Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Matter of Taste

Perceptive readers of the newspapers can usually spot what are known in the trade as “slow news days.” On these occasions, editors are more than usually twitchy, always fearful that their rivals might have come across some spectacularly newsworthy item that his lackeys have overlooked. It makes for restlessness and general unhappiness around the office and the panic is manifested in the articles that appear to fill in, what would otherwise be, the blanks.

It has been a slow news weekend. The mid-term election in the United States, which was responsible for filling columns by the yard, is now over. No more than a few hundred Iraqis have died in the last few days, genocide amongst the African nations has been maintained at its normal level and John Prescott has done nothing more than usually stupid. Editors are desperate. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

And so a good deal of space has been given to filling the void, in almost every respect, with the provenance of the Cornish Pasty, whose origins have now been called into question by an academic researching in the Plymouth Public Library. What this gentleman proposes to do with the results of his research is a bit of a mystery, as is why he was doing it in the first place, but Fleet Street are very pleased that he unearthed this epoch making bit of news for them since it has enabled them to fill in the blanks I mentioned previously.

Disgruntlement in Cornwall is running high, however, and this canard (in their view) will undoubtedly provoke a resurgence of demands for independence. No doubt the leading article in the next edition of “The Lostwithiel Gazette” will concentrate on this matter, together with a suggestion that the Cornish language be revived. As the last speaker of this died in 1800, finding teachers for the tongue might be difficult.

Perhaps I should explain the Cornish Pasty for those who are, luckily for them, unfamiliar with this delicacy.

According to Larousse Gastronomique, it consists of a pastry crust filled with meat, onions and potatoes. And that just about describes it, hardly the stuff of cordon bleu. However, tradition says that it was developed as a lunch for Cornish miners, and that the test of a good pasty was that it could be dropped down the mineshaft without coming unglued.

Now I don’t know how you feel about this, but assessing my lunch by having it survive a fall down a mineshaft seems a funny way to judge the gastronomic delight of the repast.

And, frankly, most of the pasties I’ve ever tasted might have been better for having been chucked down a mineshaft and left there. Pasty lovers the world over will be up in arms over this statement and perhaps I’ve been unlucky, but, apart from the convenience if you happen to be having lunch at the bottom of a mineshaft, there seems to be little else to recommend it over, say, a good steak and kidney pie which has much the same basic ingredients. And also gravy, tough to get into a pasty.

Cornish miners were recruited for the copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and took their pasties with them. Not literally, perhaps, presumably they cooked them fresh when they arrived, and they are still on sale up there (the fresh ones, I mean). If you wished to go and taste them in that part of the world, I recommend thermal underwear unless you go at mid-summer when hat, coat and gloves will probably suffice. But I suppose in that sort of climate, even a stodgy warm pasty tastes pretty good.

Devon’s claim to have developed this British speciality has already been questioned by a claim that they nicked the idea from the French, who have long had their pâté en croûte, a rather less robust delicacy that most certainly would not survive the acid test of a Cornish, or perhaps now, a Devonish pasty. By and large, the French disapprove of tossing their food into holes in the ground unless it’s not up to standard.

But I think that the whole idea stems from the medieval practice of packaging meat or fish in batter or pastry, making it easier to handle in the days when knives and forks were a luxury. The outer casing was discarded and only the contents were consumed. This would make much more sense of the legend that the casing of the pasty was designed to survive the mineshaft test. The miner was not obligated to eat the casing and, having tasted some, I don’t blame him. But the filling would be quite tasty.

Tomorrow is another day and world events will probably sweep this enthralling item from the pages of the nation’s newspapers.

But, if tasting a Cornish, or possibly Devonish, Pasty for the first time, take my advice and throw the pastry away.

It will rest a lot easier on your stomach.


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