Cornish Food

Last month I managed to grab a little getaway to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom – Cornwall. I’ve always loved going there, having wonderful memories of holidaying in places like Newquay and Torquay as a child. It was only when I arrived that I realised that the last time I visited was August 1999, the year of the total eclipse of the Sun – twenty blinking years ago! I felt so old.

Tintangel (pic: Hugues Roberts)

This time I visited with my partner, and avoided the obvious holiday places, our headquarters being a picturesque seventeenth century cottage in the lovely little town of Camelford. The nearest place to visit from there is Tintagel with its ancient castle and apparent birthplace of the mythical King Arthur. We also had a nosey round the Boscastle, which is worth visiting for the eerie Museum of Witchcraft and Magic if nothing else. We climbed Exmoor and hiked around the lovely harbour town Fowey (pronounced to rhyme with joy). Padstow was on the itinerary too, where I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever had.

Wandering over the Tintagel moorland (pic: Hugues Roberts)

For those of you not familiar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall is a county that takes up the tip of the long peninsula that makes up the very south-west of England. Because it is out on a limb, Cornwall feels different to the rest of England. The is due to the fact that the indigenous people – the Britons – were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century BCE. As a result they retained their own language, Cornish, just as the other unconquered Britons did such as the Welsh. It really does feel ancient and magical – and this coming from a devout atheist! It has wild and untouched landscapes, beautiful dramatic skies and a real connection with the past. It’s also great for foraging – I spotted wild cabbage, fennel, rock samphire, sea kale and rocket all lurking about the sandy and rocky beaches.

A map of Cornwall (pic: Google Maps)

To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon. The two have a friendly rivalry (I’m sure this wasn’t always the case!) especially when it comes to food, as you will see.

I tried to eat as many Cornish things as possible during our three-night stay, so I thought I would write a quick guide to Cornish food and follow it up with a few regional recipes.

A beautiful Cornish sunset (pic: Hugues Roberts)

Pasties

The Cornish pastry is probably Cornwall’s most famous food. It’s a simple affair, containing beef, potato, turnip and onion, all generously seasoned with ground black pepper. On no account must you add carrot to your Cornish pasty, and the meat must be chopped, not minced. They are crimped down one edge; never have your crimp go across the top of the pasty, because what you have there is a Devonshire pastry, and that will never do. There are other pasties – or “oggies” as the are called colloquially, made with apples or jam. There’s also a squab pie which is made from lamb and apples.

A cream tea (I must admit, I prefer the Devonshire method!)

Cream teas

One of my most favourite things in the world is a cream tea. It is made of a nice pot of tea, a scone (plain or fruit), jam and clotted cream. Now – this is very important – for a Cornish cream tea you apply the jam first and then the clotted cream, in Devon however, it’s cream first and then jam. Both counties believe that the other’s way is the work of heathens. Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very low heat, resulting in a cream that is butter-like in consistency and topped with an appetising pale crust. It is also used to make heavenly Cornish ice cream.

Fish

I’ve always found it odd that as an Island nation, we British don’t really like fish. Cornwall lands some of the best quality fish and seafood in the world, and yet its most identifies with a meat pasty. Cornwall has particularly fine – and plentiful – crabs, and one of the best things anyone could eat is dressed crab, brown bread, salted butter and fresh lemon. You’ve to look for it to find it, but it is available.

An infamous dish in these parts is stargazy pie a simple dish of sardines baked under a pastry crust. The fishes are boned, but their little heads are left on so that they can peek out the pie’s edge looking up to the heavens.

A stargazy pie (pic: Jusrol)

In Padstow, we visited Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop. Mr Stein (a food hero of mine) gets a hard time from the locals because he has so many businesses there; so much so, they have nicknamed it rather glibly ‘Padstein’. We didn’t get the chance to visit his restaurant, but we were not disappointed with the chip shop – I had the best cod and chips I have ever eaten. Beautifully crisp batter, creamy soft fish and proper made-from-scratch tartare sauce. Delish!

Cornish Splits

Another sweet treat made up of simply a bun made from a bread dough enriched with sugar, egg and butter, filled with jam and whipped cream. The grandfather to the doughnut, I would imagine.

Saffron Buns

Very popular – and very regional to the south-west are these delicious little buns. They are very similar to a hot cross bun, except it is a beautiful golden-yellow colour due to the healthy pinch of saffron which is added to the mix.

A brace of lovely saffron buns

There are other regional dishes too, such as hog’s pudding – often found on a Cornish fried breakfast instead of black pudding. There is Cornish heavy cake (aka hevva cake), which is similar to a the Chorley cakes one finds in North West England, and the delicious cheese known as Yarg which is similar to the Welsh cheese Caerphilly but is wrapped in nettle leaves.

Apologies if I have missed anything off – if you spot anything, please add to the comments section below. I’ll be back soon with some Cornwall-inspired recipes.

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27 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, General, history

27 responses to “Cornish Food

  1. Kirsty

    I love this! I have fond memories of holidays in Cornwall as a child. I’ve been to Rick Stein’s restaurant and it was amazing, I couldn’t help asking the waiter where Rick was and apparently he was in Australia checking out his winery!

  2. Coming from Cornwall (my mother was the GP in Padstow before she retired), I hope you don’t mind if I make a few comments – these are not said in criticism and I hope you do not take offence, as I appreciate your blog immensely.
    The Cornish, along with the Welsh, Irish and Scots are Celts and not the indigenous inhabitants of Britain. It is thought that the original wave of Celtish colonists, originally via the West of Britain, came from Galicia in Spain. The Cornish dislike the people from Devon equally with the rest of Britain and refer to all tourists and interlopers as emmets (ants). They are quite direct in telling newcomers to the county, that they won’t accept them until they have lived there for 7 years. Some won’t even talk to you until 7 years have past.
    There may be pasties made with all sorts of things these days, but I never saw one made with apples and jam as a child. The idea that miners took a pasty to work with meat in one end and jam at the other is a myth.
    I don’t remember ever eating a cream tea with jam first – but each to his own.
    Stargazy pie is unique to Mousehole and should be served on Tom Bawcock’s Eve (the night before Christmas Eve). I’m old enough to remember when it was a celebration in Mousehole for locals only.
    I’ve been to Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant quite a few times and it’s fantastic. Sadly however, the reason why the locals call Padstow, Pastein, is down to the fact that his success has priced the indigenous population out of their own village. Tourists have come down and bought all the houses at ridiculous prices that the impoverished Cornish can’t afford.
    IMHO you can buy better fish and chips from Barney’s in Wadebridge and there’s another Barney’s in the same town that sells astonishingly good pasties. …and as much as I respect Rick Stein, he isn’t Cornish.
    I’m not aware of hog’s pudding being Cornish. It was one of my grandfathers favourite breakfasts, be he always said it came from Devon.
    Cornish Yarg is definitely not like Caerpilly – it is quite solid and not at all crumbly. I would say it’s less salty too.

    • Thanks for the comments!
      I knew about the apple in one end, meat in the other kind of pasty is not a Cornish (or Devonshire) thing. They do exist somewhere though….Bedfordshire, I think.
      Thanks for the extra information on the other foods too – I had to keep each one brief as I have a rule of never going over 1000 words in a post. I’ll elaborating on some of them over the next few weeks though.
      Yes, cream first is the way I prefer it. I’ve always agreed with the Devonians that the cream should be used like butter – hold any thoughts on that one til a post or two’s time as I’ll be writing a proper post on it.
      Yes, Mr Stein isn’t Cornish, but that’s okay. I’m not Mancunian, but consider myself part of the fold (not sure what the Mancunians think, but they seem to like me…), and I get that gentrification prices people out of towns. It’s a tricky one, a similar thing is happening in my own part of Manchester in fact.
      Hog’s pudding isn’t Cornish per se, but of the South-West. It was on plenty of breakfast menus when I was there, that’s for sure.
      Yarg is like Caerphilly in that it’s a compressed-curd kind of cheese (that’s what I meant anyway) and true, it’s definitely less salty!
      Cheers for the comments!

      • Thanks!
        To give you an idea of how much the Cornish resent outsiders – Padstow has an annual pagan festival called the Obby Oss every May Day. This is very much a local festival and there is considerable resentment of tourists with cameras and particularly to those wanting to join in. I remember a May Day 20 years ago or so, where the entire village wore T shirts with a slogan that said, “Fuck off emmets!”

      • I’ve seen film of the festival – on a Rick Stein programme I believe!! :/

      • Sadly, Cornwall is the second poorest region in the whole of northern Europe. Tin mining collapsed more than 100 years ago, fishing is disappearing and farming if in decline. Tourism lasts from Easter to October, but the main season is only as long as the school holidays. Restaurant workers, cleaners, etc. get paid the minimum wage for a few months per year (if they are lucky), while people from more affluent regions buy second homes and price the locals out of town.
        …nevertheless, the Cornish are completely dependent on the visitors!

      • I have a friend who lives in Cumbria, in the very north of the Lake District, and they have exactly the same issue, I suppose there are places all around the UK that are similar. I’d happily be in these sorts of places all year round, but I am unfortunately tied to the city. For the time being at least…

      • I’ve just come back from 6 months chefing in a restaurant up the coast north of Barcelona – it’s exactly the same!

      • I think tourism has always been like that…

      • Yes but it was backed up with local trades too. It’s a time that has passed I suppose…

      • Supermarkets and shopping centers haven’t helped, but there has been a surge in local and organic produce.
        In Spain, Franco’s rule held the country back for so long, that when a recent market for traditional methods and organics kicked in, people were able to cash in on what they had been doing for centuries!
        There’s a good book by Norman Lewis – Voices of the Old Sea, about a post war Costa Brava village (possibly Roses, home to El Bulli) being enticed into tourism.

  3. Jonathan Monk

    How do! Delightful article as ever, for which many thanks. Just to weigh into the cheese discussion (because one can never be too nerdy about cheese), the curds for Caerphilly get an overnight bath in brine, which those for Yarg do not – hence the difference in saltiness. The curds for Yarg are also not scalded at any point, which is why Yarg softens and grows creamier, but farmhouse Caerphilly (not the mass-produced stuff) develops a crumbly texture – the two cheeses are cousins, rather than brothers, if you like, but both delicious in their different ways – Yarg’s nettle wrapping is utterly beautiful. I also read in Bob Farrand’s Cheese Handbook that the name Yarg, far from being an ancient Cornish word, is simply the surname of Yarg’s initial 1970’s cheesemaker, Alan Gray, spelled backwards – though apparently he was trying out a much older recipe he found in his attic.

    • Hello there – thanks for the cheese comments – it all makes sense now haha. I really know nothing of cheese making – a big gap in my knowledge, aside from making curd cheese for Yorkshire curd tarts, of course. Shame about the name ‘Yarg’, it just seems so, well, Cornish!

      • Jonathan Monk

        I don’t know, I think it’s rather nice that something distinctive can still be developed in the modern age with a nod to tradition but without all that ye olde englishe hirsescitte. But as a home cheesemaker with more enthusiasm than talent, I can recommend it as a hobby – if nothing else, one learns to appreciate the skill of the professionals!

      • Indeed! And I’ve had a decent stan at most things. I suppose I’ll get around to cheesemaking eventually. Careful…I may ask for tips!

  4. sixlittlerabbits

    Very informative post. Looking forward to the Cornish recipes!

  5. Ken

    “Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very heat”
    Very high? Low? Random?

  6. A great overview – I’ve tried making Cornish pasties, but otherwise all I’ve read about Cornwall comes from reading Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series as a kid, and even that suggested the locals weren’t so keen on visitors! Speaking of the Rick Stein in the Antipodes, I’m actually eating at his NSW south coast restaurant this weekend 🙂

  7. Hmmm… I do believe I have a few food items to add to my Cornish bucket list to eat!

  8. Pingback: Cornish Pasties | British Food: A History

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