This is technically the seventh entry in our ongoing series of articles looking back at British food and the history surrounding it, and we’ve covered a substantial amount of dishes already. Today’s edition of the series, however, is taking a slightly different tact; we’ll be covering a single dish. But of the dishes we’ve covered so far, it’s perhaps the one with the most interesting and in-depth history; Stargazy Pie.
However, before we can talk about the dish itself, we have to talk about it’s origins, and to do that, we have to talk about the legend of Tom Bawcock.
The legend’s origins are specific to the town of Mousehole, Cornwall. It tells of a particularly harsh winter that befell the town and it’s surrounding areas sometime during the 16th century; storms raged on the waves so none of the fishing boats could set sail, and a chill descended on the village. As fish made up the biggest portion of the village’s food supply, people were starving and freezing as the month went on. However, on the 23rd of December, ever so close to Christmas, a fisher named Tom Bawcock decides to brave the stormy seas for the sake of Mousehole. Though difficult (and dangerous) he is not only successful, but abundantly so; he brought back enough fish- of which there were said to be seven different varieties- to feed the entire village, almost all of which were baked into an enormous pie. The heads of several of the fishes poked out of the top of said pie, to prove that there was indeed fish within it. Ever since then, on the 23rd of December, Mousehole holds a festival in his honour, baking a huge Stargazy Pie that is paraded through the streets amidst a procession handmade lanterns before being consumed.
The festival has existed in some form, albeit without the attached legend, since pre-Christian times in the country according to Cornwall historian and Cornish Language expert Morton Nance; it’s unknown when the Stargazy Pie came into the tradition, however, and the existence of an actual Tom Bawcock was called into question (in no small part due to the theory that Bawcock is derived from a middle English term meaning “fine fellow” that evolved out of the french term Beau Coq). A more obscure legend in the area surrounding the pie- as well as other eclectic pies from the Cornish reason- pertains that it’s the reason that the Devil never came to Cornwall. In his book Popular Romances Of The West Of England, author Robert Hunt tells of a folklore tale that, after crossing the River Tamar to Torpoint, the Devil discovered that the Cornish would put absolutely anything in a pie, and decided it was best to take his leave before the locals took a shining to “Devilly” Pie.
According to the legend, the pie contained Herring, Dogfish, Horse Mackerel, Ling, Sand Eels, Pilchards, and seventh fish that appears to go unspecified. Almost all modern incarnations of the pie call solely for Pilchard, with Mackerel and Herring occasionally used as a substitute. Richard Stevenson, chef at The Ship Inn of Mousehole (the village in which the pie is said to have originated) has gone on record saying that any white fish could potentially work for the filling if need be, with Pilchard’s solely being used for the presentation. Contrary to popular belief, the Pilchards are not placed into the pie “whole”; only the heads and sometimes the tails are left intact, partially for preparation purposes and partially for presentation; placing the heads upwards and out of the pie crust allows the oils released by the fish to seep back into the pie as it bakes, allowing for a fuller, richer flavour. The rest of the fish is both skinned and boned, to allow for a smoother filling and to make the pie far easier to eat. Thickened Milk, Eggs and Potatoes are traditionally included within the pie as well.
As with many traditional dishes, a number of variations exists calling for all manner of additional ingredients, from bacon to onion, mutton to crayfish, even white wine in some instances. Likewise, the pie crust and sides differ from region to region and chef to chef; generally the crust is shortcrust, but it’s not uncommon for recipes to call for puff pastry, and suggestions for accompaniments range from Cornish Yarg (a semi hard, cow-milk based cheese native to the region), Rhubarb Chutney, or even simply a single slice of Lemon.
The Stargazy Pie stands as one of the triumphs of tradition within our own culture, from the legend surrounding it (and the rich history and cultural research springing from it) to the way the food has stuck to its roots even as wild variations have appeared throughout the ages.