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.
Star Gazey Pie was created in Mousehole, Cornwall UK, where ‘Mousehole’ is pronounced as ‘Mow-Zul’
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.
Christmas was approaching and fish was the main source of food. The villagers were facing starvation but Tom Bawcock decided to brave the storm.
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.
On Newquay’s Towan Headland, thought to have been built in the 14th century, there stands a huers hut.
Huers Hut Towan Headland, Newquay, Cornwall
Pilchard seines nets were huge cotton nets with small mesh, in a horseshoe shape and were used in shallow waters. A cox and four oarsmen in 40 foot length rowboats, were used to set up the nets.
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).
Drawing of seine nets (Image courtesy of John McWilliams ©)
The ‘tucking’ process was very labour intensive and fishermen, boys and women were all involved.
Tucking of seine nets (Image courtesy of John McWilliams ©)
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)
And now for the most interesting bit , a photo of an unbaked a Star Gazey Pie.….
Here is the recipe and how you make it; go on, have a go!
454 grams (1 pound) of shortcrust pastry.
6 pilchards – or 8 large sardines gutted and filleted BUT with their heads left on and tail fins removed.
171 grams (6 ounces) of brown breadcrumbs
4 teaspoons single cream, and 4 table spoons chopped parsley.
Set the oven to 220 C or 425 F
Wash the fish and pat dry then open them out.
Make the stuffing with bread crumbs, cloves spice and pepper mixed with finely chopped onions bound together with beaten egg.
Fill the opened fish with stuffing. Close up, reshape and leave in a cool place.
Grease a flat pie-dish about 25.4 Cm. (10 inches) in diameter. Line with 113 grams (1/4 pound ) pastry.
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.
Bake for 15 minutes reduce heat to 180 C (350 F) and continue for a further 20 minutes until the pie is golden brown. (3)
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??
(2) Drawing of seine nets Image courtesy of John McWilliams ©
(3) ‘Favourite Cornish Recipes’ compiled by June Kittow
Below is a 1943 documentary about pilchard netting and life in Mousehole during the Great War era. (2)