Cornwall is the most remote of English counties and this has led to the development of a distinctive local culture. Its eastern boundary, on the River Tamar, is some 200 miles from London and it’s most westerly town, Penzance, is a further 80 miles away, close to Land’s End, considered the traditional southwestern extreme of the British Isles.
As a result, the Duchy of Cornwall has more in common with Wales, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland than it does with England, thanks to its Celtic history, and Cornish, like Welsh, Gaelic and Breton, is a far older language than English, deriving from Celtic origins.
The spectacular coastal landscape of the county is its main attraction for visitors now, although the increasing pressures of tourism have taken their toll and long stretches of the coast are now owned by the National Trust or under similar protection from commercial development.
Metal ores, particularly tin, attracted prehistoric settlers to the area from the earliest times and there is plenty of evidence of early human activity in the county, including stone relics such as megalithic dolmens, monoliths, and circles. Subsequently, Roman and Saxon settlement in England caused a migration of Celtic Christians to Cornwall, where they went on to resist the Saxon advance for 500 years, only accepting Saxon control during the 10th century.
Following the Norman Conquest, the region was shaped into an earldom and since 1337 they have had a distinctive category, considered to belong to the eldest son of the English sovereign, who is given the title of Duke of Cornwall.
Throughout its history, rural resources have provided a base for the economy, and have sustained the county despite the decline of mining activity. The landscape is ideally arranged for rural endeavours. The valleys provide excellent pasture for dairy cattle, and the moorland has large areas for rough grazing. Market gardening is an important factor in the sheltered coastal districts, as the mild winter encourages the cultivation of delicate and early crops. Tourism also provides a major source of income, especially along the coast, where many of the small fishing ports including St Ives, New Quay, and Polperro have become busy resorts. Many of the county’s coastal towns, most notably, Fowey and Penzance are working ports.
Cornwall has long been associated with a rich seafaring and fishing tradition, and the Duchy has also provided some of the most popular and distinctive culinary contributions to English food.
One of the most famous of all English foods, the Cornish pasty, is one of a handful to earn recognition with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2011. It is the archetype of a number of similar pasties known around the country that served as a convenient and filling way for agricultural workers and miners to get daily nutrition while working. The traditional pasty is made from minced or diced beef, along with diced onion, potato and swede, and is seasoned with pepper. The thick pastry had the advantage of keeping the ingredients warm for longer, and these delicious products were usually eaten from end to end while wrapped in muslin or cloth by hard working tin miners.
At one time, pilchards were at the heart of the Cornish economy and even those who aren’t fans of this small, oily fish, will appreciate their importance. In the 18th and 19th centuries in Cornwall, those who weren’t employed in a mine were likely to be involved in the pilchard industry. Pilchard fishing led to the development of those famous Cornish fishing villages that have so defined the county in the last two centuries, including Mousehole, Mevagissey, Polperro and St Ives.
The heyday of the pilchard industry is gone, but these days, often rebranded as the Cornish sardine, the pilchard has become a delicacy, found in upmarket supermarkets around the country, and grilled pilchards are a tasty and nutritious food enjoyed widely across England.
It would be impossible to mention Cornwall without dwelling on this famous, or, depending on your opinion, infamous version of a fish pie. This pie was made possible by the plentiful supply of pilchards in the county, which are then baked with potatoes and eggs in a pastry crust. This produces a tasty enough dish, but the most distinctive aspect of this pie is in the way it is presented. The heads of the fish are left to poke through the crust, as though they were ‘gazing at the stars’.
Tradition suggests that the recipe dates back to the 16th century to the village of Mousehole and was created in honour of a local fisherman, who set off into treacherous seas one winter’s day, at a time when the storms had been so bad that no-one had been able to catch any fish, which had left the community close to starvation. The fisherman, Tom Bawcock, came back with enough fish to feed the whole village. These were supposedly baked in one huge pie, and the pilchard heads sticking out of the crust represented 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
Sometimes known as the Cornish heavy cake this is a traditional Cornish cake that is made from a generous mix of lard, flour, butter, milk, sugar and raisins. Another food from the height of the pilchard industry, this cake was considered a way to commemorate a successful catch.
As part of the industry, a local man would be employed as a ‘huer’ whose job was to remain on the cliff top and act as a lookout for shoals of pilchard. If he spotted them, he had to shout “Hevva, hevva!”, which means “here they are!” in Cornish. He would direct the fleet by arm waving and when the pilchards had been landed, the village would celebrate with hevva cakes. By tradition, these cakes feature a criss-cross pattern, which represent 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.
Cornwall is the location for over 50 varieties of cheese, but the most famous of them all is undoubtedly the Yarg. It is believed that the recipe was first created in the 13th century, but it was revived in the 1960s by a married couple, the Grays, who supposedly gave it their name, spelt backwards. This is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese which has some similarities to Caerphilly, but a major distinction is that this cheese is wrapped in nettles, which eventually produce an edible rind, though 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.