The Cornish delicacy became a recipient of EU protected status in 2011
From this side of the Irish Sea, things aren’t looking so great when we look over at our closest neighbours. Our cultural cousins, adrift in their future of economic uncertainty – admittedly one that looks like it could drag us into it – have just endured a couple of days during which a senior politician sitting on Theresa May’s cabinet suggested the UK get itself out of a jam by shipping off innovative preserves to the French. Whether jellies or marmalades can result in the soft Brexit they’re hoping for, time will tell – jams are made to last, after all. A far safer bet for tantalising French taste buds, though, would be the pasty, which owes much of its origins to the French anyway.
A stalwart of British convenience food, the pasty is essentially a self-contained meat pie, a medium-sized pastry turnover usually designed as a single serving. The word pasty arrived in English as a loanword from old French, itself borrowing from the Latin word ‘pasta’, in this sense meaning dough or pastry rather than the kind you’d eat al dente.
Pasties date from the Middle Ages, when they were usually much larger than contemporary ones. Designed to feed families, the large meals consisted of well-seasoned meat or fish enclosed in pastry that was often baked to the point that it was inedible. Where pies and pasties diverged on the path from the medieval to modern kitchens is the filling; traditionally, a pie contained a blend of meats and vegetables, whereas an old pasty rarely counted towards your five-a-day. The medieval ones were usually stuffed with joints of meat or whole birds, smothered in butter to keep everything moist. Venison was reserved for the wealthy or feast days, while the now exotic-seeming porpoise-meat pasty was a regular feature on dinner plates during Christian feast days – one of the reasons believed for the arched shape of the pastry case, said to model the body of a dolphin.
Could British bakers really market pasties to the French? It is only a short boat ride across the Channel from Cornwall, after all, where the best-known modern iterations of the pasty are from. Given ‘protected geographical indication’ by the European Parliament in 2011, Brussels will settle for nothing less than the traditional Cornish recipe, with at least 12.5% beef and 25% vegetable content, with a surprising lack of the exact number of undulating waves in the crimped pastry seam sealing the whole thing on its upper side – it must have been expenses day for those unelected autocrats the afternoon they went pasty tasting.
Regardless, the bad news is that Irish bakers and food producers hoping to cash in on the UK’s EU-protected foodstuffs leaving the EU need not preheat the oven just yet. The list, ranging from the old reliable of Stilton cheese and Cumberland Sausage to everyone’s favourite tipple Welsh wine (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), also come under the control of the Council of Europe, so their status is arguably one of the more secure things to come out of the Brexit referendum.
The great Irish food writer Theodora FitzGibbon, herself a British import to these here parts, wrote of the Cornish variety in 1976: “It is said in Cornwall that the devil never crossed the River Tamar into that county for fear of the Cornish woman’s habit of putting anything and everything into a pasty.” Perhaps exporting them to mainland Europe will keep everyone out, after all?