By Sara Hiorns
I recently learned that Cornwall now produces champagne and, while I was shocked, I wasn’t surprised. Over the last few decades Cornwall has outrun its image as a quaint and cobbled holiday place to become a festival-hosting, sustainable foodie, surfer paradise. Cornish tradition has been largely (re)invented. For instance, Cornish Yarg cheese whose Celtic sounding name suggests it was enjoyed by King Arthur was named after its creator Alan Gray (Yarg) in the 1980s. My Grandmother, whose recipe for Cornish pasties is the radical object I’m writing about, was an unreconstructed Cornishwoman.
Born in 1906, Jessie Louisa Bessie Tamblyn was an obtuse and insular woman; deeply suspicious of anyone who wasn’t directly related to her. She was born and grew up in a Cornwall that was poor and isolated, characterised by cheerless Methodism. She never lost her Chapel language ‘That place is a palace of sin,’ she’d say as we passed the pub on the corner. She sang hymns while she hovered the carpet, her favourite was ‘When I survey the wondrous cross.’
In our family we were the oldest and the youngest: Jessie looked after me a lot and I adored her. Together we watched Googie Withers in Within These Walls on Saturdays while my parents were in the pub and we danced to Shakin Stevens when he was on Tops of the Pop. As an adult, chapel days forgotten, she took on the world with refreshing irreverence. She swore, drank beer and played elaborate practical jokes. One time she made me an apple pie bed and filled it with cutlery that she’d chilled in the fridge beforehand. She was a great teller of stories too. When I read Roots, Alex Haley’s 1976 account of the origins of his African American family, I was fascinated by the role of the griot, the keeper of a family, or tribe’s, oral tradition, because it perfectly described Jessie. This is why I was surprised when I saw the pasty recipe: because I hadn’t known it existed. People hardly ever wrote anything down in our family and recipes, like Jessie’s stories, existed in memory only.