Traditional Foods and Faery Folk from Cornwall

The ancient lands of Cornwall are steeped in myth and legend, brimming with tales of giants, saints, monsters and witches. And as is often the case, its folklore is often tied to its own geography, with tales, traditions and customs growing up around certain sites and areas. However folklore is full of surprises, and over the years, certain Cornish traditions have not only intertwined and given rise to new folk tales, but also have been successfully exported round the world.

Cornwall is famous for many things, and while folklorists treasure its wealth of faery lore, food lovers celebrate its most famous export, the Cornish pasty. And surprisingly despite seemingly being very unrelated, this pair have enjoyed a special relationship over the years. Now pasties have been appearing in historical documents, and even in ancient recipe books, since the 13th century. Likewise as long as there has been a Cornwall, there has been tales of the piskies, the local little people. However it wasn't until the 1800s, when tin mining became a huge industry in Cornwall that the two came together.

Now the pasties of centuries past had very much been a snack favoured by the rich, with early recipes having the pastry case being filled with fancy fare such as venison or fine fruits and berries. But in the 19th century, the dish became popular among tin miners, and hence the traditional Cornish pasty was born. Now the proper, traditional Cornish recipe has minced beef - the cut known as steak skirt to be exact - baked in a pastry case along with sliced potatoes and turnip, and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper. The filling is mixed, then packed still uncooked in a circle of pastry that is then folded over and the edges crimped together to form a long thick crust that runs the entire length of the pasty. It is said that a proper Cornish pasty is folded to make a semi circular shape, but vintage cooking tomes and pictures show that crimping up the crust along the top of the pasty is equally traditional.

Pasties were not only cheap to make and but also made for a filling meal - effectively you got a full dinner in one handy pastry package. They were easy to carry down the mines, compact to carry on your person, and stayed warm a long time. And if they did get cold, they were easily warmed up on a shovel held over a candle, with the bigger mines actually having ovens down the pits to reheat the miners' pasties. Pasties very soon became part of mining culture and developed a folklore all of their own. Firstly is was said that the mark of a good, proper, well-baked Cornish pasty was that it could be dropped down a mine shaft and land without breaking apart.

Now there is no evidence to suggest that this was the usual delivery method of pasties at lunch time, however the popular call and response of "Oggie! Oggie! Oggie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" does come from dinner deliveries at the tin mines! The Cornish word for pasty is "hogen" which became "oggie" in miners' slang. Hence when the girls who worked on the surface, the bal maidens, lowered down a basket of pasties, they would cry "Oggie! Oggie! Oggie!" to let the menfolk know dinner was coming. And the miners would give the time-honoured reply of "Oi!Oi! Oi!" to let them know the pasties had been received and the basket was ready to be hauled up again.

Another tale about the pasty is the traditional recipes expanded the pasty into a two course meal. By means of adding a pastry partition, the canny Cornish folk devised a pasty that contained not just dinner but a dessert too! The bulk of the pasty would be the traditional filling of meat and veg, but a section at one end would contain a sweet of fruit, with apple being a favourite. Now it has been said that this is culinary folklore but historians have discovered that it was inded true, and a traditional family recipe for these ingenious two course pasties can be found here. Also there is an attendant piece of lore attached to this inventive practice - it was commonly said that the enthusiasm for pasty making and experimenting with the recipe was so great, that the Devil himself was afraid to set foot, or rather hoof, over the River Tamor and cross from Devon to Cornwall for fear of ending up as the filling in a Cornish pasty!

Other legends have grown up around the pasty crust itself too. It is often claimed that the thick hard ridge of pastry formed a useful handle to eat the pasty with, negating the need to bring knives and forks down the mines. Furthermore it has been claimed that as mining tin often brings up arsenic, the tradition of not eating the crust spared many a miner from a bout of poisoning. Modern pasyologists however have cast doubt on this belief however, citing pictures and photographs of tin miners eating their pasties from end to end and hold them in paper or muslin bags.

But aside from these modern theories about avoiding arsenic poisoning, there is an older tradition regarding not eating the crusts. For while Old Nick may have had a fear of pasties, other supernatural beings were said to have a taste for them...

Nw Cornwall is a land rich in faery lore, and as the Cornish people are descended from Celts they have not only their own ancient language - Kernowek, a Brittonic Celtic tongue related to both Welsh to Breton. Likewise theyhave their own distinct legends and folklore, and there are many varieties of Cornish faeries. Most famous are as the piskies, tiny faery folk who were mostly benign but sometimes mischievous. Then there are the spriggans - ugly beings that were malign, powerful and generally best avoided, who haunted old ruins and other lonely places. Generally the Cornish landscape, from the sea, to trees, to wells, and hills was said to be the home of the bucca. Some were good and called bucca gwidden, while more malevolent entities were the bucca dhu, with farmers and fishermen leaving out offerings to stay in the buccas' good graces.

However the most famous of the bucca are the knockers. They were the spirits of caves and wells, and with the tin mining booms in Cornwall, they also became the denizens of the mines. Their names comes from the fact that miners often heard the sounds of mysterious unseen miners working alongside them in the pits. The tapping and knocking was heard in the dark, and sometimes distant voices were heard singing in the dark of the deep. Of course like most faerie folk, the knockers were prone to mischief, and hence missing tools were often blamed on the knockers. But they also had their own peculiar quirks too. For example, knockers hated people whistling, and if they heard a miner whistling a merry air in the shafts and galleries of the mines, misfortune would follow.

They also hated being seen by mortal folk and this is illustrated by a popular old tale. A rather idle fellow called Barker from Towednack did not believe in the knockers or their powers and to prove his point, he camped by an old mine where the knockers were said to dwell. It was no hardship for the lazy Barker to lie in the sun waiting to catch a glimpse of the famed knockers. But soon he heard little voices chattering in the mine. He had heard that the knockers worked in eight hour shifts and were soon to finish for the day. Furthermore as knockers apparently enjoyed playing tricks on each other as well as humans, several were discussing where they would hide their tools so their fellows could not make mischief with them.

Well on hearing this, Barker resolved to listen intently and discover these hiding places and steal the knockers' tools for himself. He listened close to the tiny voices emanating from the mine... "I shall hide mine in a cleft in the rocks!" said one, "I shall hide mine beneath a fern!" replied another. "And," exclaimed a third, "I shall hide mine ON BARKER'S KNEE!". And at that very moment, the unfortunate Barker was wracked with pain as a heavy crushing blow from an unseen force battered his left kneecap. He screamed and screamed and fled as fast as he could from the place with the laughter echoing from the mine ringing in his ears. And for the rest of his days, he was to walk with a limp, and the tale is remembered in a common Cornish phrase - "as stiff as Barker's leg".

However the knockers were also a boon to the miners, for the tin miners of old soon learnt that it was wise to heed the odd noises that were purportedly the knockers working down in the deep. It is was said the knockers' sounds could lead a miner to rich seams, or more importantly give warning of an imminent tunnel collapse. Therefore soon it was considered unsafe to work in mines that didn't have knockers in them, and old mines were never entirely sealed up to let the knockers come and go as they pleased. And to keep in good favour with these mysterious mining spirites, the miners would leave them gifts and offerings. However rather than the usual cream, milk or bread that one traditionally leaves out for the faeries, the miners would leave tallow and candle ends for the knockers' lanterns. But also, the miners would leave a portion of their beloved Cornish pasties for the knockers, with some claiming the pasty's distinctive ridged crust being specially designed to throw into the darkness for the little folk. 

The Cornish mining industry was so successful that soon Cornish miners were in demand overseas, with mine owners across the Atlantic in the USA, and even on the other side of the world in Australia, looking for Cornishmen to come over and bring their expertise. And naturally these migrating tin miners took their favourite meal with them, and hence the Cornish pasty became the world famous dish it is today. However the knockers also came with them, and soon where up to their usual tricks in mines across the globe.

And while over time ideas about what the knockers actually were would change - for example, similar to the Cauld Lad of Hilton, the original concept that they were bucca who lived underground shifted to them being the spirits of deceased miners. And belief in these mining spirits would persist well into the 20th century. Not only did the descendants of the original travelling Cornish miners claimed that their luck in finding new seams or dodging tunnel collapses was due to the aid of the knockers, but they also insisted that the old ways were respected - refusing to work if an old mine was totally sealed up. Nor would they to begin work in a new one if the familiar sounds of knocking in the dark had not been heard. And while the old ways of mining are now gone, tales of the knockers still persist and these mysterious sprites are held to be working in old abandoned mines to this very day.

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