Sunday, December 27, 2009


From the 1902 Collections (vol. 1) by Vincent Stuckey Lean, quoting from William King's The Art of Cookery, "n. Ed of 1744."

This bit is in the "Relating to Counties" section (the county being Cornwall), under "Local Proverbs."

Squab-pie, herby-pie, pilchard pie or star-gazy pie, muggety pie are a few of the them.
Cornwall squab-pie, and Devon whitepot brings,
And Leicester beans and bacon fit for [food of] Kings.

Star-gazy pie (also starrey gazey pie, among other variants) is the dish that the people in Cornwall (especially in Mousehole) love to love, and others, including the late writer Laurie Colwin, do not (or did not) love.

The pie's fame is linked to the legend of a Cornish fisherman called Tom Bawcock, who saved the village of Mousehole from starvation one Christmas season. He braved the icy waters and returned with a large catch of seven kinds of fish.

I was trying to track down the origin of the pie's name, and while doing so kept turning up the same information about the legend of the fisherman. Given the amount of information on the Web and also given Mr. Lean's quotation (via Google books, I'm either ashamed to admit or happy to report), I pondered the pie and its legendary origins. A short trawling session turned up the below, dating to a 2005 posting on rootsweb by one Sandra Pritchard (the question it raises is "Was it ever possible to fish off Mousehole in December?":

"I would just like to put on record that I was born and brought up in Newlyn, some 2-3 miles from the village of Mousehole [Its distance depended on which route you walked!] I spent much of my social time in and around the villages of Paul and Mousehole....

" "Starry Gazzy Pie" was unheard of as a local dish in my memory, until the landlady of the "Ship Inn" at Mousehole had the idea of re-creating it. sometime around 1958 she organised a fund-raising event for Mousehole AFC....

"The landlady of the time hit on the bright idea of having a special night at the 'Ship' with singing and a story telling, based on the old folk tale of Tom Bawcock and the starving village. She would make a dish that was based on the 'seven sorts of fish' and sell off portions to raise money.... The 'pie' was ceremoniously paraded down through the street by a character dressed up as Tom Bawcock who carried a huge white enamel pie dish, fitted with a pastry lid with various fish heads appearing to poke out of it.

"Followed by all the village cats and dogs and whistled at by us youngsters, he entered the inn and placed the dish on the counter and a tremendous roar of approval went up from the drinkers inside. The pasty lid was lifted off and baked underneath were pieces of fish in a thick stock It was more like a bouillabaisse soup. Before cooking the heads had been stuck onto the thick pastry lid as a decoration. The Cornish often ate pies in this manner. The thick pastry crust acted as a lid, to keep in the goodness, and was always lifted off before serving up the contents. The pastry was divided up and was often "dunked" into the dish and eaten with the fingers. Any stray bones were dealt with in a similar way. Kippers were always eaten with fork and fingers in our house.
As the years went by the fundraising "pie" was paraded for show only, to portray " 'ow they used to do 'un" and the fish pie sold to raise funds was made with mashed potatoes and pieces of fish, in season or not; a sort of Captain's Fish Pie.
I have my doubts as to whether the tale was ever meant to be taken so literally.

"Fishing off Mousehole is impossible in winter-time as the timber "baulks" come down across the entrance called 'the gaps', and the harbour is closed for the season. It was ever thus. There is little fish to be had in western waters in the cold hard months of December and January, as they have mostly migrated to their spawning grounds further south. Most families guarded against this "hungry gap" by salting, smoking & drying fish, which they then set store by, for the times when they could not go out in their boats. Ling, haddock, hake, and sometimes cod, were strung up on communal wooden racks on the corner platt above the beach, which faced south....

"Oily fish, like pilchard, mackerel and herring, were preserved by each family group salting their own supplies and then storing away into great bussas [cloam pots] in the family cellar. The pilchard and the herring could also be smoked and there was often one family in the village who set up a smoke house for a season. This was usually in a old shed on the beach, fuelled by sawdust from the carpenters sheds and driftwood from the beach. They would charge by the "score" brought in for smoking and when "cured" they would often hang up in the fishermen's sail-lofts over winter. When required they could be "scrawled" by hanging in front of the bars of the range fire, usually to within an inch of their usefulness, and eaten with the fingers. Cooking indoors was often barred by their wives as the smell of a burning kipper is appalling. Little bonfires out on the cliff or in the back courts were then the cooking source. When the drift fishermen came in from the first night of the season they were fond of a 'scrawled' herring for their breakfast. Perhaps by then they knew that they could safely eat their emergency food store, as the fishing season had returned once more.

"Perhaps the Tom Bawcock tale was meant to warn of the dangers of not preserving for the bad times in times of plenty, much like the parable of the ten foolish virgins. Perhaps Tom Bawcock had been the only one to secret away a store of fish and when his fellow villages were in need he brought forth the fish, albeit in all sorts of variety. This may hint at the true meaning of the moral within the old tale. Fishing was usually undertaken at the flush times, when shoals of one species of fish were 'running' in the bay feeding. It was not until the much later era of 'deep sea' trawling that all and sundry fish varieties were caught in the same nets."

I don't know if this is the truth of the legend but I like the idea (in this case anyway) of puncturing a myth and setting the record straight. I also take the writer’s point about fair fishing.

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