Cornish consolation

Food - Bee Wilson finds comfort in a pasty

This doesn't seem the moment to write about food, not here, not now. At the moment, it seems tempting to adopt the attitude of the New Statesman's anorexic founder, Beatrice Webb, and see food as something too superficial, not to say decadent, to comment upon. (Under the Webbs' management, there might be articles on famine or force-feeding, but never on food as pleasure.)

Some months ago, a writer to the NS letters page argued, after watching the latest horrific images of famine in Africa, that it was wrong for the magazine to publish epicurean articles on food and drink. Such complaints are not new. In 1981, when Britain was clogged with riots and simmering unrest, it was suggested among NS writers that the magazine should be purged of all non-intellectual material, even in the advertisement columns. This proposal was vigorously contested, however, by Hannah Wright, who argued that food was more important than the intellectuals realised and that, if the worthies of the NS "continue to consider food and drink an unworthy subject for creative and critical thought, we will have less and less culture to bear for a sadder and sicker nation". She was right, but one might also defend the subject of food at a less lofty level. Apart from being "culturally important", as Wright saw it, food is, quite simply, a consolation; and the consolation is greater the harder the times.

The Cornish pasty, for example, in its original form, often provided the one moment of solace in a hard-working Cornish miner's day, as he sweated down in the dusty, health-ruining tin mines. The pasty would be made up for him by his wife before work. She would layer beef, potatoes, onion and swede (known as "turnip") on a circle of shortcrust pastry before crimping it. As it baked, the meat would baste the vegetables, making them juicy and delicious. The pastry, often thick enough to withstand dropping down a mineshaft, would be such good insulation that the filling would still be slightly warm at lunchtime, when the miner produced his pocket lunch. Sometimes his wife might even create inside the pasty a separate compartment of pastry with apple jam or treacle in it, a sweet treat after the meat, a ges- ture of home and love in the dark of the mine.

There is a new monograph on the Cornish pasty by Stephen Hall, which I highly recommend. It is a comforting book, strikingly illustrated with Victorian and Edwardian pictures. One of the photographs, from 1893, shows a group of dead-eyed, helmeted miners sitting underground. You can tell they aren't talking, but chewing in unison on their pasties. No one could ever derive that sort of solace from a plastic-wrapped motorway monstrosity. But you don't have to be in Cornwall to eat authentic pasties. As they emigrated, Cornish miners took their pasties with them, to Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada City and Melbourne, and in these places they still debate the correct ways of making a pasty as fiercely as those who remain in Cornwall.

Above all, there is the crimping question: over the top or round the side? Over the top is said to hold the gravy better, but personally I don't think it matters. There are essentially three important factors, apart from the quality of the pastry, that make for superior pasties. First, you should season highly, especially with pepper. Second, there should be plenty of meat, which, apart from making the pasty seem more generous, keeps it moist (the meat should also be of a good quality). Third, to make the pasty even moister, do as they do in Devon and add a spoonful or two of cream before you seal the edges.

Devon pasties (this is Stephen Hall's recipe, slightly altered) Makes 4

For the pastry: 450g plain flour, 110g butter, 110g lard, salt, cold water

For the filling: 450g beef skirt or chuck steak, 2 medium onions, 450g swede, 450g potatoes, knob of West Country butter, salt, pepper and 8 tbsp double cream

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C.

Make the pastry in the usual way (by rubbing the fats into the salted flour before adding water, bit by bit until the pastry comes together). Divide into four, cover with clingfilm and rest in the fridge for at least 20 minutes.

Peel and finely slice the potatoes, onion and swede. Slice the beef into small, thick pieces, discarding any nasty gristly bits.

Roll out a quarter of the pastry on a floured surface. Use a suitable plate to cut around. Pile the meat and vegetables in layers in the centre of the circle and season highly with salt and pepper. Add a dot of butter and 2 tbsp cream. Damp the pastry edges, fold together and crimp as best you can. Brush the pastry with beaten egg.

Place on a baking tray and cook for about 25 minutes, then turn the oven down to 170 degrees C for another 40 minutes. Wait for at least ten minutes before eating.

The Cornish Pasty by Stephen Hall is published by Agre (£4.99)

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win