5 March: St Piran

'The fairest flowers, the richest veins of ore,
The brightest gems, the costliest specimens,
The grandest, greatest, meekest, noblest minds,
Are often shining in this darksome world’

John Harris (1820-1884) ‘A Story of Carn Brea’

We’re a bit over-sainted this week, but I couldn’t miss out St Piran. His life, as with so many Celtic saints, is a mixture of hazy memory, dubious fact and active imagination. Whether St Piran was also St Ciaran of Ireland we really don’t know, their two lives may have been conflated by numerous faux historians in the past. What we do know is that the cult of St Piran began in Perranzabuloe in the 10th century and the early St Piran’s chapel, now buried in Perran Sands, dates from that time. St Piran is also the saint of the parish churches of Perranworthal and Perranuthnoe where there was a guild of St Piran in 1457.

St Piran is the patron saint of tin miners and John Harris the poet quoted above, was a miner before he became both a poet and a preacher. Parades by tinners showing off the saint’s relics may have lead to this connection and his feast day was a traditional holiday for Cornish miners. The cost book of Great Work Mine near Breage says that in the mid 18c there was an ‘allowance for Perrantide’ for every man and boy working there. St Piran’s flag, the standard of Cornwall shows a white cross on a black background, symbolising the triumph of good over evil and the tin metal trapped in the ore. As Catherine John says in her book ‘The Saints of Cornwall’ such connections may have developed later but are nevertheless not without value. (See also: ‘The Saints of Cornwall’ by Nicholas Orme OUP 2000)

So there is no alternative then for today, it has to be a pasty. I’ve managed to live in Cornwall for eleven years without actually making one, partly because meat with pastry is not my favourite combination and you can buy a very decent pasty in every town in Cornwall. Pasties are nonetheless still made in many Cornish kitchens very regularly, and quite right too.

Let’s deal with all the pasty myths first. The Cornish pasty developed as portable, hot and sustaining food for a tin miner. Made in the morning (or more likely baked overnight in the bread oven) its pastry case would keep the contents warm until the lunch break and the disposable pastry crimp round the edge meant a man could eat it with dirty hands. It did not have apple at one end and meat at the other. Its filling is beef – usually skirt, with potato, onion and swede, butter and lots of seasoning – nothing else. And never, never, is the beef cooked before it is put into the case. Do you hear that Nigella?

The identification of each pasty by marking it with initials is traditional. The initials can either be pricked in the pastry with a skewer or made from the scraps of paste left over and stuck on. This even happens for pasties made at home – each then can be tailored to the taste of different members of the family. ‘Crimp at the top’ or ‘crimp at the side’ is the big decision. Crimp at the side is the West Cornwall way, so that’s good enough for me – and it’s easier to eat.

Cornish Pasties (makes 5)

Shortcrust pastry – I made this with 4oz butter, 5oz lard and 1lb plain flour (and water and salt)
3/4lb swede
2 medium potatoes
2 onions
1lb beef skirt
Salt and black pepper
Knob butter for each pasty
Egg to seal and glaze

I blitzed the onion in my food processor until it was fingernail sized bits, and then I sliced the swede and the potato very thinly. I put all of these into three separate bowls (I covered the potato with water to stop it going black), and then I chopped the meat into small pieces across the grain (very important) and put it into a fourth bowl. So now I could get a production line going. I rolled out my pastry and cut circles with a small plate. I put a good pile of onion, swede, meat and potato (in that order) onto each pastry circle and seasoned well, then I dropped a knob of butter on the top. Remember the contents will shrink as the pasty cooks, so fill it well.
Then I folded the pastry over from front to back and sealed the edge. I tried to make sure it wouldn’t leak by turning and twisting the seam – my crimping skills are not up to scratch I fear – they did leak a bit. I made a small hole on the top for the steam to escape. Then I brushed the pasties with egg, put them on a baking tray and baked them at 200c for 25 minutes then reduced the heat to 170c for another 40 minutes. Eat with your fingers and a cup of sweet tea.

NB I did have some filling left over; enough to simmer gently in beef stock with a few chilli flakes to make a wonderfully warming pasty flavoured soup!

A big thanks to my lovely friends at the Morrab Library for all their good advice about pasty making and their help with the photos (and thanks also to the checkout lady at Morrisons for advice about the thin slicing of the vegetables)

‘Now telle on Roger, looke that it be good
For many a pastee hastow laten bled’

Geoffrey Chaucer (c1343-1400) From the prologue to The Cook’s Tale.


Helen said...

I like your veg slicing tips. I might try that next time. I usually just cube my swede and spud in a smallish dice. Also, I break tradition and crimp on top - I find it holds it together better when I do it that way. When I crimp at the side, I always get stuff leaking out. Or perhaps it's just that I have inferior crimping skills.

pebbledash said...

Happy St Piran's Day! Love that top photo for a flavour of things cornish. I've never made a pasty, but I do eat them fairly regularly... Have you seen Lindsey Bareham's pasty book? Lots of lovely variations in there.