My glorious Citizens – a very Merry Christmas indeed to all of you who celebrate the holiday! I have meditated for many days now, wracking My brain to find the perfect Christmas recipe to share with TFD Nation! Christmas cookies? Too obvious. Roast pork with crackling? Done it. Roast Goose? Also done it. So many options, but at last I settled on a very rare, micro-regional British Christmas recipe which looks like a scene from an eco-horror film but tastes divine! I speak of nothing less than Cornish Stargazy pie!
As you can see from the picture, this recipe calls for a classic fish pie, but with filleted sardines poking their intact heads out through the crust! Yes, the fish are indeed “stargazing” – but there is a story associated with this unique recipe explaining the rationale behind doing this. Beyond the poetic license, there is also a good culinary reason beyond “art” to have the fish staring up at you. By baking vertically, all the delicious, nutritive fish oils drain back into the body, keeping the flesh plump and juicy!
Modern British recipes supplement Stargazy pie sardines with additional fillets of fish added into the pie, along with the classic ingredients of eggs, potatoes, bacon, onions, stock, milk and more – but more on those later. For now, satisfy yourself that this pie looks DELICIOUS when cut open – and for the record: NO, you do not eat the heads of the fish!
Before we get to the history of Stargazy pie, we must first briefly discuss the history of Cornwall and the cruel persecution of the Cornish by the English seeking to erase their cultural identity.
The history of Cornwall goes back to the Paleolithic, but in this period Cornwall only had sporadic visits by groups of humans. Continuous occupation started around 10,000 years ago after the end of the last ice age. When recorded history started in the first century BCE, the spoken language was Common Brittonic, and that would develop into Southwestern Brittonic and then the Cornish language.
Cornwall was part of the territory of the tribe of the Dumnonii that included modern-day Devon and parts of Somerset. After a period of Roman rule, Cornwall reverted to rule by independent Romano-British leaders and continued to have a close relationship with Brittany and Wales as well as southern Ireland, which neighboured across the Celtic Sea. After the collapse of Dumnonia, the remaining territory of Cornwall came into conflict with neighbouring Wessex.
By the middle of the ninth century, Cornwall had fallen under the control of Wessex, but it kept its own culture. In 1337, the title Duke of Cornwall was created by the English monarchy, to be held by the king’s eldest son and heir.
Cornwall, along with the neighboring county of Devon, maintained Stannary institutions that granted some local control over its most important product, tin, but by the time of Henry VIII most vestiges of Cornish autonomy had been removed as England became an increasingly centralized state under the Tudor dynasty. Conflicts with the Crown took place with the Cornish Rebellion of 1497 and the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.
By the end of the 18th century, Cornwall was administered as an integral part of the Kingdom of Great Britain along with the rest of England and the Cornish language had gone into steep decline. The Industrial Revolution brought huge change to Cornwall, as well as the adoption of Methodism among the general populace, turning the area nonconformist.
Decline of mining in Cornwall resulted in mass emigration overseas and the Cornish diaspora, as well as the start of the Celtic Revival and Cornish revival which resulted in the beginnings of Cornish nationalism in the late 20th century. The revival of the Cornish language – which was actually classified as extinct at one point, points to the Cornish renaissance.
Cornish is a Southwestern Brittonic language of the Celtic language family. As noted, it is a revived language, having become extinct as a living community language in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century. However, knowledge of Cornish, including speaking ability to a certain extent, continued to be passed on within families and by individuals, and a revival began in the early 20th century.
The language has a growing number of second-language speakers, and a very small number of families now raise children to speak revived Cornish as a first language. Cornish is currently recognized under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the language is often described as an important part of Cornish identity, culture and heritage…much like Stargazy pie is an integral part of Cornish food culture and history.
Also, the Stargazy pie recipe isn’t just from one small part of the UK – no, it’s specific to one small VILLAGE in Cornwall – the surprisingly-named seaside hamlet of…wait for it…Mousehole! As you can see, the hamlet of Mousehole is exceedingly quaint and beautiful – when it isn’t being pummeled by Winter storms!
The legend surrounding Stargazy Pie’s creation is recounted in this excerpted story from matadornetwork.com:
As wild winds and stormy seas signal the arrival of winter, the Cornish village of Mousehole (pronounced Mowzel) near Lands End welcomes the weather with Stargazy pie. It looks like any other pie with a buttery, flaky crust except for one small detail: There are fish heads and tails poking out of the top crust, giving the illusion that fish are swimming through it.
Eating a pie full of fish heads is not to everyone’s taste; it’s a very special tradition for this little village in Britain. Variations on the pie are served throughout England, but every Stargazy pie can be traced back to one small fishing community and its story of how it avoided famine in the 1500s.
In the past, when storms raged around the coast of Cornwall, fishermen couldn’t make it out past the harbor to fish. Each storm season was a threat to the entire region as people in the village would starve without the fresh catch. That was the case one December in the 16th century.
According to legend, Mousehole faced a particularly stormy December one year. As food became increasingly scarce, it was clear that the villagers would starve by Christmas. An old fisherman named Tom Bawcock decided to do something about it. He took his boat out and sailed through narrow Mousehole Harbour to face the stormy seas beyond the walls. The villagers noticed his boat was gone, and they lit lanterns and candles in the windows to guide him back to safety.
Somehow, Bawcock was successful. He caught a full boatload of seven types of fish before heading back home to safety. Mousehole welcomed him back as a savior and baked his entire catch into a massive fish pie. The fish heads and tails were arranged to poke out of the top of the pie to prove that there was indeed fish in it. Ever since that day, Mousehole celebrates Tom Bawcock’s Eve on December 23 with Stargazy pie.
This being a legend, there are a couple of competing theories as to how December 23 became fish head pie day in Mousehole. One alternative, yet wildly less entertaining, story is that the local fishermen gave thanks each Christmas and looked forward to the following year by baking a huge pie. Another legend is that villagers in Cornwall simply baked everything into pie, and that’s what protected the region from the Devil because he was terrified it would happen to him.
The truth, like pretty much every truth in history, is probably somewhere in the middle. It’s the Tom Bawcock story that really stole the heart of the Cornish people, though.
On Tom Bawcock’s Eve, there’s a lantern parade through the village, and one of the locals dresses as Tom carrying the pie. The villagers sing traditional songs, and a verse is recited in the local dialect before the pie is served to the fishing community and visitors:
A merry plaas you may believe
woz Mowsel pon Tom Bawcock’s Eve.
To be theer then oo wudn wesh
To sup o sibm soorts o fesh!
Wen morgee brath ad cleard tha path
Comed lances for a fry,
An then us had a bet o scad
an starry gazee py.
Nex cumd fermaads, braa thustee jaads
As maad ar oozles dry,
An ling an haak, enough to maak
a raunen shark to sy!
A aech wed clunk as ealth wer drunk
En bumpers bremmen y,
An wen up caam Tom Bawcock’s naam
We praesed un to tha sky
Into a pie his catch went, and every year since on December 23, a festival—Tom Bowcock’s Eve—is celebrated by all and their sole opportunity in the year to eat Stargazy pie. It’s a lively affair, as Cornish locals like to dance, sing, and make good pastry.
You might’ve read something similar in the famous children’s book The Mousehole Cat, which was inspired by Mr. Bowcock’s endeavor (some versions of the legend say his pet cat came with him and had magical powers that calmed the storm). Such is the notoriety of this legendary fisherman that his life is well-chartered in literature—allegedly, he was first proclaimed a folk hero in the magazine Old Cornwall in the 1920s.
In 1963, local artist John Gilchrist, strung Christmas lights around the harbor and the idea was taken up by the local carpenters. Today a group of forty volunteers work months putting up over seven thousand bulbs and six miles of lights! The Lighting is attended by over four thousand people and starts with the village priest blessing the scene.
In celebration and memorial to the efforts of Tom Bawcock, the villagers parade a huge Stargazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns, before eating the pie itself! One set of lights even represents the pie, showing fish heads and tails protruding from a pie dish underneath six stars!
It’s on Tom Bowcock’s Eve—and only then—when the Stargazy Pie is cooked and eaten in Mousehole. Outside of the region, Stargazy pie is eaten year-round and has many different variations when it comes to ingredients and seasoning. Now, while it is true that Stargazy pie is the food of the poor, it does NOT have to be boring – it can even be quite gourmet, as I have made it in My supreme version!
For the Stargazy pastry crust, I prefer to avoid the trendy puff pastry as far to “frou frou” for this hardworking fisherman recipe – I stick to the classic short crust. HOWEVER, I have luxed that pastry up a bit with the addition of both dry mustard powder and using a touch of saffron-infused water. Both help to turn the crust a most savory golden color and help contribute to the flavor. I also add in some anise-flavored Chervil and Tarragon as they go well with fish, plus a hint of fennel pollen (buy it from here).
I do use some dry apple cider in the sauce inside the pie as I believe the earliest versions of Stargazy pie DID use it – modern recipes use wine, which no Cornish fisherman would be caught dead drinking, even if they could afford it.
Most modern recipes for Stargazy pie also supplement the mandatory sardines with fillets of other types of fish and I happily follow suit. In my case, I chose one of my two favorite fish – Cod or Flounder. You could even use Dover Sole, if you live in the UK and have access to it (though it is fiendishly pricey and not in the spirit of frugality represented by the recipe). For the actual whole sardines, just have your fishmonger gut and clean them for you, but make sure he LEAVES THE HEADS ON!
To further add savor to the flavor of the Stargazy pie, I also have chosen to add in some herring fillets to it – but not just ANY herring! I wanted a tart accent to the richness of the filling, so I went with PICKLED herring in cream sauce – a Jewish touch that was also cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) for My ancestors in Eastern Europe and a dearly-beloved fish I ate growing up in Brooklyn.
Pickled herring works BEAUTIFULLY in the Stargazy pie recipe, at least to My taste – if you prefer a more authentic touch, use canned Portuguese sardines (no others!) or try Latvian sprats (smoked herring fillets) for a different but still delicious flavor profile! They’re all good, as far as I am concerned! You can buy Portuguese sardines of top quality from here and Latvian sprats from here – pickled herring in cream sauce is usually available in most grocers, but you can also buy a good brand from here.
Surprisingly – at least for one of MY recipes – that’s all of the unusual or rare ingredients you’ll need! 🙂
To repeat – I know the fish heads looking back at you might make you feel queasy, but you’re NOT eating them! Stargzy pie is just a truly delicious fish pie that deserves to be far better known and appreciated outside of Cornwall and the UK! With My recipe, I have every confidence you will be able to enjoy a delicious Christmas (or anytime!) meal and create your OWN legends about how you bravely made this recipe with unflinching resolve and share your taste for gourmet eating of the finest order! 😀
Battle on and MERRY CHRISTMAS, MY CITIZENS – the GeneralissimoPrint
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