As the southernmost and westernmost region of England, the Duchy of Cornwall is also one of the most culturally distinctive. In many ways, Cornwall has more in common with Wales, Brittany, Ireland and Scotland than it does with England, owing to its Celtic history, and Cornish, like Welsh, Gaelic and Breton, is a far older language than English, deriving from Celtic origins.
Cornwall has long been associated with a rich seafaring and fishing tradition, along with its tea mines, but the Duchy has also provided some of the most popular and distinctive culinary contributions in the history of English food. The famous Cornish pasty, covered elsewhere on Made in England, is arguably their most famous product, but in this article, we’re focusing on those other dishes and foods from the Duchy of Cornwall, with which you may be less familiar.
At one time the 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 didn’t work in a mine were likely to be involved in the pilchard industry. Pilchard fishing led to the emergence of those numerous Cornish fishing villages that have so defined the Duchy in the last two centuries, including Mousehole, Mevagissey, Polperro and St Ives. The heyday of the pilchard industry has faded, but these days, often rebranded as the Cornish sardine, the pilchard has come to be regarded as a delicacy, found in upmarket supermarkets around the country, and grilled pilchards are a tasty and nutritious food enjoyed widely across England.
While we’re on the subject of seafood, it would be impossible to mention Cornwall without talking about this famous, or, depending on your opinion, infamous Cornish pie. The pie draws on the plentiful supply of pilchards (see above) in Cornwall, which are baked with potatoes and eggs in a pastry crust. This makes for a tasty combination but the most distinctive part of this pie is in the finish, which leaves the heads of the fish poking through the crust, apparently ‘gazing at the stars’.
Tradition has it that the recipe dates back to the 16th century and the village of Mousehole and was created to honour a local fisherman, who set off into treacherous seas one winter when the storms had been so bad that no-one had been able to catch any fish and the community was close to starvation. The fisherman, Tom Bawcock, returned with enough fish to feed the village, which were supposedly baked in one huge pie, with their heads sticking out to celebrate the return of the fish.
Sometimes known as the Cornish tea treat or the Revel bun, this is best known as a saffron bun. It has some similarities to the tea cakes eaten across England, in that it contains currants, but with the addition of saffron. This would seem to be an unusual ingredient, given that this is one of the world’s most expensive spices. No-one is quite sure how it came to be used in a Cornish bun, though one explanation is that it was first acquired in ancient times from the Phoenicians who came to England to trade tin. Whatever the origin, the saffron bun has become a distinctively Cornish food.
Cornwall didn’t create mead, which is made from fermented honey and water, although the Cornish version is a sweet and heady brew. But the Duchy can claim to have created the meadery, an unusual venue, which can best be described as a medieval themed eating facility, where food is served to customers on wooden plates and eating with your fingers is compulsory. Naturally, there is plenty of Cornish mead served, along with the equally potent Cornish blackberry wine!
Sometimes called the Cornish heavy cake this is a traditional Cornish cake produced from a generous mixture of lard, flour, butter, milk, sugar and raisins. Another food from the height of the pilchard industry, this cake was a way of commemorating a successful catch. At that time, a local man would be employed as a ‘huer’ whose job was to sit on the cliff top and act as a lookout for shoals of pilchard. Whenever he spotted them, he had to rouse the cry of “Hevva, hevva!”, which means “here they are!” in the local language. He would direct the fleet through arm waving and when the pilchards had been landed, there would be a celebration at which hevva cakes would be eaten. Traditionally these cakes feature a criss-cross pattern on the top, representing fishermen’s nets.
Cornish Cream Tea
The cream tea has become synonymous with Cornwall although there is fierce dispute in the south west over precisely where it emerged, with many in neighbouring Devon claiming the honour.
The basis of the cream tea is simple. It is built around a fresh scone, which is split in half, then spread with strawberry jam following by clotted cream, and 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 conforms to the jam-first approach, which is a matter of considerable disagreement with Devon folk.
Cornwall produces more than 60 varieties of cheese, but the most famous is undoubtedly the Yarg. It is believed that the recipe goes back to the 13th century, but it was revived in the 1960s by a married couple, the Grays, who supposedly gave it their name, spelt backwards. Yarg is a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese with some similarities to Caerphilly, but a major distinction is that the cheese is wrapped in nettles, which eventually form an edible rind, though the nettle stings are removed through freezing the leaves. Produced at the Lynher Dairies, Truro, Yarg is exported around the world.
The Cornish fairing has the distinction of being the traditional biscuit of Cornwall. It has some similarity to a ginger nut, though less crunchy and more buttery. Originally, fairings were found across England and earned their name through being sold as a treat at fairs, but the efforts of Cornish baker John Cooper Furniss, led to the Cornish version becoming nationally dominant and today the traditional Cornish fairing is one of the highlights of the Duchy’s food cupboard.
Crabs are caught widely around the coasts of Cornwall, but those caught in Newlyn, near Penzance, have a reputation for being the best. Both types of crab meat, the white, which comes from the crab’s claws and the brown, are widely used. The white meat is found in seafood dishes, while the brown is most popular in soups and broths. All types of crab recipe are popular on the Cornish coast, but there are few more tasty experiences than enjoying crab soup or a crab sandwich in Newlyn.