‘A merry plaas you may believe
Woz Mowsel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s Eve.
To be theer then oo wudn wesh
To sup o sibm soorts o fesh!’
From ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve ‘ by Robert Morton Nance (1873-1959)
The village of Mousehole (pronounced Mowzull by the locals) is about three miles along the coast from where I’m sitting. It is a stunning collection of tiny cottages clustered on a steep cliff overlooking a picturesque harbour. Most visitors - and there are many, see it during the long blue and tranquil Cornish summer days. But in winter when there’s a storm on it can be a frightening, bleak and desperate place. For any fishing community, life is perilous and Mousehole has had more than its share of drama and loss.
The village was raided and sacked by the Spaniards in 1595 when Squire Jenkyn Keigwin was slaughtered outside his home. A plaque on the building, which still stands, commemorates his death. On 19 December 1981 the Penlee lifeboat ‘Solomon Browne’ with eight men from the village on board, was lost with all hands. The former lifeboat station and the memorial in Paul Church are moving testimonies to their bravery and sacrifice. Even more moving to me is that within twenty four hours of the loss of the lifeboat, many more men from the village volunteered to be on the new crew.
Sometime - so long ago the date is lost, the people of Mousehole were starving because the local fishermen had not been able to put to sea during a long period of stormy weather. Tom Bawcock persuaded his crew to sail during a brief lull in the storm and they came home with a boatful of fish – the village was saved. To commemorate the occasion, on Tom Bawcock’s Eve a huge star-gazey pie is made in the pub and everyone comes in for a drink and a slice of pie.
The Mousehole Christmas lights are famous too - I especially love the Loch Ness Monster picked out in lights and floating in the harbour...
You must have seen pictures of star gazey pie which contains potatoes and fish in a creamy sauce. Peeping through the pastry and gazing at the stars are the heads of ‘Fair Maids’ - Cornish pilchards. As Morton Nance says it’s a dish containing seven sorts of fish and meant for a large number of people but I’m going to try and make a domestic sized version.
Star Gazey Pie
You need seven sorts of fish, which is easier than you think. I bought a pack of mixed seafood and small pieces of smoked haddock, whiting and smoked cod. Because in my mini version I didn’t want want the pilchards to dominate I decided that my star gazers would be some delicious little sprats. They also have the advantage of being edible - bones and all.
Then you need pastry – I made short crust, but a sheet of bought puff pastry would be perfectly good. I peeled two medium potatoes and par boiled them until nearly soft. Then, using a fish stock cube I made a pint of buttery fish veloute, seasoned it well and added parsley.
You need a deepish dish that will take a pie crust. Lay your chosen fish in the dish with the cubed potatoes but hang onto the sprats/pilchards for the moment, add the sauce. I put a pie funnel in at this point.
Take the pastry and with your rolling pin put it on the pie, secure it on the edges and make a little slit for each sprat. Now snuggle the sprats vertically down into the pie leaving their heads about an inch above the surface of the pastry. Egg the pastry and cook the pie at 180c for about 30-40 minutes. Cover with foil if it starts to brown too much. If you can insinuate a good dollop of clotted cream under the pastry of the hot pie - so much the better!
The Ship Inn says that Guinness is the thing with this, I think a glass of good cider is better.
To-day a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,
Of unnamed heroes in the ships—of waves spreading and spreading
far as the eye can reach,
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing,
And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.
From ‘Leaves of Grass’ Book XIX by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)