'It is said that the Devil has never crossed the Tamar into Cornwall, on account of the well-known habit of Cornishwomen of putting everything into a pasty . . . The Cornish pasty is and has been from time immemorial the staple dish of the county.'

This introduction to an admirable book of Cornish recipes from the Cornwall Federation of Women's Institutes gives a flavour of how seriously the Cornish regard their contribution to world food. And well they might: made properly, the pasty is a wonderful creation.

Pastry rolled out like a plate,

Filled weth turmut, tates an' mait,

Doubled up an' baked like fate,

Thas a Cornish pasty.

Not all Cornish people would agree that turnip, potatoes and meat should be the ingredients of a pasty; nor on exactly what the crust should be made of.

Some talk of the pasty as a miners' 'crib' or 'crowst' and explain that it would be filled with meat at one end, jam and cream at the other, and was capable of being dropped down a mineshaft for a miner at the bottom to pick up by the crimp with his tin-and-arsenic- coated fingers and bite into the rest.

Unfortunately out of its natural habitat, the pasty has lost all but an echo of its romance. I get embarrassed by how awful a lot of pasties are. That's why I started baking them and selling them myself so that people's romantic expectation could be fulfilled and the reputation for one of my favourite dishes continued.

Cornish pasties are meant to be hand-made, not produced in factories with crimping machines. The standard steak pasty is not actually that cheap to make. Cheaper pasties should be made with ingredients such as fish or apples (see below).

A pasty is designed to be eaten in the hand. You would never find a traditional Cornishman eating one with a knife and fork. The correct etiquette is to hold it by the end that has your initials on and eat from the other. The idea of initials is that you can make a selection of flavours of pasties for a large family and everyone knows whose is his or hers.

Making pasties is not as easy as you might expect. You need to be able to join the single sheet of pastry expertly to form the crimp. Since commercial crimping machines are unable to put a top crimp in a pasty, only a side one, most people use the top crimp: it is the most obvious sign that the pasty is home-made. This makes it look rather like a stegosaurus.

To describe how to crimp is, I think, beyond the capabilities of language.

All cookery books evade the issue: they either say pinch together or crimp.

The general idea is to fill the pasty, moisten the two edges of pastry, bring them together and pinch them to form a temporary seal. You then start at one end and pinch the tip with the thumb and finger of one hand, pinch the next piece of pastry along with your other hand and turn this over the thumbnail of the first hand, then move along and pinch this fold with the first hand and repeat. You see what I mean . . .

Flaky pastry makes a richer but crisper cover than the traditional shortcrust. Use any recipe for puff pastry you like. For shortcrust pastry I suggest a 'bony' mix, about 7oz of fat to 1lb of flour. This makes the pastry stand up better to the crimping.

To the 1lb of flour I add half a teaspoon of salt and about 5fl oz of water.

I use half lard to margarine for the fat, but use butter if you like.

The chilled pastry should be rolled out to about 1 1/4 in thick. The recipes below are for 7 1/2 in circles. The filling should be as generous as possible; experienced pasty makers get more in than novices.

Steak pasties

You can use more expensive meat such as rump steak but skirt seems to me to produce the juiciest pasty.

Makes 5

Ingredients: 2lb (1kg) shortcrust or flaky pastry

15oz (500g) skirt cut into 1/2 in pieces

1tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

5oz (140g) swede, 6oz (170g) onion, 9oz (255g) potato cut into 1/2 in cubes

Preparation: Mix ingredients in a bowl and fill pastry circles. Cook in oven for 50 mins at 200C/400F/gas 6.

Fish pasties

Use the cheapest fish fillet - ling, coley, pollack or pouting.

Makes 5

Ingredients: 2lb (1kg) shortcrust or flaky pastry

1tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

5oz (140g) leek, 5oz (140g) onion, 8oz (225g) potato cut into 1/2 in cubes

15oz (500g) fish fillet cut into 1/2 in pieces

1fl oz (28.5ml) white wine vinegar

1oz (28g) butter

1oz (28g) grated cheddar

1/2 tsp fresh French tarragon

Preparation: Mix ingredients in a bowl and fill pastry circles. Cook in oven for 35 mins at 200C/400F/gas 6.

Blackberry and apple pasties

Mary Taylor, one of the best pasty makers in Padstow, gave me this recipe.

We ate the pasties cold, the top having been sliced off and the filling spread with plenty of clotted cream.

Makes 5

Ingredients: 2lb (1 kg) shortcrust or flaky pastry

2lb (1 kg) bramley apples peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2 in pieces

8oz (225g) blackberries

4oz (113g) brown sugar

pinch of powdered clove

pinch of powdered cinnamon

2oz (56g) butter, chopped

Preparation: Mix ingredients in a bowl and fill pastry circles. Cook in oven for 35 mins at 200C/400F/gas 6.

Rick Stein is the author of the Glenfiddich Award-winning 'English Seafood Cookery' (Penguin, pounds 11.99) and also chef-proprietor of the Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall (0841 532485).


Thanks to C T Eriksen of Worthing and Patricia Sillon of Lincoln for letters pointing out a misprint that appeared in Rick Stein's article on Cornish pasties. The pastry should be rolled out to 1/4 in thick, not, ahem, 1 1/4 in, a width that, Eriksen points out, would kill a miner if dropped to him down a shaft. Apologies to all concerned.