Kirstie Newton on 10 years of the World Pasty Championships
Photographs by Emily Whitfield-Wicks/APEX for the Eden Project
The Cornish pasty was invented to provide workmen – be they miners, farmers or fishermen – with a practical meal sturdy enough to last the day. These days, we’re more likely to eat them al desko than down a mine or out at sea, but they are still much loved, and the subject of which is best can result in emotions running high.
So the launch of the World Pasty Championships in 2012 could be seen as a brave move. Also known as the Oggy Oscars/Olympics, its home is the Eden Project; as the event took a break last year due to the pandemic, the 2022 contest – on March 5, St Piran’s Day no less – will mark both 10 years and the 10th stab at victory for its participants. Many of them, like me, wouldn’t dream of missing it; I feel proud and privileged to have judged at every event, and am looking forward to doing so again.
Amateur, professional, company and junior bakers find their mettle tested in two categories: Cornish pasty and Open Savoury. Judges are paired up, with an industry professional sitting alongside an appreciative consumer. For avoidance of any doubt, I fall into the latter category; I have never made a pasty in my life, but have tasted thousands as a weekend staple (see my waistline for proof).
What makes a Cornish pasty? Like Melton Mowbray pork pies and Jersey Royal potatoes, the Cornish pasty was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) by the EU in 2011 (mirrored post-Brexit by a similar UK scheme) to ensure no imposters are tolerated.
As such, there are now strict rules to be followed, starting with four permitted ingredients: steak, potato, turnip and onion – strictly no peas, carrots or indeed any other rogue item, which would flip it straight into Open Savoury territory. We’re looking for at least 12.5% beef and 25% vegetables.
Next, the pastry has to be savoury and sturdy, with an attractive and consistent glaze. Finally, the pasty must be a perfect D shape with a crimp, or “handle”, down the side with a decent number of pinches. This is not without controversy; there are notable top crimpers west of the Tamar who cannot compete in the Cornish category, much to their chagrin.
When judging, each pasty is cut in half, with one side to be poked, prodded and tasted, the other destined for head judge Dave Menear, who will turn to it in the event of a tie-break. By far the biggest chunk of points goes on the part where you eat the thing. It’s only right – this is where the alchemy happens. It could look like the best pasty in the world, but if it tastes terrible, it’s an epic fail. Equally, it might not look like much, but does that matter if it hits the spot?
Entries are anonymous when judged, so win on merit alone. There is no way to tell whether you’re sampling the wares of a former winner, such as Cornish amateur supremo Billy Deakin, who won twice, took four years off then won again; or Open Savoury genius Don McKeevor from Bristol, the most decorated of all entrants with three wins and a runner-up under this belt. Quite simply, these guys know a thing or two about what works inside pastry.
Similarly, when Betty Lethbridge, octogenarian mother of Fisherman’s Friend John, took the Cornish amateur title in 2015, and Gillian Francis in 2018 having learned to crimp only two weeks earlier, it was because they impressed the judges, who knew nothing of their provenance (Gillian later appeared on TV with Bake-Off champion Nadiya Hussain).
The very first professional champion was Graham Cornish, head of development at Ginsters, who entered a traditional recipe handed down by his mother and a delightful Cornish smoked fish concoction in the open savoury. He described the double win as “the pinnacle” of his pasty-making career, and launched his own Cornish Cornish pasties; in subsequent years, his sons went onto follow his lead in the junior categories. The following year, the Company category was introduced and has since been passed around, from the West Cornwall Pasty Co to Cornish Premier Pasties and Proper Cornish.
One final stipulation is that the ingredients must be assembled uncooked and baked in Cornwall to qualify as a Cornish pasty. Competitors come from far and wide to do so: take the huge gang from Bristol who hire a holiday home and make an annual event of it, earning them induction into the hall of the Pasty Ambassadors. Members of all ages have taken trophies in a variety of categories, including Vanessa Farr in the coveted Cornish Amateur.
Then there are the Cousin Jacks, who make the annual pilgrimage across the pond in pursuit of gastronomical glory. The magnificently moustachioed Gerry Ramier, who hails from Niagara via a Redruth mother, won the Professional trophy in 2017, while Michael Amery, originally from Mevagissey but now residing in Pennsylvania, was made a Cornish Pasty Ambassador in 2012.
If the Cornish category is about technical prowess, the Open Savoury blows the bleddy doors off in terms of creativity. My personal favourite – steak and blue cheese by Padstow’s Chough Bakery (I parted with cash for one just a few weeks ago) – appears quite staid when compared with Jorge Pereira’s take on his native Chilean empanada, marrying beef and onion with olives, hard-boiled egg and pineapple. Jorge entered during an extended trip to see his Cornish in-laws, and took the Open Savoury title in 2016.
Weird and wonderful entries in this category have included the hottest chilli in the world, roadkill, squirrels, edible insects and the guy who likes to think of the most revolting thing you could put in a pasty (I balked at fish, chips and mushy peas). The Sam-I-Am pasty, meanwhile, which paired ham with halloumi green eggs, paid delightful homage to Dr Seuss and was a work of art in my book.
By 2018, the contest had been turned into the last hurrah of Cornish Pasty Week, led by the Cornish Pasty Association which represents players large and small in this £300m industry. Life-sized characters Mr & Mrs Pasty enjoyed photocalls at Land’s End and distributed pasties on the London Paddington train. On social media, consumers were encouraged to post selfies with a #pastysmile using the leftover crimp – who has never done that? (The week-long event takes a further break this year, to ensure all efforts are focused on the 10th anniversary event).
Having watched formidable ladies crimping on a production line, deep in conversation and producing pasty perfection without even looking, I can tell you what a great skill this is. In 2019, Ingrida Sauguiene of Rowes Bakery was officially named the fastest crimper in the West, having pinched an impressive 13 pasties in one minute (the average is four). Ingrida would have been hot property in the days when a Cornishwoman’s most marriageable quality was her pasty-making thumb.
The band of judges is like a little family. Here, there are people I greet once a year with the same delight I would a beloved uncle at Christmas: the jolly chefs, the chaps in their Cornish kilts, the WI ladies, the lovely professor from Michigan. Over the years, I have acquired a little helper: my oggy-mad daughter has grown up with the pasty championships, and especially enjoys totting up the scores like Carol Vorderman. Perhaps, after so much training, she might be invited to judge on her own account?
One final word. Ask any self-respecting Cornishman who makes the best pasties, and there will only ever be one answer: “Mother.” ‘Nuff said.
Fancy your chances? Why not enter the World Pasty Championships? Deadline: 23.59, Sunday, February 27. For further information, visit www.edenproject.com