A local historian in Devon has found an ancient document which he says proves that the pasty came from his county, not Cornwall. Terry Kirby delves into the origins of one of the first fast-food dishes

They are revered in eastern Pennsylvania and are often the centre of local church fund raising suppers. They remain a popular dish in the Mexican state of Hildago, particularly stuffed with tinga - shredded chicken - and mole sauce, while almost every local bakery in South Australia makes its own version.

Yes, the Cornish pasty can truly be said to have travelled the world, largely thanks to the duchy's immigrant tin miners and their families taking their culinary treasures with them.

In Britain, more prosaically, they have become ever-present at service station shelves and at railway station kiosks, a domestic alternative to the endless hamburger and pizza fast-food takeaways. Of course, there is a chicken tikka version.

But whether considered just another much-maligned convenience food or - as some cookery writers now maintain - simply a prime example of authentic, indigenous, hearty British food which deserves the respect it has sometimes lacked, there has always been one thing about the humble dish of meat and vegetables wrapped in pastry that singles it out: it is, unquestionably, Cornish. It has become as much a symbol of the county as the black and white St Piran's flag or the cliffs of Land's End.

Er ... or maybe not. At least according to local historians in neighbouring Devon, who have reignited a ferocious dispute about the origins of the pasty between the two counties that may well be as old as the dish itself.

A recipe, written on yellowing parchment, has been found tucked inside an old audit book and dated 1510 - 236 years older than the first recorded Cornish recipe for pasties. Found by Dr Todd Gray, chairman of the Friends of Devon's Archives, while examining 16th-century accounts, the recipe details the ingredients of flour, pepper and venison from the Mount Edgecumbe estate in Devon that was used in the pasties and calculates the cost of the items and labour involved in making them.

Dr Gray said: "These are really phenomenal documents showing the earliest reference to a pasty, they are dated back to the 16th century and have never before been presented to the public. It has been a great joy for me, as a local historian, to have discovered that pasties may have originated in Devon and spread to Cornwall later. I contacted Cornwall's record office and they confirmed that the earliest record of a Cornish pasty recipe was written in 1746 - two whole centuries after the one I have uncovered."

In what has inevitably been called the Pasty Wars, he was supported by Kevin Pyne, a poet and ferryman from Dartmouth, Devon, who said: "I admire the Cornish for their gallant efforts in defending what is now factually a hopeless position. If the records now state that the Devon pasty is 236 years older than the Cornish pasty, it only highlights what Devon has long proclaimed - that the Devon pasty is far superior to the Cornish version."

The pasty is not the only food that has caused controversy in Devon and Cornwall - there have also long been rows over which county could lay claim to saffron buns, clotted cream and cream teas.

However, in Cornwall, the claims are being brushed aside by pasty experts, who point out that its precise origins are as old as cookery itself and lost in time. Les Merton, author of The Official Encyclopaedia of the Cornish Pasty, said: " People have assumed that the pasty was Cornish, but there will always be debates about its origins. In truth, its roots go back to when people first started to cook and eat animals." Angie Coombs, from the Cornish Pasty Association, added: "I think there has been a continual argument regarding the origins of the pasty and who was the first to actually make it. In medieval times they always used pastry as a vessel for serving food - they would eat the insides and throw the pastry away. This argument over which side of the border it originated from will go on and on."

In fact, despite Dr Gray's confidence, the earliest literary reference to a Cornish pasty dates from the 12th-century work of a Frenchman, Chretien de Troyes, who wrote several Arthurian romances for the Countess of Champagne. One of them, "Eric and Enide", mentions pasties: "Next Guivret opened a chest and took out two pasties. 'My friend,' says he, 'now try a little of these cold pasties ...'" Guivret and Eric are believed to have come from various parts of what today is considered Cornwall.

Wrapping meats and/or vegetables in some kind of pastry or dough is an ancient culinary practice that appears in many different cultures, with portable pies an obvious extension of the idea - ranging from the traditional hard crust British pork and game pies, to the looser-filled samosas of India and the empanadas of Spain. Both of the latter are close relatives of the Cornish pasty and have their roots in Middle Eastern cookery, the oldest in the world, brought there by the Moghuls and Moors respectively.

By the Middle Ages, pasties were commonplace in Europe. They were mentioned in the ballads that were the source of the story of Robin Hood, and a French chronicler, Jean Froissart, wrote, sometime in the late 14th or early 15th century, of people "with botelles of wyne trusses at their sadelles, and pastyes of samonde, troutes, and eyls, wrapped in towels". Today the French call the pasty the tourtiere. They became a dish of the nobility and filled with salmon, or, as in the Devon version, venison. Henry VIII's wife Jane Seymour was said to be partial to pasties, and Shakespeare writes, in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600), "Come, we have a hot pasty to dinner."

What is without doubt is that by the 19th century, the pasty was ubiquitous in Cornwall, due largely to the growth in the tin-mining industry. Miner's wives would dice up meat - usually skirt steak, since lamb was rare - and vegetables and cook them in a pastry case, "crimped" together at the top or side. The pasty was then taken by the miner to work, kept warm in a cloth next to his body, often eaten half for breakfast and the remainder for lunch. It was also said that the miner, always covered in dirt, often containing the arsenic found with tin, and with no means of washing, could hold the pasty by the "crimp" and eat the rest. The dirty bit would be discarded to please the "Knockers", capricious spirits that inhabited the mines.

But as Catherine Brown, the food historian and co-author of The Taste of Britain, which was published last month, points out, it was only one of many regional variations on a theme: "Hand-held pies were developed as a solution for people who didn't have ready access to tables or knives and forks, they were a working-class version of the festive and symbolic pies that graced the tables of the upper classes. It was actually the first takeaway food.''

In the same tradition were Scotch pies, made with lamb and topped with gravy, beans or vegetables, carried by working men everywhere, or the small pork pies of the English shires, made for farm labourers to eat in the fields. There were other types: in Cornwall, there was some "two course" pasties, made with fruit at one end, meat and veg at the other; a similar one made in Bedfordshire was known as a Bedfordshire Clanger.

In Cornwall, much debate surrounds the details: the top crimp, as opposed to the side one, was considered more authentic, although some said this betrayed a "Devon Pasty". Onion, pepper, potato and swede, called turnip in Cornwall, were considered obligatory alongside the steak; beef mince and the presence of carrots were - and are - considered an indication of inferior quality. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Cornish immigrant miners took their pasties around the world, often becoming a staple food in other mining areas.

There were other myths and legends. Despite the strong Cornish fishing industry, there was no fish pasty developed (although there is a famous fish pie, the Stargazy Pie made with pilchards), and it was rumoured that it was bad luck for a fisherman to take a pasty to sea. It was also said that a good pasty should be strong enough to withstand being dropped down a mine shaft, usually accompanied by the cry "Oggy, oggy, oggy", a slang term for pasty derived from its ancient Cornish name, hoggan; this warning, which also appeared in Cornish folk songs, took on its own life as a chant for supporters of Cornish rugby teams, later taken up by Welsh rugby fans, football fans generally, Boy Scouts and even the Royal Navy.

Today, despite the decline of tin mining and the growth of the county as a gastronomic destination, the Cornish pasty still remains the portable food of choice, the lunchtime fallback, in the high streets and pubs of Penzance and Bodmin, Falmouth and St Austell, although simple steak and vegetable have now been joined by chicken and ham, beef and Stilton, cheese, turkey and even the dreaded curry versions. Some individual shops, often long established, still pride themselves on their own closely guarded recipes and the quality of their home-made pasties. The "pasty pound" is said to be worth £60m to the local economy.

At the same time, the West Cornwall Pasty Company, formed by two Cornish surfing brothers, has given the pasty a modern, ironic twist with outlets throughout the country's railway stations, while food writers such as The Independent's own Mark Hix, chef-director of the ultra-fashionable Le Caprice group, acknowledges its place in our culinary history in his latest book, a celebration of British regional food.

So, the future of the Cornish pasty remains secure, and, as long as it does, the debate over its origins will continue. Although Mr Merton, with tongue firmly in cheek, maintains that ancient Cornish cave paintings confirm the existence of pasties in prehistoric times, the real truth may never emerge, leaving Cornish pasty supporters to repeat the words of Henry Ford: " You can have any pasty you like, as long as its Cornish.''

Contested origins

Haggis: The dish of sheep's offal mixed with oatmeal and spices and boiled in its own stomach has been claimed to be uniquely Scottish and popularised as such by the poet Robert Burns. But its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, and it is just one of many variations of the same dish, others being drob, from Romania, the Spanish dishes chireta and girella and Mexico's montalayo.

Pasta: The Chinese maintained that the explorer Marco Polo first took pasta back to Italy, but historians have revealed that pasta was first made in the eastern Mediterranean in the second century BC, a much more likely source.

Croissants: A 17th-century baker was credited with creating the crescent-shaped pastry to celebrate the relief of either Vienna or Budapest from siege by the Turks. Research later found that the first mention of croissants, as a sugary confection, was in an 1853 French cookery book. The modern, plainer version has existed since about 1900.

Chop suey: The dish was allegedly created from leftovers by a Chinese chef in California in the 19th century to satisfy a hoard of drunken, hungry miners. Chop suey literally means "odds and ends". It has since been sourced to an ancient recipe from the Toisan area, south of Canton.

Mark Hix's Cornish pasties

Makes 6-8

For the filling

200g swede, peeled and cut into 1cm squares; 1 large baking potato, peeled and cut into 1cm pieces; salt and freshly ground black pepper; 2 tbsp vegetable oil; 2 onions, finely chopped; 500g rump or rib steak, trimmed of fat and chopped into half-centimetre chunks; 250ml beef stock; 1tbsp Worcestershire sauce

For the pastry

500g plain flour; 2tsp salt; 125g butter, chilled and cut into small pieces; 125g lard, chilled and cut into small pieces; A little milk, to mix; 1 egg, beaten, to seal and glaze

Heat half the oil in a large heavy frying pan and gently cook the onions for 2-3 minutes until soft. Remove and put to one side. Heat the pan again over a high heat, add the rest of the oil, season and add the meat. Cook over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, until evenly browned. Remove from pan and add to the onions. Add the stock together with the Worcestershire sauce, and boil rapidly until you have only 2-3 tablespoons of liquid left. Add the meat and onions and simmer until the sauce has reduced until just coating the meat. While the sauce is reducing, cook the potatoes and swede in separate pans of boiling salted water until just tender, then drain and mix into the meat.

To make the pastry: mix the flour and salt together, then rub the butter and lard into the flour with your fingers, or mix it in a food processor, until it has the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Mix in some milk, a tablespoon or two at a time, until a smooth rollable dough forms that leaves the sides of the bowl clean.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board to a thickness of about 3mm and, using a plate or bowl as a template, cut out 6 circles about 18cm in diameter. Spoon the filling evenly in the centre of the discs. Brush around the edges with the beaten egg and bring the edges up around the filling, then crimp the edges together with your fingers. Brush the tops with the remaining egg mixture and cut a small slit in the top so that steam can escape. Chill for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake the pasties for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to 180C/gas mark 4 and cook them for another 20 minutes or so until golden. If the pasties are browning too fast, cover them with foil or greaseproof paper.

From British Regional Food by Mark Hix, published by Quadrille