The girls in green were walking towards us, all innocence and feigned lightness of sprit. But I could see a faint red glow in the pasty they delivered, and a faint smile on their faces as they stepped backwards.
Julian slowly unsheathed his knife from the napkin and took aim. A strange, exotic, sweet aroma emanated from the fissure. I could smell danger.
Then, there was no more delaying. I took a bite. Briefly, I recognised familiar tastes and textures — a bit of meat here, a crunchy cube of veg there. And then the rush as the key ingredient, the bhut julokia chilli — said to be the strongest in the world — hit home.
I was one of 30 judges at the 2014 World Pasty Championships. Held at Cornwall’s Eden Project for the past two years, it had returned to the venue for its biggest event yet. Entrants from across Cornwall and the UK — and one American who’d flew over for the event — had baked 150 pasties across the professional, company and amateur categories — divided into junior and senior entries and subdivided into two flavour groups: classic Cornish pasty and Open Savoury.
Julian, who was from Newquay, had judged in 2013. He guided me through the canon of Cornish pasty law.
“No peas and no carrots. The meat should be skirt, or, if that’s not available, then chuck will do. It should be finely chopped. The pasty should be firm and crispy but moist inside. The shape should be even. The crimp should be on the side. ”
“That all sounds very serious,” I said.
“This event is like everything in Cornwall,” Julian replied. “It’s seriously tongue-in-cheek.”
In the Open Savoury category, however, there was carte blanche. The first pasty we got was from a junior entrant and contained chips, sausage and beans. We later received a buttery cheese-and-leek pasty and a very un-Cornish goat’s cheese pasty. They were delicious but caught me off guard — we’re programmed to expect pasties to offer up a certain flavour, and anything else surprises.
I saw neighbouring judges get a noodle pasty, a fish-filled pasty shaped like a fish, a Moroccan-style lamb pasty, a ‘D-Day’ pasty containing a mix of French and British ingredients, a mussel pasty, a cabbage pasty and a noxious-smelling liver pasty. Last year, there was a roadkill pasty, and every year there are full-breakfast pasties.
When the professional Cornish entries came, we focused on the task with renewed vigour. Julian began to wax lyrically about the peppery punch of a really fine pasty. Because this ancient snack predates fancy food — the pasty has its roots in agricultural Britain and was also popular with tin miners — it’s made without herbs or spices. Pepper is the only extra and it must enliven the potato and turnip — another ingredient essential to the classic Cornish.
As for the bhut jolokia pasty, it was actually rather tasty — and only a little bit painful. I’m now trying to sign up for this season’s chilli-eating festivals.