There were whoops and cheers as the winners of the first World Pasty Championships were announced on Saturday. There was clearly some pride to be had in being confirmed the king (or queen) or Cornwall’s national dish, and the atmosphere was palpable.
But the winner of both professional categories accepted his trophies in a quieter, more diffident fashion. The appropriately named Graham Cornish had no retinue of noisy supporters, and was extremely modest in his triumph. Asked for his secret, he replied, simply: “Use the freshest local ingredients.” Was he pleased to score the double? “I feel delighted and humble. But then,” he added, “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Launceston man Graham works at Ginsters, perhapsCornwall’s best known pasty producers. The irony was not lost on the gathered crowds, nor on the Twittersphere; Ginsters’ plastic wrapped wares, commonly purchased in petrol stations and motorway services, are not generally mentioned in the same breath as those Mother used to make. Graham’s success shows that they must be doing something right.
I was honoured to be asked to join the judging panel at this inaugural event, which was dreamed up by David Rowe at the Eden Project following the protected status granted to the Cornish pasty last year. Dave Meneer (formerly of Eden and Fifteen Cornwall)was head judge, his taste buds reserved in case of a tie. The rest of us (23 judges) had the arduous task of tasting 102 pasties over five hours. There were moments when I wondered whether I would want to see another pasty, ever again.
We were ushered into the staff area behind the Bakery (Eden’s revamped restaurant), and the rules were explained. A true Cornish pasty should be D shaped, with a clear crimp to the side (never across the top); the filling should comprise beef, swede, potato and onion (no peas, carrots or other intruders); and, of course, it should be made in the county. All entries to the Cornish pasty categories, amateur and professional, should abide by these laws; all others would enter the Open Savoury categories.
We judged in pairs. My partner in crime was Billy Moore, erstwhile landlord (30 years’ service) of the Fountain Inn in Mevagissey. Normally on Saturdays, Billy makes his own pasties, to be consumed by punters over a pint. His magic ingredient: “A sprinkle of suet instead of the knob of butter, to get the juices running. And occasionally, a bit of parsley.”
The best pasty he’s ever tasted? “Ask any Cornishman, and he’ll say it’s his mother’s.” He wasn’t wrong there. I asked several Cornishmen (and a few women), and the answer was always the same (even my mother-in-law, whose mother was from Lancashire).
The pasties came out, starting with the Cornish Pasty amateur class. We tried three. First, we judged the look – was it golden, with an even glaze and a good crimp? Then we cut each in half, and a bit of pastry was tweaked and tested. Finally, the filling – was the distribution even, were there any unnecessary ingredients and, of course, how did it taste?
It was a disappointing trio. All had indistinct crimps, and none of the chefs appeared to be acquainted with salt or pepper. “Good seasoning is essential, and it has to be done before cooking – you can’t add it afterwards,” said Billy. The third entry also had a chronic pastry problem – it fell apart when I picked it up. As a hand-held meal for a hungry miner, a weak pastry and no crimp (essentially a handle, which would have been thrown away for the “knockers”) would have spelt disaster. We gave this poor soul our lowest mark – 24 out of 100.
Onto the professionals, who clearly knew their condiments and crimps better, as one might expect. They scored in the late 60s, early 70s – respectable, but could do better in my opinion.
It was interesting to hear the different judging techniques. Billy and I were quite quick to decide what we did and didn’t like, but the room was buzzing with serious discussion. There was heated debate about whether you could tell the difference between butchers’ and bakers’ pasties. “I have no objection to butchers making pasties,” opined Clive Williams, president of the Master Bakers Association, “…as long as they appreciate that they won’t be as good as those made by bakers.” Enough said.
There was a break for lunch – strictly non-pasty related – and an opportunity to meet other judges. There were fellow journalists, farmers, bakers, food and safety officers and WI members. To my right was Heligan baker Mandy Johns, who had recreated the Heligan Heritage Pasty from an 18th century recipe (principal ingredient – venison). Mebyon Kernow councillor Matt Luke, from nearby Trethurgy, was resplendent in Cornish tartan.
Prof David Balzarini had travelled all the way from Michigan USA. “I asked if it was something a tourist might find interesting; the next thing I knew, I was a judge,” he said. Like Cornwall, Michiganhas its own mining heritage, and welcomed many Cousin Jacks when the Cornish industry began to flag at the turn of the 20th century.
After lunch, the Open Savoury pasties began rolling out. I was looking forward to this; I’m no purist, and like to vary my fillings. Beef and stilton is a particular favourite; pork and apple, cheese, tomato and basil – sacrilege to some, music to my ears. IT manager, pasty enthusiast and Cornishman Julian Holmes agreed: “I make my own pasties and know what the traditional ones should be like, so this is something different.”
Some were weird, some were wonderful; some were both. Suddenly, the judges were circulating, keen to try other pasties. Chicken curry with banana and coconut; seafood; buffalo chicken with chilli. The squirrel pasty drew a fair bit of attention, and we were divided into two camps; those who would, and those who definitely wouldn’t. I would, and did. Judges Clive and Colin scored it highly; in fact, it came second in its class to wild rabbit with cider and leek. Both were pretty tasty.
Billy and I had the “Bonfire pasty”, featuruing butternut squash, bacon and sage. Too much sage for Billy; not enough bacon for me. But I loved the sweetness of the squash. Our final pasty was the best of the day: steak and Cornish Blue cheese. “A little beauty,” wrote Billy of its looks, giving its crimp 18 out of 20. At 87 out of 100, it scored our highest mark – and just when I thought I couldn’t face another morsel, it had me coming back for more.
By now, I was feeling quite lardy. The scores were in, and dave Meneer finally got to taste something. The winners were announced.
In the pro category, aChicago company came third with its veggie pasty, which had been Fed-Exed in. Perhaps this was a more effective method than that of the Cornish born, Pennsylvania resident who had flown in and cooked his on Cornish soil, presumably with jetlag; it wasn’t placed.
In second place in both pro classes was Padstow’s Chough Bakery, recently seen on BBC Two when it was visited by Alex Polizzi. Strong-minded mum Elaine was keen to retire but loath to hand over the business; daughter Louisa was dying to take on the mantle. She’s clearly ready; it was her steak and Cornish Blue pasty that had me in raptures, so I was thrilled.
But the top Cornish pasty was, well, the Cornish pasty, Graham topped the charts not only with his traditional, but also with his smoked fish number using ingredients from Tregida Smokehouse. Ginsters are lucky to have him, and I look forward to hearing his opinions on what makes a good pasty. “I’ve got plenty,” he told me. I can’t wait.