Cornish Recipes

My husband brought home this gem from the op shop the other day. First published in 1929, this edition (one of 500 printed copies sold for 2/6 each) dates back to 1930. It was sent to the Gunning (NSW) branch of the Country Women’s Association (CWA) in 1935, and somehow ended up in an op (charity) shop in Nambour here on the Sunny Coast.

Books like this tell a story of a different time and I have to say when Grant gave it to me, my eyes did leak a tad. 

The thing with traditional recipes is that we don’t really cook that way anymore. The recipes in this book, and others of the time, are definitely from a period of austerity and making do. When women would set aside a day to do the baking, and pretty much everything was manual and time-consuming.

Cornwall in the 1930s was already a tourist destination, but for the residents of the county it was a different story. Mining was in decline and fishing stocks weren’t as healthy as they once had been. Overfishing of pilchards and herrings had led to both an over supply and falling prices for what was left. Plus the introduction of canned fish from British Columbia was also flooding the market.

Money was tight and women needed to be resourceful to feed their families. The recipes in this book reflect that. While there are cakes and some sweet treats, there’s also a lot involving leftovers and foraged ingredients – making everything go as far as it can.

A recipe for cabbage broth uses the water that salt beef has been boiled in and is bolstered with squares of bread. “Kiddley” broth involves squares of bread, marigold heads, stalks of “scifers” (a sort of herb grown wild – like a small shallot but more grassy looking), and boiled onions. Nothing is wasted – the Cornish version of peasant food, I guess.

An entire chapter is devoted to The Cornish Pasty – but not the pasties you might know. These ones are filled with whatever is to hand.

It is said that the Devil has never crossed the Tamar into Cornwall, on account of the well-known habit of Cornishwomen of putting everything into a pasty, and that he was not sufficiently courageous to risk such a fate…

When the pasties are being made, each member of the family has his or hers marked at the corner with the initial of the prospective owner. In this way each person’s tastes can be catered for.

The true Cornish way to eat a pasty is to hold it in the hand, and begin to bite it from the opposite end to the initial, so that, should any of it be uneaten, it may be consumed later by its rightful owner. And woe betide anyone who has taken another person’s “corner”!

A similar ethos is taken with pies where offerings include eel pie, curlew pie, conger pie, rook pie, muggity pie (which is, as far as I can tell, pretty much like a haggis with a sheep’s “pluck” in a pie), and seven (?) different kinds of squab pie. 

While there’s much that is resourceful in here, it wouldn’t be a Cornish cookbook without some Cornish teatime recipes. As well as cakes, there’s also a recipe for clotted cream and Cornish burnt cream.

There’s plenty in here I’ve never heard of like figgie hobbin or “currany obbin”, (also referred to as ‘oben) – a pastry made with suet and lard and sweetened with figs or currants; fuggan and meaty fuggan (which seems similar to a pasty); and porter cake – containing stout and sweetened with dried fruits.

There are instructions for curing:

Every well-found house should make it a point of honour to keep a good ham in cut.

and salting…

and every page has a saying at the bottom of it. I couldn’t help giggling at the chapter on home remedies:

  • Tooth-ache: Lay roasted parings of turnips, as hot as may be, behind the ears.
  • To cure sciatica: Carry a nutmeg in your hip pocket, or a potato until it withers and the sciatica will be cured.
  • Ear-ache: Place in the ear a roasted fig, or onion, as hot as may be.

Implicit in each of the pages is not just a love of tradition, but a love of family and warmth of hospitality – even if money is tight. It’s from a time not of plenty, but of moderation, wasting nothing and of making the best of something otherwise quite ordinary – and far from being depressing, I find that quite hopeful. While I may never cook from it (although I may yet experiment with some of the cakes), it’s a real piece of social history that I’ll treasure.

The reader of these pages will observe that most of the recipes given presume a clean hearth and a well-swept oven. Would not our visitors at once detect the difference between meat cooked with these simple appliances and the gas-cooked dietary of towns? Consider, for example, what a chicken has to suffer anywhere in London. As soon as plucked it has its poor breast broken to make it look plump (a trade trick that any good housewife should resent as an attempted fraud on her intelligence); it is then packed for market in sawdust, the turpentine of which races through its delicate flesh; lastly it is baked in a gas-heated oven wherein the fumes of coal-tar fight it out with the infection already absorbed. That is your townsman’s notion of a “roast chicken”. It bears no resemblance at all to a Cornish chicken marketed in a clean napkin, seasoned with lemon-thyme and other herbs from the garden, roasted on a spit and thoroughly basted in the process – a “dish to set before the King” – especially when accompanied by home-made bread that has taken the delicate aroma of a furze-heated oven.

Author: Jo

Author, baker, sunrise chaser

18 thoughts

  1. I love how these recipes are written… they are almost like having a conversation with the cook. But, as an insecure cook who follows recipes and dislikes ingredients like “one onion, chopped” (how large? A California onion – large – like we have here, or an onion from somewhere else – usually smaller?) rather than an amount or a weight, that would drive me crazy. 🙂

    1. They really are conversational and assume a level of knowledge that I suppose it was safe to assume back then.

    1. I will cook something from it – just not sure what…definitely not the curlew pie or the turnip pasty…

  2. What a lovely gift from Grant, Jo. It brings back memories of my childhood and Mum making pasties. Also the Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook and the Commonsense Cookbook. This is certainly a treasure for you and I love the footer ‘He was a bold man who first ate an oyster’. Thanks for sharing. xx

  3. What a find! It’s like a history and cooking lesson all in one. I was kindly gifted some really old Australian cook books from a dear reader, they’re such a delight – one dates back to 1946 and the other 1906!

  4. I love the ‘feel’ of it Jo – simply, homely, practical, but with some whimsy thrown in. I think it’s found its happy home with you – someone who can appreciate all the nuances that come with it. xx

  5. This is glorious, Jo. I am going to share with a friend who is on the committee of the Cornish Association of Victoria (and whose family harks from Penzance). I know she will love it!

    1. It really is a gem in so many ways. I emailed the WI in Cornwall too in case they were interested in seeing it, but guess they must already have a copy.

  6. This is a lovely post. I enjoyed looking at the history of the Cornish region through the recipes. I especially enjoyed everyone’s pie having their initial.

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