsel, but we need to be a little skeptical of the source. In the same book Asser tells of King Alfred burning the cakes when hiding from the Danes at Athelney. It’s certainly a good story, but undoubtedly apocryphal. Butler in his Lives of Saints (1866) has a long-ish section on Neot in relation to Alfred but it all seems to be nonsense. For example, Butler credits Alfred with founding Oxford University, and suggests that he considered Neot for the position of professor of theology. This is all hopelessly anachronistic thinking, let alone inaccurate. Nonetheless, the basics of Neot’s vita seem simple enough, and perfectly believable.


Neot was buried in Cornwall and his bones were preserved as a holy relic in the Cornish village of his name. St Neot’s body was removed from Cornwall to Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire in around 980 when a monastery was founded there and renamed St Neots in his honor. The town now lies in Cambridgeshire on the river Ouse, close to the Bedfordshire border. According to some accounts, the monks returned with their prize, pursued by angry Cornishmen. The bones were housed in the priory for many years but were lost during the reign of Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


Although Neot’s feast day is 31st July it is customarily celebrated at St Neot on the last Sunday of July, which, by coincidence is today this year. He is regarded as the patron saint of fish, although I’m not sure what that means. There are many churches dedicated to St Neot and at least one Holy Well. Legend has it that the well contained three fish, and an angel told St Neot that as long as he ate no more than one fish a day, their number would never decrease. At a time St Neot fell ill, and his servant went and cooked 2 of the fish; upon finding this, St Neot prayed for forgiveness and ordered that the fish be returned to the well. As they entered the water, both were miraculously returned to life.

A Cornish fish dish is obviously warranted for the day, but I’ve already given several – especially for pilchards, crab, and stargazy pie. However, for St Neot I can go with simplicity – Cornish scrowled pilchards. “Scrowled” just means grilled.


As I’ve mentioned several times before, “pilchard” (as well as “sardine”) is a generic term for a number of small fish in the herring family. Cornish pilchards are Sardina pilchardus (very helpful).  Traditional scrowled pilchards can be grilled whole or with the heads removed.  Sprinkle them generously with sea salt and grill them quickly on both sides so that the skin browns and crisps. Then the trick is to slap a cooked fish between slices of bread and munch away, bones and all. Couldn’t be simpler. White bread will work, but homemade whole wheat is better. These days it is common in Cornwall to eat grilled fish with a salad of cucumber and tomato. Works for me.

May 082016


The 8th of May is Floral Day in Helston in Cornwall – usually. If the date falls on a Sunday (as this year) or a Monday, festivities are moved to the previous Saturday. Never mind.  When this blog turns 3 years old on the 10th of May I’m going to start celebrating movable holidays. For now I’ll just celebrate Floral Day as if it were today.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I tend to foam at the mouth when people trot out the usual nonsense about the “pagan origins” of calendar customs in Britain, and today is no exception. Floral Day in Helston is the time to perform the Furry Dance which everyone will tell you is an ancient custom whose history is lost in the “mists of time.” Nonsense. History does not have mists – it just has idiots. It’s true that Floral Day is a genuinely old custom but there are precious few records of the particulars of its celebration before the 19th century. The practice was “revived” in the 19th century, for fun I presume, and has evolved steadily over the years.


Before I talk about present-day customs let me get a few things straight. First and foremost, May celebrations in the south of England celebrate the coming of SUMMER, not SPRING. Sure, May celebrates the turn of the year with flowers and greenery, but May is not really early springtime in Cornwall, but the start of summer — such as it is.  Towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century there was a strong movement to revive rural calendar customs in England which were perceived as dying out due to rural depopulation caused by the Industrial Revolution. Many calendar customs were fading, and the decline of rural villages played a part. But these customs were not demonstrably “ancient” and had nothing to do with pre-Christian Britain. They were simply what they seem on the surface – times to have fun. It was misguided 19th century anthropologists and folklorists who imbued the customs with an air of ancient mystery. I’m all in favor of having a good time; I’m not in favor of bad history.


Floral Day usually starts out at 7 am with the morning dance. This is a semi-formal procession/dance that kicks off the day. Shops and houses are all decked out with bunting, flags, and greenery, and couples parade through the town, and through a few houses.

This is followed by the first performance of the Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8:30am a.m. At one time this was a costume parade featuring the Hal-an-Tow song, which became quite famous with folkies in the 1960s and 70s. Here’s the Watersons:

Nowadays it’s become more of a death and resurrection play featuring St George among others – akin to Mummers Plays in other parts of England. The song is certainly old, and its meaning is rather obscure. It does seem to allude to the Spanish – maybe the Armada – but there’s no telling the exact context.  Modern versions of the pageant try to make the symbolism clearer by bringing a lot of elements in from all over England (can’t seem to get away from 19th century Romantic syncretism).  The pageant is now performed several times along the parade route until 9:30.


The pageant is followed by the children’s dance at 10 am. The children’s dance involves over 1,000 children aged from 7 to 18, all dressed in white, the boys with Lily of the Valley buttonholes and the girls wearing flowers in their hair, the flower determined by the school they attend. They come from St Michael’s School, Nansloe School, Parc Eglos School, and Helston Community College: each year a different school leads the dance. The boys wear their school colors in the form of school ties, and the girls wear matching colored flowers (blue cornflowers for St Michael’s, forget-me-nots for Helston Community College, daisies for Nansloe and poppies for Parc Eglos) in their hair.


This is followed by the midday dance at noon. There are numerous participants but the number of dancers is restricted. You can apply to participate a year in advance (by mail – no emails !!). Otherwise participation is by invitation. Dress code has been fixed to men in grey top hats and tails, and women in long gowns and big hats. Dress has varied considerably since the late 19th century. Originally the parade/dance was for the town gentry only, and they dressed in their formal wear, whatever it happened to be. During the First World War some men were in uniform (also on V-E Day which, coincidentally is May 8th ).


The dance takes various routes through the town depending on circumstances. It parades through certain houses according to custom, but they are not always the same. Some modern owners object to having hundreds of people trouping through their homes.


The music for the midday dance is provided by Helston Town Band, augmented by members of other local bands. They play from memory; supposedly the music for the dance has never been written down. I’m sure that it has never been written down officially, but anyone with an ounce of musical knowledge could do so, and I am sure has. The tune is a variant of a dance tune, generically known as “Long Dance” which can be found throughout England.

Helston Flora Day, playing the "Furry Dance"

In 1890 Cornish antiquarian M. A. Courtney wrote that the tune was sometimes known as “John the Bone.” He also recorded this rhyme from local children:

John the Bone was walking home,
When he met with Sally Dover,
He kissed her once,
He kissed her twice,
And kissed her three times over.

In 1911 Katie Moss, a London composer visiting Helston, observed the Furry Dance and joined in the dancing herself in the evening. On the train home she wrote words and music of a song about her experience, calling the song “The Floral Dance”. She quotes the Furry Dance tune in the piano accompaniment to the chorus – though altering the melody in two bars. This song was published by Chappell & Co., and first performed by baritone Thorpe Bates the same year.

The first recording of the song was made by Peter Dawson on the Zonophone label in 1912. It has since been recorded by many other artists.Here’s the original 78 rpm.

I visited Helston in April 1975 and you can read about my exploits here —  — especially my encounter with Cornish pasties at the Blue Anchor.


Pasties would certainly be a suitable dish of the day. Fish pie is also a good option given that Cornwall is generally known for its fish, especially pilchards, and Helston is a fishing port. But for variety I’ll go with Cornish fairings.  They are a round, risen gingerbread biscuit that can be found throughout Cornwall. The etymology of “fairing” is obscure (just as the history of Floral Day is). It could be from “fair” – either a celebration, or something nice.  Seems suitable. This is from an old Cornish recipe which gives good instructions, but the ingredient list is typically gargantuan for Victorian household recipes. I’d go with one quarter the amount. Mixed spice varies in constituents – usually cloves, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. You can wing it; I do. When you cut down the recipe you’ll also need to use your own judgment with the spices. I tend to be a bit liberal.

Let’s hear it for GREAT British cooking !!!


Cornish Fairings


24 cups flour
6 cups caster sugar
4 cups butter
1 cup lard
2 ½ cups lemon peel, shredded or grated fine
3 cups golden syrup
3 tbsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ cup water
1 ¼ tbsp ground ginger
1 ½ tbsp mixed spice


Pre-heat the oven to 350°F/175°C.

Rub the butter into the flour (you can use a food processor for this step). Put this blend into a large mixing bowl.

Mix the spices with the sugar.

Put the golden syrup into a basin on its own. Mix the water with the bicarbonate of soda in small saucepan and bring it to the boil. Pour the boiling mixture into the syrup and add the lemon peel. Pour this mixture into the flour and butter. Add the spices and sugar, and mix to a soft dough with a wooden spoon or (preferably) your hands.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to 1″ thickness. Cut into rounds.

Place the fairings on baking trays spaced apart. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until risen and golden brown.

Fairings can be served warm or cold. They don’t keep long (a day or two).

Dec 232015


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.

Jonathan Madron is "Tom Bawcock" the legendary fishermen that brought fish to the starving in Mousehole in the form of Starry Gazey Pie at The Ship Inn. Picture Phil Monckton.

Picture credit: Phil Monckton.

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.

Jan 242014


According to John Brand’s Popular Antiquities, 1870 edition, edited by William Hazlitt, January 24th was once celebrated as Paul’s Pitcher Day in Cornwall by the tin miners.  Details are all very sketchy, and Popular Antiquities is not a reliable source.  The best I can piece together is that on January 24th tin miners in some parts of Cornwall would set up an empty pitcher and then pelt it with stones, then fill up a second pitcher with beer, drain it, and then pelt it too. This would continue presumably until everyone was drunk.  Brand also says:

The boys of Bodmin parade the town with broken pitchers, and other earthenware vessels, and into every house, where the door can be opened, or has been inadvertently left so,they hurl a ” Paul’s pitcher,”  exclaiming, “Paul’s Eve, And here’s a heave.” According to custom, the first “heave” cannot be objected to; but upon its repetition the offender, if caught, may be punished”

I assume the shards are from the pitchers the miners had destroyed.

Brand, and subsequent editors, was fond of gathering little oddities like this from archives, newspaper clippings, and so forth, with little effort to verify their validity.  I doubt that this custom was widespread or lasted very long.  It is not recorded in any other edition of Popular Antiquities.

There is a little that can be gleaned though, and I am not inclined to dismiss the custom outright.  The “Paul’s Eve” that is referred to is the eve of the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul (Jan. 25). Prior to his conversion Paul was known for his persecution of Christians, and in the Acts of the Apostles it is noted that he was present at the stoning of St Steven (see Dec 26).  So it is conceivable that the tin miners on the eve of Paul’s conversion were symbolically re-enacting Paul’s life prior to his conversion.  Whatever the truth of the matter, this snippet of folklore gives me the chance to talk about Cornish tin miners, and, of course, Cornish pasties.

Mining in Cornwall and Devon in the south west of England began in the early Bronze Age approximately 2150 BCE and ended with the South Crofty tin mine in Cornwall closing in 1998. Tin and later also copper were the most productive of the metals extracted: some tin mining continued long after mining of other metals had become unprofitable. However it was in the 19th century that mining reached its zenith, before foreign competition depressed the price of copper, and later tin, to a level that made Cornish ore unprofitable. The areas of Cornwall around Gwennap and St Day and on the coast around Porthtowan were among the richest mining areas in the world and at its height the Cornish tin mining industry had around 600 steam engines working to pump out the mines (many mines stretched out under the sea and some went down to great depths).


By the middle and late 19th century, Cornish mining was in decline, and many Cornish miners emigrated to developing mining districts overseas, where their skills were in great demand: these included South Africa, Australia and North America. Cornish miners became dominant in the 1850s in the iron and copper districts of northern Michigan and Wisconsin in the United States, and later in mining regions across the globe. In the first 6 months of 1875 over 10,000 miners left Cornwall to find work overseas.

During the 20th century various ores became briefly profitable, and mines were reopened, but today none remain. Dolcoath mine, (Cornish for Old Ground), the ‘Queen of Cornish Mines’ was, at a depth of 3500 feet (1067 m), for many years the deepest mine in the world, not to mention one of the oldest before its closure in 1921. Indeed, the last working tin mine in Europe, South Crofty, was to be found near Camborne until its closure in March 1998. An attempt was made to reopen it but the mine was then abandoned. There were local media reports in September 2006 that South Crofty was being considered for re-opening as the price of tin had soared but the site was subject to a Compulsory Purchase Order (October 2006). On the wall outside the gate is some graffiti dating from 1999:

“Cornish lads are fishermen and Cornish lads are miners too. / But when the fish and tin are gone, what are the Cornish boys to do?”


Cornish tin (and other) mines were at the very center of the Industrial Revolution in England seeing the development of increasingly efficient steam engines for pumping, and also the evolution of mineral railways – train lines running into the mines to haul ore out – which were well advanced before the idea was translated into commercial railways above ground.


But with technological advancement came increasing exploitation of labor, and all the problems, social and economic, of industrial development.  These tales will have to wait for another time, however, because I want to focus on the quintessential miner’s lunch: the Cornish pasty.

Despite the modern pasty’s strong association with Cornwall, its exact origins are unclear. The English word “pasty” derives from Medieval French paste from  vulgar Latin pasta, meaning “a pie,” typically filled with venison, salmon or other meat, vegetables or cheese, and baked without a pie dish. Pasties have been mentioned in cookbooks throughout the ages; for example the earliest version of Le Viandier has been dated to around 1300 and contains several pasty recipes. In 1393, Le Menagier de Paris contains recipes for pasté with venison, veal, beef, or mutton.

Other early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter which was granted by Henry III (1207–1272) to the town of Great Yarmouth. The town is “bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King.” Around the same time, 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of the monks of St Albans Abbey “according to their custom, lived upon pasties of flesh-meat.” A total of 5,500 venison pasties were served at the installation feast of George Neville, archbishop of York and chancellor of England in 1465. They were even eaten by royalty, as a letter from a baker to Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour (1508–1537) confirms: “…hope this pasty reaches you in better condition than the last one…” In his diaries written in the mid 17th century, Samuel Pepys makes several references to his consumption of pasties, for instance “dined at Sir W. Pen’s … on a damned venison pasty, that stunk like a devil.”  However, after this period the use of the word “pasty” outside Cornwall declined.

In contrast to its earlier place amongst the wealthy, during the 17th and 18th centuries the pasty became popular with working people in Cornwall, where tin miners and others adopted it due to its unique shape, forming a complete meal that could be carried easily and eaten without cutlery. In a mine the pasty’s dense, folded pastry could stay warm for several hours, and if it did get cold it could easily be warmed on a shovel over a candle.

Side-crimped pasties gave rise to the suggestion that the miner might have eaten the pasty holding the thick edge of pastry, which was later discarded, thereby ensuring that his dirty fingers (possibly including traces of arsenic) did not touch food or his mouth. However many old photographs show that pasties were wrapped in bags made of paper or muslin and were eaten from end-to-end. According to the earliest Cornish recipe book, published in 1929, this is “the true Cornish way” to eat a pasty.

The traditional Cornish pasty now has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in the European Union. PGI status requires that a Cornish pasty must be a circle of pastry filled with a mix of uncooked beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (also known as a yellow turnip or rutabaga – referred to in Cornwall as turnip) and onion, seasoned with salt and pepper, folded over to form a half moon shape, crimped on the side, and baked until golden. Furthermore only pasties made in Cornwall may be called Cornish pasties.


I must say that I have never had pasties as wonderful as those baked in Cornwall – no doubt due to the same kind of devotion to a regional product that other regions devote to cheese or wine.  The finest pasty I ever had was in the Blue Anchor in Helston in April 1975 (yes, I have a good memory!).  I was visiting the Blue Anchor because it was legendary in those days as one of only four pubs in England that brewed its own beer (and had been doing so since the 15th century).   I ordered a pasty almost as an afterthought to go with my lunchtime pint.  It was just perfect – the pastry was flaky, the filling was the right balance of meat and vegetables, but, most important to me, the black peppery richness of the filling enhanced the other flavors and left a warm rosy glow in my mouth.  I wish I could recommend them to you, but I gather the pub no longer serves food.  A great shame.

As Cornish miners emigrated to jobs around the world they took the pasty with them.  In both my schools in Australia there was a choice of hot dishes for lunch – a meat pie or a pasty produced fresh daily by the local baker.

corn8  corn13

Pasties are also well loved in the the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and parts of Wisconsin where Cornish miners settled.  In fact Wisconsin is known as the Badger state, “badger” being a nickname for a miner.  In some areas, pasties are a significant tourist attraction, including an annual Pasty Fest in Calumet, Michigan in late June.

corn6  corn4

A similar local history about the arrival of the pasty in the area with an influx of Welsh and Cornish miners, and its preservation as a local delicacy, is found in Butte, Montana.


The Mexican state of Hidalgo, and the twin silver mining cities of Pachuca and Real del Monte (Mineral del Monte), have notable Cornish influences from the Cornish miners who settled there with pasties being considered typical local cuisine. In Mexican Spanish, they are referred to as pastes.


It is important to distinguish between these pastes and the ubiquitous Latin American favorite, the empanada.  They may look superficially similar but they have very different histories.  Empanadas evolved from Iberian pastries and have some, or all, of their fillings cooked before they are baked.  They also have a range of fillings, not just beef and vegetables, and it is very common in many regions of Latin America to fry rather than bake them.

If you are an experienced cook you do not need more than the rudiments to be able to bake your own pasties. Cut a circle of short crust pastry and fill it with a mix of chopped beef, potatoes, swede, and onions seasoned generously with freshly ground black pepper, fold over the pastry, crimp on the side, and bake until golden.  But if you want a recipe from scratch here is one taken from this BBC website.  It’s worth visiting the site if you need help because it has several video demonstrations as well as photo illustrations.


Classic Cornish Pasty


For the pastry

500g/1lb 1oz strong bread flour
120g/4oz vegetable shortening or suet
1 tsp salt
25g/1oz margarine or butter
175ml/6fl oz cold water
1 free-range egg, beaten with a little salt (for glazing)

For the filling

350g/12oz good-quality beef skirt, rump steak or braising steak
350g/12oz waxy potatoes
200g/7oz swede
175g/6oz onions
salt and freshly ground black pepper
knob of butter or margarine

Preparation method

Tip the flour into the bowl and add the shortening, a pinch of salt, the margarine or butter and all of the water.

Use a spoon to gently combine the ingredients. Then use your hands to crush everything together, bringing the ingredients together as a fairly dry dough.

Turn out the dough onto a clean work surface (there’s no need to put flour or oil onto the surface because it’s a tight rather than sticky dough).

Knead the dough to combine the ingredients properly. Use the heel of your hand to stretch the dough. Roll it back up into a ball, then turn it, stretch and roll it up again. Repeat this process for about 5-6 minutes. The dough will start to become smooth as the shortening breaks down. If the dough feels grainy, keep working it until it’s smooth and glossy. Don’t be afraid to be rough – you’ll need to use lots of pressure and work the dough vigorously to get the best results.

When the dough is smooth, wrap it in cling film and put it in the fridge to rest for 30–60 minutes.

While the dough is resting, peel and cut the potato, swede and onion into cubes about 1cm/½in square. Cut the beef into similar sized chunks. Put all four ingredients into a bowl and mix. Season well with salt and some freshly ground black pepper, then put the filling to one side until the dough is ready.

Lightly grease a baking tray with margarine (or butter) and line with baking or silicone paper (not greaseproof).

Preheat the oven to 170C (150C fan assisted)/325F/Gas 3.

Once the dough has had time to relax, take it out of the fridge. The margarine or butter will have chilled, giving you a tight dough. Divide the dough into four equal-sized pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll each ball into a disc roughly 25cm/10in wide (roughly the same size as a dinner plate).

Spoon a quarter of the filling onto each disc. Spread the filling on one half of the disc, leaving the other half clear. Put a knob of butter or margarine on top of the filling.

Carefully fold the pastry over, join the edges and push with your fingers to seal. Crimp the edge to make sure the filling is held inside – either by using a fork, or by making small twists along the sealed edge. Traditionally Cornish pasties have around 20 crimps. When you’ve crimped along the edge, fold the end corners underneath.

Put the pasties onto the baking tray and brush the top of each pasty with the egg and salt mixture. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for about 45 minutes or until the pasties are golden-brown. If your pasties aren’t browning, increase the oven temperature by 10C/25F for the last 10 minutes of cooking time.