For so long the Cornish pasty lurked in the glass cabinet of the baker's shop, an unloved mass-produced lump of pastry.

If there had been a list of naff regional foods in the 1970s, the Cornish pasty would have been on it. Children traded insults that they were wearing "Cornish pasty shoes".

In the foodie 21st century, the pasty is enjoying a revival with dozens of outlets springing up dedicated to the sale of Cornwall's greatest culinary export.

Pasty shops are now common at mainline railway stations, and fashionable Covent Garden in London has two shops selling the "oggie". Sales at the "Starbucks" of the pasty business, the West Cornwall Pasty Company, are rising at almost 50 per cent a year.

So why are Cornish pasties suddenly so popular? Consumers seem to regard a freshly-baked pasty as a healthier option than other fast food. The pasty has real, simple ingredients and, unusually in the fast food world, also contains some vegetables.

Food critics and writers have also noticed a growing appreciation of Britain's traditional dishes and an emphasis on local recipes and ingredients.

Then there is the rise of Cornwall. Over the past decade a county once famed for farmhouse teas has gained a trendier image with Rick Stein's restaurant empire, the Eden Project, The Tate at St Ives, and the growth of surfing.

Fresh impetus may come if the European Union gives the pasty Protected Geographical Indication, restricting its production to the west of the Tamar River.

Pasties are already being exported to Europe with Cornish pasty shops opening in Germany and Spain and there are plans for expansion into Holland and Portugal.

Such international ambitions are a long way from the origins of the Cornish pasty. Although pasties are mentioned in Arthurian legend and Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, the Cornish variant took off around the 18th century. The wives of tin-miners packed in pastry a meal of meat, potato, onion and swede so that their husbands could eat properly underground. The crimped edge allowed the miners to hold the pasty without contaminating lunch with the arsenic that clung to their fingers.

Nowadays the standard ingredients are beef and potato, although makers are experimenting with new recipes such as steak and stilton and chicken balti.

The West Cornwall Pasty Company has been very successful in the train stations and thoroughfares of south-east England and the Midlands. Mark Christophers, one of six visionaries who founded the company in 1998, recalled: "We are all Cornish and we saw what Starbucks and Café Nero were doing for the coffee market and what Pret a Manger was doing for the sandwich market and we believed the Cornish pasty was a great product which had not been marketed properly before outside of Cornwall."

He believes the Cornish pasty is popular because it is a "wholesome, feelgood" food. Its portability has also helped in an increasingly busy world. "It's a convenient product. You can eat it on the go and it's a complete meal," said Mr Christophers.

The West Cornwall Pasty Company sells about seven million pasties, turns over £16m a year at its 44 shops and plans to open another 10 outlets this year. "We can see it growing three or four times [current levels] in the UK," ventured Mr Christophers.

Crantock Bakery, based near Newquay, is also expanding. The company supplies Cornish Bakehouse but also has 20 franchised stores of Oggie Oggie. It plans to open another eight this year.

More than 120 staff make the pasties and other pies, which are exported to Spain, mostly for expatriates. The company hopes to have 20 outlets in Spain and is looking at expansion elsewhere on the Continent. Sales are rising at about 20 per cent a year.

"It's the original fast food," said Nick Ringer, the chairman. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that as pasty sales are growing, some of the more traditional sectors of fast food are not growing.

"Maybe consumers are looking for something different. Burgers have been around for 40 years, fried chicken has been around for 40 years and when a pasty shops opens in the neighbourhood, people think: 'I'll give it a try'."

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