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Food And Drink : Cornish Classic Recipes : Starry Gazey Pie

Starry Gazey Pie

It’s here, the big one, the one dish that says ‘Cornwall’ to me more than any other. It’s also the one I’ve been dreading. I’m pretty adventurous, and will try anything once, but a pie with fish heads in? I’m going to need my iron stomach for this one, the legendary ‘Starry Gazey Pie’.

Starry Gazey Pie Starry Gazey Pie - Picture 1 Starry Gazey Pie - Picture 2

So, a pie with fish heads staring sky wards. How did that ever catch on? It is most notably linked to Mousehole, where it is prepared every year on 23rd December, in memory of Tom Bawcock. The romantic story goes that the villagers were close to starving one winter after storms had kept the local fishermen on dry land. A local widower, Tom Bawcock, decided enough was enough, and that he would take out his boat, along with his crew, and faithful cat Mowzer, to brave the rolling seas. There are different opinions on what happened next, but the one I favour is where the great Mowzer calms the storm cat of the sea with a lullaby, and Tom’s catch is plentiful, bringing home 7 different types of fish to feed his community. The landlady of the Ship Inn created a pie for the families, and the infamous dish was born.

Ok, so it served a great purpose back then, but is it still as well received today? Tom Bawcock’s eve is still celebrated every December 23rd, and a pie is served, as tradition states, in the Ship Inn, with a procession and general merriment on the side. It’s a festival I’ve never seen, something I’m keen to remedy this year. But I wonder is it a true local love, or a legend that draws the tourists in? You know what, I don’t care either way. I love a Cornish story and especially this one as our feline heroine shares her name with my own beloved pet pussycat. But most importantly will all of this make me enjoy a pastry and fish combination?

The recipe (and histories) calls for pilchards, or sardines, and I’ve managed to get hold of the latter. Now, here is where I must confess my squeamishness has got the better of me. I have opted to abandon my usual recipe book, in favour of a more modern version, brought about by Chef extraordinaire Mark Hix. Mr Hix has given the pie something of a rebirth, as he chose to create a version for 2007’s ‘Great British Menu’ Cookery competition. Cooking for the British Ambassadors banquet in Paris, his Crayfish and Rabbit Stargazy pie graced the menu, and brought this strange creation to the fore once again. Fear not, I am still using fish heads, but in a slightly more ‘user friendly’ fashion.

So, I start by frying off my onion and bacon, as we all know, bacon gives everything more flavour. Some flour goes in, followed by some wine and fish stock (homemade might I add).

After gently bubbling away, it’s in with the cream to reduce and thicken. Traditional components of parsley and chopped egg complete the sauce, along with the all important seasoning.

While the oven is warming I can prepare the fish. The vital difference from this recipe is that just the fillets are placed within the pie; with the fish heads reserved more for decoration. This should make it a more appetising proposal, and make it easier to serve. The fillets of mackerel are laid in the bottom of a shallow pie dish, and seasoned. The sauce goes on top, followed by a lid of puff pastry over the dish. After making it neat, I cut 6 slits in the pastry, to push the fish heads into. This keeps it true to the legend, but they can be easily removed when it comes to the feasting.

Finally, a brush of beaten egg for colour, and it’s into the oven for the recipe specified 40 minutes, until the pastry looks delicious, but mine is looking done after 30 minutes.

Well, it smells lovely, and looks good, (except for the fish heads which I’m sure are staring at me with contempt). And as for the taste? It’s surprisingly good, conjuring up homely, warming images. Don’t get me wrong, it would be a whole lot nicer without the heads, but I feel like I’m eating a little bit of history, and it’s not often you can say that. Ok, so I’ve veered off the original details a little, but I think I’ve done Cornwall proud, and even Tom Bawcock would approve…..My ‘Mowser’ certainly did!

Recipe

25g Butter
1 onion – chopped
3 rashers of Bacon- chopped
½ tbsp Flour
3 tbsp White wine
250ml Fish Stock
300ml Double cream
2 tbsp chopped Parsley
2 hard boiled eggs- shelled and chopped
6 pilchards/herrings/or small mackerel-filleted, bones removed and heads reserved
200g Puff Pastry, rolled to thickness of 3mm
1 egg beaten

Method

1. Heat the butter in a pan, and fry the onion and bacon until soft. Add the flour and stir well, then slowly add the wine and fish stock to creat a lump free sauce.
2. Add the cream, and simmer until reduced by half and thickened. Remove from the heat, add the herbs and chopped egg, then season. Leave to cool.
3. Preheat the oven to 200c.
4. Cut the fillets in half and lay them in a shallow pie dish, lightly season.
5. Pour the sauce over the fish. Lay the pastry over the dish and trim to size. Make 6 small slits and push the reserved fish heads through.
6. Brush the top with beaten egg and bake for 40-45 minutes until the pastry is golden and risen.