A weird, piratically themed Cornish pasty takeaway outlet has mounted a sustained assault on English railway terminuses and high streets. Casting my eye over the mock-treasure map of store locations on the West Cornwall Pasty Company's website, I counted 40 of them between the Tamar and the North York Moors. I'd been creepingly aware of the pasting being dished out by the pasties - their black-and-yellow livery has been ousting the tricolour of Delice de France and other such baguette bars for some time, and a year or so ago I even found myself buying one of the buttock-shaped savouries.
I say "buttock-shaped" because someone has to make the obvious point: Cornish pasties are the most arsiform food known to humankind, even crinkled along the rim as if they were an engorged perineum. In my experience, while the British have a great love of double entendres, there are still statements of the obvious (usually those connected with the nether regions) that we refuse to make.
Alain de Botton is another example; he's a perfectly amiable chap - if a little thin-crusted when it comes to criticism - and a good enough philosopher-lite (think a pinch of sage, but lots of onion), but I cannot be alone in finding myself unable to hear his name spoken without registering it as "Alain de Bum-Bum". If I were he, I'd go the whole way and simply change my name to Alain de Bum-Bum. Surely everyone would be impressed by my post-Freudian honesty?
Under Western pies
Anyway, there I was, in the stinky shaft of Clapham Junction Station, eating a chicken balti pasty, and inevitably my thoughts went first to bums and then to the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life. As I say, I've nothing against Alain de Botton at all, but the thought of becoming unable to eat a Cornish pasty without thinking of him was . . . insufferable. To try to distract myself, I struck up a conversation with the "captain" manning the pasty bar. Was he French? No, he said, he was Polish. This was promising. Maybe with a little positive reinforcement - I took another bite of the balti-flavoured buttock - I could come to associate pasties with seafaring Polish émigrés: Joseph Conrad, perhaps.
Because the truth is that the West Cornish Pasty Company makes a pretty mean pasty, and I find myself eating more and more of them. My seafaring pal told me that the most popular pasty after the traditional was a chicken and mushroom: “It has a really creamy sauce." I didn't find this helpful at all, because whenever I bite into an Alain de Botton I half suspect a really creamy sauce to come oozing out.
Pieces of ate
Conrad - as I couldn't help but think of him - also confirmed that the pasties were indeed made by hand in Cornwall, then frozen and transported around the country. The West Cornwall Pasty Company does seem a pretty enlightened outfit: it tries to source the bulk of its ingredients in Cornwall and has even encouraged the harvesting of Cornish wheat and onions (not by any means traditional crops) in order to bolster its slow-food credentials. Sadly this enlightenment doesn't extend to human resources, because its pasty bar staff are paid a scant few pence over the minimum wage, just like any other fast-food peons.
Still, I suppose this association between low-paid work and pasties is a tradition in its own right. If I narrowed my eyes a little I saw, instead of the shaft of Clapham Junction, the shaft of a Cornish tin mine. True, it should've been Conrad rather than me chowing down on the pasty, but really the only thing within sight that contradicted this minatory vision was the pasty shack itself, which was bedecked with surfboards and sub-Alfred Wallis, pseudo-naive-St Ives daubs.
I had chosen the chicken balti in a mood of transgression - a real Cornish pasty can only be filled with uncooked ingredients, and it seemed unlikely the West Cornwall lot had managed to invent a self-currying pastry. Not that the trad pasty need only be filled with steak, potato, onion and swede - back in the day, those clever miners even had pies with both savoury and sweet compartments. I pondered the notion of this dualistic pasty while Conrad dealt with a teenager who wanted a £1.40 waxed paper cup of potato wedges. Pondered this, and also the chain's naff pirate theme. But then it dawned on me, what did pirates like? Rum, sodomy and the lash, of course - hence the bum-munching.