A History of Stargazy Pie, England's Strangest Christmas Dish
Stargazy pie is an odd-looking invention—a dish where fish gaze up at the sky from a buttery crust—but it's more, too. It's said to be born of famine.
Photo via Flickr user Aune Head Arts
Stargazy Pie is an odd-looking invention: The heads and tails of pilchards poke out of a shortcrust lid. Their bodies, meanwhile, are tucked under the pastry; a white sauce envelopes them. Salty and formidably traditional, it's seasoned with coarse pepper and parsley.
Inside the steaming pie, a grating of boiled egg adds a touch of nourishment; an earthy stock supplies a base. It's hearty cooking—what you might imagine tucking into on a cold winter's night in a quaint Cornish village. It all smells of a buttery sea—and tastes much the same.
But Stargazy Pie is more than just an intriguing food item. It's said to be born of famine, in Cornwall's tiny port of Mousehole. The story goes that many years ago—it's not known exactly when—winter storms were thrashing the village with all their roaring anger, as they do. And this was when such weather cut off the region from the rest of England. People were going hungry.
So a local man called Tom Bowcock bravely sailed out to sea and returned with fish aplenty. Into a pie his catch went, and every year since on December 23, a festival—Tom Bowcock's Eve—is celebrated by all. I can say from experience that it's a lively affair. 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 endeavour. Such is the notoriety of the 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.
It's on Tom Bowcock's Eve—and only then—when the Stargazy Pie is cooked and eaten. It's Mousehole's Christmas and its festive grotto is The Ship Inn, a centuries-old drinking hole perched on the edge of the harbour's rear wall.
Every year, this pub dishes out free Stargazy Pie to all: from fishermen to school kids, to hordes of tourists, great baking trays of steaming pies emerge from the kitchen. There's plenty of Cornish ale and singing to accompany them.
"Merry place you may believe, Tiz Mouzel 'pon Tom Bawcock's Eve
To be there then who wouldn't wesh, to sup o' sibm soorts o' fish
When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry
And then us had a bit o' scad an' Starry-gazy pie
As aich we'd clunk, E's health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high,
And when up caame Tom Bawcock's name, We'd prais'd 'un to the sky"
The words are English, by the way, peppered with Cornish—an ancient Celtic language spoken only by those with beards and a love for wonky stones. It's all a bit fish-come-Jabberwocky. Still, you get the idea.
These days, Mel Matthews is the proprietor of The Ship Inn; she's grabbed the baton of pie-giving from generations before her.
According to Mel, "It's a fabulous event. It started here. I don't know exactly when, but it's a big deal in Mousehole. It's quite a burden too, this pie; it's our Christmas."
"You can't move in the pub when the pie comes out. And we get a local fisherman to dress up as Tom Bowcock and serve it out. It's free—people just contribute something, which we give to charity. Although sometimes the tourists can be pretty tight," Mel adds.
In recent years, the local dresser-upper is Jonathan Madron, who was featured in MUNCHIES once before when we explored West Cornwall's dangerous fishing industry. Madron, a.k.a. "Guns," saunters about the pub in blue overalls, sporting a large, black beard and talking a fair amount of gibberish, almost certainly fueled by beer.
"Yeah, I like Stargazy Pie," he tells me. "It's great, it's always been here. But I don't know where it came from to be honest. The story is just, you know, what it is. But everyone likes to commemorate Tom, you know. It's about fishing, isn't it?
Guns adds: "Anyway, I just dress up and carry it in. We all sing, we all eat—and there's beer, of course. I prefer it to Christmas, to be honest with you."
Indeed, Cornwall is known for its revelry and its hearty goodness, and the basis of so much of that is fishing. No more is that more apparent than with Stargazy Pie, with its bobbing fish heads poking happily out of their pastry crust.
Matthews explains that the fish can vary, from haddock to whiting to mackerel, but there must always, always be pilchards. These days, the fish is often ignored and lacking from dinner tables across the world. In Cornwall it retains its beauty, especially in December.
Aside from the pilchards and pastry, the recipe is choppy water. Matthews can't tell me exactly what goes into her version.
"It's fish, with hard boiled egg grated on top," she begins. "And it's a typical sauce, really: butter, onion, stock, plenty of seasoning and so on. A bit of parsley." Some cooks add mustard; there's usually loads of cream to bring it home.
The first time I tried Stargazy Pie was in 2013, when I visited Mousehole during seasonal times. Its famous Christmas lights illuminated the harbour (this was monumental, the 50th anniversary—but that's another story), and the aroma of roasted chestnuts mixed with the salty air.
The pie, though basic, is graceful in its way; rarely is such simplicity so revered. I'm biased because I lived in Cornwall for a year, reporting on fishermen and things, but to me, the area's blend of gastro-folk is warming—and it's deeply entwined into the fabric of the place. But yes, the mythological side of things can be a little loose. Wizards here, storm-beating fishermen there (in famine, I wonder where all the eggs and flour came from, for example). Nobody's certain about these things.
Jack Guard is a 95-year-old Mousehole man who's lived in the port for decades. While he sits in his cottage and updates his Facebook (really), I speak to him about his now-deceased wife who, he says, actually invented the Stargazy Pie back in the '60s. Indeed, the legend lives on—but so do thoughts of a canny pub landlord, who sought to raise extra cash at Christmas with a tale of sentiment and good fortune.
"My wife Dorothy made the first one," Guard explains. "The Bowcock story is wonderful and it's a great festival. I love seeing the kids on the harbour with their lanterns."
"Bowcock was around in the 1600s, so they say—some think it's true, some don't. But I remember the first Stargazy Pie. I was there, you see. It was at The Ship Inn—the landlord, Tom Mitchell, he was friends with my wife and said to her, 'I'm thinking of starting something.' That's how it started. Dorothy and her friend made all these fish pies with egg and such, with the heads and tails all sticking out, and dished them out on December 23."
Believe him or not, Stargazy Pie is now not just a dish but a Cornish institution, stuck fast on Mousehole's cobbled lanes, echoing through its harbour.
This Christmas, the Ship Inn will once again be flooded with visitors, all eager to sample a taste of maritime heritage. The village children will cast paper boats out from the shore. All its inhabitants will march through the streets with a taste for salty fish.
It's a sight to behold, a charming Cornish tradition with a tale—perhaps—as long as that of a floundering mackerel. Really, the true origins of Stargazy Pie don't matter, because it is a dish of searing importance. Like the sauce that binds its pilchards, it brings a community together in culinary melody. The pie is part of the fabric of Mousehole; the village's very own Christmas. The pie, truly, is a bit of a guiding light.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.