The History Of The Pasty - Silke Kitchens Skip to main content

Today we’re going to be looking at the Pasty, a seminal British treat beloved by many in the country. The Pasty is itself a fairly simple confectionery consisting of an uncooked filling- usually a mixture of Meat and Vegetables- placed atop one half of a flatted, circular piece of shortcrust pastry, which is then folded over the filling into a semi-circle shape before having the edges crimped to tightly seal the package.

The resulting pastry is then baked in an oven. Though a variety of filling variations have existed for hundreds of years, the most well known variant of the Pasty is the Cornish Pasty, who’s filling consists of Beef, Onion, Potato, and Swede, further seasoned using simply Salt and Black Pepper.

The Cornish Pasty is so integral to the diet and traditions of the Cornwall region as a whole that it accounts for around 6% of the Cornish food economy, and was granted Protected Geographical Indication status by the European Commission in 2011. This PGI status ensures that true Cornish Pasties will always be baked in that iconic “D” shape we all immediately recognise, must contain all of the above mentioned ingredients, and must be served golden brown and retain their shape upon cooking and cooling. Cornish Pasties are also perhaps the single most popular form of Pasty on an international scale, as it is popular in Australia, Ulster, Argentina, and even parts of the United States and Mexico; this can largely be put down to the spread of Cornish miners within those regions during the Industrial Revolution.

It’s impossible to list the number of variations on the Pasty outside of the PGI protected Cornish Pasty, entirely because more or less anything you could imagine could be baked into one. There is an oft quoted joke that claims that the Devil himself would never dare enter the county of Cornwall, for fear that the Cornish people may take a liking to Devil Pasties.

All pretty well and good for the most part, but what’s especially interesting about the Pasty as a whole is that despite it’s ties with and association to Cornwall, it appears to have no discernible point of origin.

The word Pasty itself is said to derive from the Medieval French word Paste, which refereed to a variant of pie that was baked without a dish, and included filling such as Venison, Fish, Vegetables, and sometimes even Cheese. One of the most important and integral cookbooks from the Middle Ages, Le Viandier (the original version of which dates as far back as at least 1300), contains recipes for several Pasty variations, but mentions of Pasties can be found earlier then that. One such mention is a charter granted by Henry III to the town of Great Yarmouth; this charter stipulated that every year, the sheriffs of the town was to bake a hundred herrings into 24 Pasties for Norwich, which would then be taken by the sheriffs to the lord of the manor of East Carlton, who would then convey the Pasties to the King. The 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris also wrote of the customs of the monks of St. Albans Abbey, who to quote his writings would would “live upon pasties of flesh-meat”.

There was a brief controversy sparked in 2006, when a researcher in Devon discovered a recipe for a luxurious Pasty containing venison, which was tucked inside an audit book. The recipe was dated to 1510 (and further contain information regarding the pricing of Pasties in the Devon area circa 1509). The previous recipe claimed to be the oldest was one held by the Cornwall Records Office in Truro, Cornwall, dated to around 1746. The resulting discovery lead to a lot of debate and mud slinging between Devon and Cornwall, despite the undeniable proof that the name and concept of a Pasty was well documented long before either date.

Contrary to their common association with the working classes in the modern age, they were eaten largely by the noble and the wealthy. A surviving letter of correspondence from a baker to Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, reads that he “hoped this Pasty would reach you in better condition then the ast one”, for example. Pasties are very similar to Game Pie in that way, as we covered with our last miniseries. It wasn’t until around the 17th and 18th century that the Pasty began to rise in prominence in the lower classes.

Again, it is largely the tin miners from the Cornwall region we have to thank for this; the Pasty became adopted by the miners mostly due to it’s unique shape, which allowed for a full, hearty meal that could be safely eaten at a volatile workplace without the need for cutlery. Likewise, the thick pastry shell of a Pasty ensured that it would stay warm for longer periods of time, and if needed it could be warmed up by placing it on a (hopefully clean) shovel and warmed atop a candle. In accordance with this adoption by the miners, a number of tall tales and matters of hearsay emerged around the practise of actually eating Pasties.

An example of this is the Crimped edge of the Pasty itself; the theory was that the distinctive Side-Crimped edge of a Pasty served as a means for the miners to hold onto their pasties (with fingers that were dirty and possibly covered in traces of Arsenic), allowing them to eat the bulk of the Pasty and then discard the edge and ensuring they didn’t consume any possibly unsafe substances. This is easily proven false, however, by the existence of photos that show miners with Pasties wrapped in small bags likely made of paper or muslin. Likewise, the Pasty was always eaten from end-to-end; the earliest Cornish cookbook, 1929’s Cornish Recipes: Ancient And Modern, confirms that this is “the true Cornish way to eat a Pasty” within its text.

The Pasty is another fascinating example of how the culture around food- and indeed the food itself- can change over time and influence others.