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.
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.
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
salt and freshly ground black pepper
knob of butter or margarine
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.