The Pasty

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I could not live for a year in Cornwall without telling you about the pasty. And before you start getting too excited – let’s just get something clear before I begin. A pasty (pronounced pass-tee) is a little meat filled turnover indigenous to the British Isles: specifically the West Country of England including the counties of Cornwall and Devon. A pasty (same spelling but pronounced pay-stee) is an infamous article of attire well known for its use in a certain – ach hem – gentleman-geared industry that involves dancing, poles, and dim lighting. There. Now that that’s been established, I hope I can continue with out too many more winks and sniggers.

Now, the pass-tee is a Cornish speciality: a centuries old delicacy involving potato, rutabaga (swede here in England), onions and beef ensconced into flaky pastry. First appearing in literature in about the 12th century, it is mentioned in the ballads of Robin Hood. It makes an appearance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It was scoffed at by the notorious 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys – “tonight we dined on a damned venison pasty that stunk like the devil” (apparently venison was not his favourite). And it was beloved by Shakespeare, who had such an affection for them that he mentions them in not just one, but three of his plays (though we will not dwell too long on the fact that one of these plays, Titus Andronicus, involves a pasty baked by one character from the recently demised remains of another).

Though neighbouring Devon still tries to raise a raucous now and then, claiming the pasty as their own, most evidence points to Cornwall as the true birthplace. And no one loves the pasty more than the Cornish, I can tell you. The pasty is to Cornwall what Cheddar is to Vermont. It is not simply a food here, but a cultural symbol, an important part of Cornish identity and life. This is not simply because they really like it (which they do), but because the pasty played such an integral roll in the mining industry here.

Stuck in the deep pits of the tin mines, the Cornish miners needed a food that was hearty, substantial and durable; a meal they could carry in their pockets and eat without the necessity of table, forks and knives. They needed to be able to heat it with nothing more complicated than a candle and a tin bucket. The pasty was just the thing. And it wasn’t just handy, it was potentially life saving as well – since the thick crust allowed the miners (who had no ability to wash the arsenic laden mine dust from their hands) to hold onto one end while they ate the rest. The grimy crust they held to was then thrown into the depths of the mining pit to appease the “knockers” –  the malicious spirits that dwelt there and caused all sorts of trouble when deprived of their beloved pasty crusts.

Below I have shared with you a very traditional pasty recipe — as the Cornish wives would have made for their husbands hundreds of years ago — and a modernized vegan version using French lentils in place the beef (and palm shortening in place of the lard) so that nearly everyone will have a chance to give the pasty a go.  I hope you will; the pasty is such a perfect epitome of what I love about simple, practical, whole-hearted cooking. Food that tells a story.

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The Traditional Pasty

Makes 6 Pasties

To constitute being called a “Cornish” pasty, the filling must include nothing more than rutabaga, potatoes, onions and skirt steak – and everything must be minced small enough to cook to completion inside the pastry wrapping while it bakes. Lard is also a traditional ingredient – and though you can substitute butter entirely for it, a crust made with lard really is supreme to all others. Look for lard from a local farm shop or butcher - and definitely go for organic if you can.

This recipe was adapted from Nigel Slater's Tender: Volume 1, published by Fourth Estate.

Ingredients

    For the pastry
  • ½ cup (110g) lard
  • ½ cup (110g) butter
  • 2 ½ cups (325g) white bread flour
  • 1 cup (125g) whole-wheat flour
  • pinch of salt
  • very cold water – about ¾ cup
  • an egg, beaten, for brushing
  • For the filling
  • 1 medium sized rutabaga
  • 1 large or 2 medium sized potatoes
  • 2 onions
  • 1 pound (450g) skirt steak
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • butter (about 4 tablespoons)

Instructions

  1. Start by placing the lard and butter into the freezer for about an hour.
  2. Meanwhile, peel the rutabaga and potatoes and cut into very small dice (about 1/8 inch cubes). Similarly, dice the onion and chop the steak into small pieces. Combine everything in a bowl with the salt and pepper and mix well.
  3. Remove the lard and butter from the freezer and use a box grater to grate them into the flour. (To prevent the fats from sticking to the grater, occasionally dip the grated surface of the butter or lard into the flour). Add a good pinch of salt and use your fingers to work the fat into the flour (you could also do this in a food processor). Once the lard and butter are worked into pieces no bigger than a small pebble and you have a nice sandy consistency, begin to add the water, in tablespoon increments, until the dough comes together – 5- 6 tablespoons should be sufficient. Form the dough into a ball and refrigerate for about 20 – 30 minutes.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 400° Fahrenheit.
  5. Divide the dough into 6 equal sized segments. Lightly flour a work space and roll each piece into a circle about 8 inches across (or the size of a small plate). Brush the edges with the beaten egg and then place a pile of the filling onto one half of each of the discs, leaving a little room round the edge. Place a a few thin pats of butter on top of the pile and then fold the other half of the dough over so that the edges meet to create a semi-circle. Press the edges together and crimp, using your fingers or a fork. Place them on a baking tray dusted with flour.
  6. Brush the tops of the pasties with beaten egg and make a few slits in each one to release steam (or do what the miner's wives did and carve each one with your family members' initials). Bake at 400° F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325° F and bake for a further 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown.

A Lentil Pasty

Makes 6 Pasties

This lentil version is just as hearty and satisfying as the original. But please, make sure you use 100% expeller pressed palm oil shortening - and that you look for one that is organic and sustainably sourced (palm growth contributes heavily to deforestation). Many other vegetable shortenings contain refined vegetable oils and are high in hydrogenated and trans-fats, which are, believe it or not, worse for your arteries than lard.

Ingredients

    For the Dough:
  • 1 cup (225g) organic palm oil shortening
  • 2 ½ cups (325g) white bread flour
  • 1 cup (125g) whole-wheat flour
  • pinch of salt
  • very cold water – about ¾ cup (200ml)
  • a little non-dairy milk to brush on top
  • For the filling:
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • Half a medium sized rutabaga (swede)
  • 2 medium sized carrots
  • 1 large or 2 medium sized potatoes
  • 1 cup French lentils
  • 1 1/2 - 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • a pinch of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves

Instructions

  1. Start by placing the palm shortening into the freezer for about an hour.
  2. Meanwhile, peel the rutabaga and potatoes and cut into very small dice (about 1/8 inch cubes). Similarly, dice the onion.
  3. Remove the shortening from the freezer and use a box grater to grate it into the flour. (To prevent the fat from sticking to the grater, occasionally dip the shortening into the flour). Add a good pinch of salt and use your fingers to work the fat into the flour (you could also do this in a food processor). Once the shortening is worked into pieces no bigger than a small pebble and you have a nice sandy consistency, begin to add the water, in tablespoon increments, until the dough comes together – 5- 6 tablespoons should be sufficient. Form the dough into a ball and refrigerate for about 20 – 30 minutes.
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 400° Fahrenheit.
  5. Place a large sized frying pan over a medium flame. Add the olive oil, and once it is nice and hot (a splash of water sent into a sizzle is a good indicator) add the chopped onion. Stir occasionally, until the onion is beginning to colour, and then add the potatoes, carrots, rutabega (swede) and lentils. Add the salt, a pinch of pepper, the thyme and bay leaves, stirring everything together to coat the vegetables with oil. Now, add 2 cups of water or vegetable stock (about 500 ml), cover with a lid and let cook for about 20-30 minutes. Check the mix occasionally, giving it a good stir to prevent sticking, and add a little extra water if it starts too get to dry. Once the lentils are tender, test for seasoning and set aside to cool
  6. Divide the dough into 6 equal sized segments. Lightly flour a work space and roll each piece into a circle about 8 inches across (or the size of a small plate). Brush the edges with dairy free milk and then place a pile of the filling onto one half of each of the discs, leaving a little room round the edge. Fold the other half of the dough over so that the edges meet to create a semi-circle. Press the edges together and crimp, using your fingers or a fork. Place them on a baking tray dusted with flour.
  7. Brush the tops of the pasties with dairy free milk and make a few slits in each one to release steam (or do what the miner's wives did and carve each one with your family members' initials). Bake at 400° F for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325° F and bake for a further 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown.

Comments

  1. Kieron says:

    Many other vegetable shortenings contain refined vegetable oils and are high in hydrogenated and trans-fats, which are, believe it or not, worse for your arteries than lard.

    Thanks for saying this. It’s true. The body can handle these real, natural fats much more easily than it can these artificially-created fats, including margarine. Heart disease only began to become noticeable when these fake fats were introduced by chemical companies, who had an interest in demonizing old standys like butter and lard, so that people would buy their new product. So they told us those things will harm us, are “quaint” etc. Hogwash! The real story is coming out, but quietly. Margarine is rarely mentioned anymore in newspaper recipes, at least in the States.

    • Danielle says:

      You are so right, absolutely – and thank you for adding that info. The sad irony that comes from thinking we are smarter than nature. Hah! Someday, I think I will write a long ranting article defending lard (and other saturated fats). I’ve restrained myself thus far because I get so worked up when I think about it, I worry I’ll come off sounding a little off my head! Thanks as always for your comments Kieron :)

  2. This pronunciation is crucial. Thank you for clarifying. Now I’d like one traditional and one lentil for breakfast, please.

  3. As always your blog is a delight to read. Am looking forward to having more time for cooking one of these days!

  4. Random Lincs says:

    I didn’t know the pole-dancing use of the word – is that an American thing? Your photos are mouth-watering. Vermont is famous for cheddar? Learning a lot here…wonderful weaving in of literature and facts, too.

    • Danielle says:

      Apparently it must be! I’m so glad to share these important facts with you – especially about VT and cheddar :) Glad you enjoyed the post!

      XOXO

  5. Earlier today, Toby was reading Calvin and Hobbes, and inquired as to what “Crisco” meant… It made me chuckle that it was easily explained to this boy that it was like fake lard. He knew exactly what this meant. I never saw lard as a child. I guess I rarely saw crisco either, as it were.
    I sure love the pasties from the Yoop. There is a certain iga in Lanse by the Keewanaw Peninsula my stepdad Jimbo was in the know about with some tasty ones. He would stick the foil wrapped pasties on the engine block of his truck and by the time we made it to his land they would be warmed through! Your writing is wonderful and envokes my appetite every time :)

    • Danielle says:

      That makes me very happy that he didn’t know what Crisco was :) And that fake lard cleared it up for him! Writing this actually made me quite nostalgic for the land over the Mackinac Bridge, and the story of Jimbo heating them on the engine of his truck is so classic! Good to hear from you – you are very often in my thoughts along with the Calvin and Hobbes reading child:) XOXO

  6. Cathy says:

    I was so intrigued by the American meaning of pasty that I had to look it up! I also didn’t know that Cheddar is so popular in Vermont – is it produced there? There are so many different types of Cheddar in the UK these days, the original flavour is hard to find. The pasty recipe sounds very tasty… the last time I had a Cornish pasty was in the 80s in Clovelly! (Devon)

    • Danielle says:

      That must’ve been an interesting search indeed! The do produce cheddar in Vermont – I suppose they don’t really have the right to claim it as their specialty, but yes they do. Though I suppose if you put Vermont before much of anything, people will be more likely to buy it:) Funny you had a Cornish pasty in Devon! Clovelly looks lovely, hope to visit there myself someday! I’ll be sure to have a pasty there if I do, and I’ll think of you ! XOXO

  7. marthasnail says:

    tom and i are going to make a batch this week! love the historical references. such a wonderful post, d. xox

  8. Lucinda says:

    A very entertaining and interesting post! I learnt several new things from it; rutabaga is swede, Vermont is famous for cheddar, the crust of pasties was to avoid poisoning miners (fascinating)… and I have to ask what the pay-stee is, my curiosity is peaked!!
    The lentil version sounds lovely and filling for this time of year. x

    • Danielle says:

      I should’ve know I was setting myself up for that question! But I am too much of a prude to type it up. I’ll have to tell you over the phone!

  9. alizagdayton says:

    A lentil pasty… now you’re talkin’! Shame about the Swede, but a parsnip may be ok. Always such a pleasure to read your blog. You have such a gentle and yet absorbing flavour to your words. You are an exceptional writer. x