5 traditional Cornish dishes you need to try

5 traditional Cornish dishes you need to try

by Henry Coldstream30 June 2021

Not only is Cornwall home to some of the finest produce in the country – it’s also known for its own traditional dishes. These are the ones to look out for on your next visit.

5 traditional Cornish dishes you need to try

Not only is Cornwall home to some of the finest produce in the country – it’s also known for its own traditional dishes. These are the ones to look out for on your next visit.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

Henry is the features editor at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

We love visiting Cornwall for lots of reasons. For some, it’s the stunning sandy beaches and the wonderful surfing waves, while for others it’s the county’s countless charming towns and coastal walks. But one of Cornwall’s biggest pulls is undeniably its rich food culture. Famed for its hearty dishes which tend to take advantage of the area’s fantastic produce, Cornish food may not be the lightest around, but it is rich, filling and typically heavy on the meat, fish and dairy front!

Cornish food is pretty broad as cuisines go, being influenced by different styles across the globe over the centuries. During that time, the county has become known for having created some distinct dishes of its own which can still be enjoyed today. There’s the Cornish pasty of course, but the likes of Stargazy pie and Hevva cake are less well-known. Whether you’re planning to head to Cornwall for the first time or are a regular visitor, these are the dishes you should be trying while you’re there.

Stargazy pie

There aren’t many dishes more distinct to look at than Cornwall’s Stargazy pie. Featuring the heads and tails of pilchards poking out from a golden layer of shortcrust pastry, which hides the white sauce-covered bodies of the fish below, it’s the perfect centrepiece for a thoroughly Cornish spread. It’s believed to have been created in the small fishing village of Mousehole in answer to a famine in the sixteenth century. A particularly stormy winter saw boats unable to leave the harbour, meaning that the villagers, whose diet was centred around fish, were in danger of starving. That is, until a fisherman named Tom Bawcock decided to brave the storm on 23 December and caught enough fish for the whole village. He’s said to have baked all of his catches into one giant Stargazy pie which was enough to feed the entire village. Since then, every year on this day, the people of Mousehole cook a Stargazy pie to commemorate Bawcock. The dish can also still be found on the menus of many traditional Cornish pubs and restaurants, and top chefs like Mark Hix have put their own spin on the classic dish.

Saffron bun

Going by many names – including revel bun and Cornish tea treat bun – the saffron bun is similar to a traditional tea cake in that it contains dried fruit, such as currants. However, its distinct feature, as the name suggests, is that the bun is flavoured with saffron, which has historically been grown in Cornwall. Although saffron buns do tend to have a yellowish hue, nowadays this is normally achieved by adding yellow food colouring to the mix, as the amount of saffron required to change the colour of the buns would simply cost too much to make them worth baking. In Sweden, a very similar type of bun called a lussekatt is incredibly popular and traditionally enjoyed during Advent. These are usually baked in the shape of a backwards ‘S’, while Cornish saffron cakes look more like scones and are enjoyed throughout the year. When baked into a large loaf, rather than individual buns, it’s known as Cornish saffron cake.

Cornish pasty

There are few things more synonymous with Cornwall than its much-adored pasty. Famously eaten by tin miners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who would take Cornish pasties down the mine for an easy-to-eat, nutritious lunch, they are now available in bakeries and shops across the UK. In fact, versions of the Cornish pasty can be found everywhere from Mexico to Australia, where they were brought over by Cornish miners and sailors. While people have taken to filling pasties with all sorts of different ingredients, the traditional Cornish pasty is filled with beef (typically skirt steak), diced potatoes, turnips and onions. This all comes encased in shortcrust pastry, which has been carefully crimped around twenty times. The original recipe is so sacred in fact, that in 2011 it was awarded PGI status, meaning that Cornish pasties must be made in the shape of a D, contain specific ingredients and, most importantly, be made in Cornwall to qualify.

Hevva cake

Sometimes incorrectly referred to as ‘heavy cake’, this fruity bake actually gets its name from a phrase used by Cornish ‘huers’, whose job it used to be to look out for shoals of pilchards from the cliffs and alert the fishermen. When they spotted a shoal, they’d shout ‘hevva, hevva!’ (meaning ‘here they are!’) and guide the fisherman to it. When the wives of the fishermen heard these shouts, they would begin baking Hevva cakes for their husbands to enjoy after a successful day’s fishing. Usually baked using lard, sugar, flour and raisins, Hevva cake is very easy to make and is still popular amongst Cornish home bakers to this day. Traditionally the cakes are decorated on the top with a criss-cross pattern, which represents a fishing net – a nod to Hevva cake’s origin.

Cream tea

More of an extra afternoon meal than a dish of its own, the cream tea is a Cornish staple but it’s still hotly disputed as to whether it originated in Cornwall or in neighbouring Devon. Consisting of scones served with clotted cream and jam alongside tea, the elements of a Cornish cream tea and a Devonshire cream tea are the same, but traditionally in Cornwall the jam is spread onto the split scone first and then topped with a spoonful of clotted cream; in Devon, it’s done the other way around. In Cornwall however, jam-first cream teas are what you’ll find. Either plain or fruit scones can be used in a cream tea and the jam used is usually strawberry – but this is often replaced with other more unusual flavours in many modern cream teas. The most important part of a great cream tea is the clotted cream. Its rich flavour and thick, creamy texture provide the perfect balance to the fruity jam and ensures there’s no risk of feeling hungry afterwards!