Cornwall is the most isolated English county, and this may explain why it has developed a culture that is so distinctive. Its eastern border, on the Tamar River, is around 200 miles from London, while its most westerly town, Penzance, is about 80 miles away, close to Land’s End, the traditional southwesternmost point of the British Isles.
As a result of its Celtic heritage, the Duchy of Cornwall shares more in common with Wales, Brittany, Ireland, and Scotland than it does with England, and Cornish, like Welsh, Gaelic, and Breton, is a much older language than English, coming from Celtic roots.
The county’s stunning coastline terrain is now its main draw for visitors, yet increasing tourism pressures have taken their toll, and extensive portions of the coast are either controlled by the National Trust or protected from commercial development in some way.
Prehistoric people were drawn to the area by metal ores, particularly tin, and there is abundant evidence of early human activity in the county, including stone remnants such megalithic dolmens, monoliths, and rings.
As a result of Roman and Saxon colonisation in England, Celtic Christians fled to Cornwall, where they fought the Saxon advance for 500 years, until surrendering to Saxon rule in the 10th century.
The territory was moulded into an earldom during the Norman Conquest, and they have had a distinct category since 1337, regarded to belong to the English sovereign’s eldest son, who is granted the title of Duke of Cornwall.
Rural resources have provided a stable economic foundation for the county throughout its history, notwithstanding the downturn in mining activity. The environment is well-suited to rural pursuits as the valleys are ideal for dairy cattle, while the moorland has plenty of open space for harsh grazing. The mild winters enable the production of delicate and early crops, making market gardening an essential role in the sheltered coastal districts.
Tourism is also a significant source of revenue, particularly along the coast, where many of the little fishing ports, including as St. Ives, Newquay, and Polperro, have developed into popular tourist destinations. Many of the county’s coastal towns are also functioning ports, including Falmouth, Fowey, and Penzance. With it’s long history of seafaring and fishing, Cornwall has contributed some of the most popular and distinctive culinary specialities in English cuisine.
The Cornish pasty, one of the most famous of all English meals, is among just a few to be designated as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) . It is the prototype for a variety of similar pasties that functioned as a handy and filling way for agricultural workers and miners to acquire daily sustenance while working across the country.
The typical pasty is seasoned with pepper and cooked with minced or diced beef, diced onion, potato, and swede. The thick pastry kept the ingredients warm for longer, and hard-working tin miners would devour these delicious pastries during brief breaks in the working day.
Pilchards were once the lifeblood of the Cornish economy, and even those who aren’t admirers of this little, oily fish will recognise its significance. Those who weren’t working in a mine in Cornwall in the 18th and 19th centuries were likely to be employed in the pilchard industry. Pilchard fishing spawned the famed Cornish fishing communities of Mousehole, Mevagissey, Polperro, and St Ives, which have come to characterise the county over the last two centuries.
The heyday of the pilchard industry is long gone, but the pilchard has evolved into a delicacy, available in luxury stores across the country, and grilled pilchards are a delightful and nutritious snack eaten widely throughout England.
It would be impossible to discuss Cornwall without mentioning this renowned, or infamous, form of a fish pie, depending on your point of view. The abundance of pilchards in the country allowed for the creation of this pie, which is then baked with potatoes and eggs in a pastry shell. This results in a delectable dish, but the most distinguishing feature of this pie is how it is presented. As if they were ‘looking at the stars,’ the heads of the fish are left poking through the crust.
The dish is said to have originated in the 16th century in the village of Mousehole, and was named after a local fisherman who braved the hazardous waters one winter day when the storms were so fierce that no one could catch any fish, leaving the community on the verge of starvation. Tom Bawcock, the fisherman, returned with enough fish to serve the entire community. The pilchard heads protruding out of the crust were supposed to symbolise a celebration of the return of the fish.
Sometimes described as the Cornish tea treat or the Revel bun, the Saffron bun has some similarities to the tea cakes eaten across England, in that it includes currants, but the addition of saffron is distinctive. This is one of the world’s most expensive spices so would seem to be an unusual addition, and no-one is quite sure how it came to be used in this bun, but one explanation is that it was first acquired in ancient times from the travelling Phoenicians who travelled to England to trade tin. Whatever its origin, the saffron bun has become known as a quirky Cornish treat.
Cornwall wasn’t famous for creating mead, which is made from fermented honey and water, although the Cornish version does make for a sweet and heady brew. But the Duchy can claim to have created the meadery, which can best be described as a medieval themed restaurant, where food is served to customers on wooden plates and eating with your fingers is compulsory. Naturally, there is plenty of Cornish mead on offer, together with the equally tasty and potent Cornish blackberry wine!
Cornish Hevva Cake
This classic Cornish cake, also known as the Cornish heavy cake, is created with a large mixture of lard, flour, butter, milk, sugar, and raisins. This cake was often made to honour a successful pilchard catch during the peak of the pilchard industry.
As part of the fishing effort, a local man was hired as a ‘huer,’ whose job was to stay on the cliff top and keep an eye out for pilchard shoals. If he saw them, he had to yell “Hevva, hevva!” in Cornish, which means “here they are!” He’d wave his arms to direct the fishing flotilla, and when the pilchards were landed, the hamlet would celebrate with hevva cakes. These cakes are traditionally decorated with a criss-cross pattern that represents fishermen’s nets.
Cornish Cream Tea
The cream tea has become famous as a Cornish product, although there is fierce dispute in the south-west over its precise heritage, with many in neighbouring Devon claiming the honour.
The basis of the cream tea is the fresh scone, which is split in half, then spread with strawberry jam followed by a scoop of clotted cream and is best served with a pot of tea. The Cornish cream tea has become popular with holidaymakers and across England, and while it is similar in most respects to the Devon cream tea, the Cornish cream tea strictly follows a jam-first approach, while the Devon cream tea involves spreading the cream first.
Crabs are caught widely around the coasts of Cornwall, but those landed in Newlyn, near Penzance, have the reputation for being the best. Both types of crab meat, the white, which is found in the crab’s claws and the brown, are widely enjoyed. The white meat is used in seafood dishes, while the brown is popular for soups and broths. All types of crab cuisine are popular on the Cornish coast, but there are few more enjoyable eating experiences than a bowl of crab soup or a crab sandwich in Newlyn.
Over 50 different types of cheese are produced in Cornwall, but the Yarg is undoubtedly the most famous. The recipe is thought to have been established in the 13th century, but it was reintroduced in the 1960s by a married couple named the Grays, who allegedly named it after themselves, spelled backwards. This is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese that is similar to Caerphilly, but one notable difference is that it is wrapped in nettles, which make an edible rind once the stings are removed by freezing the leaves.
The Cornish fairing has the distinction of being the traditional biscuit of Cornwall. It has something in common with the ginger nut, though less crunchy and much more buttery. Originally, fairings were eaten across England and earned their name thanks to being a popular treat at fairs, but the efforts of Cornish baker John Cooper Furniss, ensured the Cornish version become nationally dominant and now the traditional Cornish fairing is one of the most delicious of Cornwall’s culinary treats.