Have you ever heard of Star Gazey Pie? Me, neither, but soon after their marriage, my Dad, from Cornwall, asked my Mum, from Devon, to make him a Star Gazey pie. I think it was a sneaky request as she had absolutely no idea what he was talking about and I think he knew that!
The main ingredients are Pilchard – or Sardines – a small, tasty fish high in omega 3 oils. Today we buy them in tins, submerged in water, tomato sauce or mustard. In England, we usually serve them on hot buttered toast.
A legendary character by the name Tom Bawcock appears to have been a local fisherman in the 16th century, and according to the legend one winter was extremely stormy and the fishermen could not leave the harbour to fish.
He safely returned with enough fish to feed the entire village and the whole catch was baked into a pie, which was named ‘Star Gazey Pie’ in his honour, and is now a festival called “Tom Bawcock’s Eve” held on the 23rd of December. (1)
Pilchard, or sardines were fished using ‘seine nets’ all around the coastline of Cornwall and in the early days of fishing the seine nets used were large and very expensive, so they were owned only by the wealthy noblemen.
The shoals appeared in late summer and autumn in North Cornwall following warm currents and planktonic food. The shoals were so huge, the fish could be seen from the cliff tops. ‘Huers’ were employed to keep watch and when the enormous shoals were spotted the Huers would shout ‘HEVVA!’ and alert the village into action.
Then, the ‘stop net’ was set, this was a smaller wall of net, which trapped the fish in shallow water. This net would be hauled until the fish were now in a smaller, concentrated area. The fish were then scooped out of the shallow water into baskets. (See the drawing below).
This way of fishing was used for hundreds of years until the late 1890’s when the fishing industry begun to decline. The seine nets were hugely expensive, and if a fisherman wanted to be his own boss, he used the smaller drift nets, which became the mainstay of pilchard fishing. During the First World War motors began to be installed which was safer and much more practical.
However, by the 1970’s pilchard fishing ceased in Cornwall, until the 1990’s when an enterprising skipper began experimenting with ring netting for pilchards. Others followed and once again there is a thriving industry in pilchards or, as they are now known, Cornish Sardines. (2)
Arrange the stuffed fish like the spokes of a wheel with their heads on the fin and tails in the centre. Cover with hard boiled eggs, cream parsley and pepper; finish with the rest of the pastry and pinch the two layers firmly together between the heads but roll back the pastry round the heads to reveal their eyes gazing starwards. Brush with beaten egg.
The baked Star Gazey Pie.
And, no, I have not baked one myself, however, I think I may now have to try. However, when I asked the family, their response was not the most enthusiastic! I wonder why??