Saturday, 26 February 2011

Pasties and other yarns

Not being from around here originally, I admit I get a trifle bored with Devon/Cornwall regional rivalries, of which one focus is traditional foods.

Firstly, there's the cream tea. Did it originate in Cornwall or Devon? This is pretty academic, since the named entity "cream tea" is a modern marketing construct (see Google Books Ngram Viewer here) though the combination of jam, scone and cream (in the past more likely to be junket than clotted cream) clearly goes further back, as Charles Dickens wrote in Household Words in 1882:

You spread the jam on the scone, and eat it with the junket. It is only when the tea is fairly advanced— we mean the meal, and in Cornwall tea is a solemn and serious affair — that the junket is reverently tapped by the mistress of the feast, and each guest is invited to partake ...

But the account that seems to trump the lot was that mentioned in a Western Morning News piece: "Cream tea on menu for over 1000 years" (January 20, 2004):

Historians in Devon have found evidence which they say could shed light on the original birthplace of that popular Westcountry dish the cream tea ... Historians in Tavistock claim to have unearthed manuscripts that reveal the cream tea tradition actually began in the town some 1,000 years ago. While carrying out research into the history of the 900-year-old Tavistock Market Charter, they discovered that the monks of the town's Benedictine Abbey could have created the famous dish to reward workers who helped to restore the building. The monks would serve the clotted cream with bread and strawberry preserves. This evidence was brought to the attention of the Tavistock Food and Drink Festival committee, which is now organising a two-day event which will feature the Devon cream tea.

The BBC has repeated the story at least twice - for instance, Ancient roots of cream tea discovered. I'm really not sure what to make of this; the Tavistock & District Local History Society have no idea who the historians involved were. The lack of specifics rings alarm bells with me, and having seen how origin myths can start up (see "A Bishop storm-tossed on the ocean") I'd like to see a scholarly publication confirming this discovery that surfaced just in time for the Tavistock Food and Drink Festival. I've emailed them to ask about this.

And then there's the pasty. The BBC news magazine, reporting on the food's newly-granted EU protected status - Who, What, Why: What exactly is a Cornish pasty? - reported this:

Les Merton, author of The Official Encyclopaedia of the Cornish Pasty, points to cave paintings on the Lizard peninsula showing a woman eating a pasty-like foodstuff, suggesting the tradition stretches back to prehistoric times.

A very early pasty, he believes, would have been encased in leaves rather than pastry, but he says the evidence nonetheless suggests that even such primitive versions would have had their edges crimped in some way.

The BBC has failed to spot a joke: The Official Encyclopaedia of the Cornish Pasty is a humorous publication tracking the pasty back to the Garden of Eden.  Debunking is hardly necessary, but as the art historian Dr Geri Parlby said to the Western Morning News - Doubts cast on pasties in cave painting claim (WMN, Feb 26th 2011):

"I am always fascinated to hear of new discoveries in prehistoric art especially when they appear to show something as detailed as Mr Merton claims to have seen.

"As there is only very limited evidence for any form of prehistoric cave art across the whole of Britain, I find it hard to believe these Cornish examples could have been such a well kept secret, even Cornwall Council's Archaeology Department seems unaware of them."

I'm not sure which I find more tiresome: the rivalry that gives rise to these yarns, or the readiness of the BBC to treat unverified soundbites as sacrosanct.

- Ray


  1. A Mexican friend comments that there is evidence for tortillas having been made there roughly 500BC, and that potatoes were being cultivated in the Andes several thousand years before that, so it seems quite unlikely that no one combined the two with a bit of meat and veg prior to the potato's introduction in Europe in the 16th century. The lengths that the EU and the BBC will go to to justify their existence are quite extraordinary (as are the spicy Cornish pasties sold in Mexican mining towns).

  2. Yep: bring on the tortilla pasties! Probably with purple potatoes.