If you were offered fairmaids or mahogany would you have any idea of what you were getting?
Even in Cornwall, where these delicacies were once popular, few people today know what they are. Years ago, however, fairmaids were an important part of Cornish folk’s diet and mahogany was a favourite drink, especially with the fishermen. Fairmaids were pilchards and they provided the main food for many a poor Cornishman and his family in one form or another. Pilchards chopped with raw onions and salt was a common dish. Pilchards and potatoes were the main meal of the day for many Cornish families, while stargazey pie was a common sight on Cornish tables.
The pie consisted of whole pilchards stood upright in a pie dish. The heads, although inedible, were not cut off because otherwise the rich oil they contained would have been wasted. The fish were stood upright so that the oil could run down into the fish meat. However, it was considered extravagant to cover inedible material with pastry so the fish heads were poked out through the pastry pie cover. The result, a pie with fish heads gazing at the stars! (Hence the name.)
Pies were very popular in Cornwall years ago, but usually only the wealthy had meat or poultry pies. Vegetable pies were common, especially potato and leek or stewed potato and turnip pies. Occasionally scraps of meat were used but normally any meat content consisted of offal, giblets, nattlin, (the entrails of sheep or calves), and muggety, (entrails of pigs). Pies were well flavoured with salt, pepper and parsley. Taddago pies, made from prematurely born suckling pigs, and lammy pies, made from stillborn lambs, were sometimes enjoyed by country people as a treat! There is a legend that the devil refused to set foot in Cornwall because it was so well known that the Cornish folk made pies from anything that they could find, that he was afraid of being turned into a squab pie!
Many Cornish working people, especially the miners, were so poor that their main diet was turnip (swede). They either boiled it or fried it using the tallow from their candles. Alternatively, they had gruel made from barley meal. An example of what might have been a day’s menu in Cornwall years ago shows a considerable difference from today. Breakfast was often skilly – scalded milk and barley bread, or it might be sky blue and sinkers. This dish was made as follows. A pan of water was put on to boil while a small amount of barley flour was mixed with scalded milk in another basin. The mixture was added to the boiling water to simmer for a few minutes, then it was poured into basins containing sops of barley bread. The bread was so hard that it stayed on the bottom of the basin, (sinkers), while the mixture on top had a sky-bluish tinge. Most working Cornishmen took croust with them for their mid-morning meal.
Common items were slices of barley bread – a coarse unleavened bread – thinly spread with treacle, or there was a large lump of unleavened dough into which a very small piece of green pork was baked. Originally Cornish pasties were said to have probably been black barley crust into which was baked either potatoes, turnips or leeks. The Cornish pasty with which we are familiar today is a relatively recent development. Pasties taken for croust in the old days rarely contained meat. Like the pies, the fillings varied according to what was available. The tale is told how one good Cornish wife made an unusual pasty for her husband who regularly got drunk and smashed crockery. She became so fed up with him doing this that she baked him a pasty filled with broken china! After his first crunching bite, he took the hint and apparently never smashed the crockery again! Of course, pasties had to be tough to withstand being carried about out in the fields, around the claypits and even down in the mines.
Another story says that one Cornish miner married a cook from a grand house. He went proudly to work with the first pasty she had made him. That evening she asked if it had been all right. To her surprise her husband said it was too good. It had broken into fragments by the time he reached his post underground! His mother’s pasties had never done that! If a man went home for lunch, if he were lucky, he might have got pilchards and potatoes. Supper might have consisted of barley cakes or some variety of pie, but often there was no supper to be had.
Sunday lunch for many Cornish families consisted of broth made mainly of rooties, (root vegetables) but occasionally flavoured with small scraps of meat or fat bacon. It was not unknown for snails to be used to flavour the broth. If the ingredients were available, then suet dumplings were included in the broth to make the meal more substantial. A sweet course was a rarity in the days of real poverty for the majority of Cornish folk but on the rare occasion when there was one the most common sweet was fuggan or heavy-cake. This was made from two cups of flour, two ounces of fat and a handful of currants with a little water or milk. The mixture was rolled out into square or oval slabs, the top marked diagonally with a knife, (to look like a fishing net – the name coming from the fishing shout “Hevva”). It was then baked for half an hour.
Saffron cakes and buns were a speciality for the luckier people. The old Cornish saying is – “Dear as saffron”. According to an old Cornish custom, saffron cake should only be eaten indoors. There was also figgy obbin, a currant pudding, or roly-poly pudding which were boiled, either in a basin or a bag. Tarts were made from any fruit available, including wild fruit. Tea was far too expensive for the average working-class Cornish family to buy so they made their own brands of tea using leaves from numerous plants. Wines, too, were made from many flowers, fruit, vegetables, and even oak leaves. The popular drink mahogany was made from two parts gin and one-part treacle. Few Cornish people years ago were likely to exclaim “food glorious food!” – but it was their custom to say grace before and after their meals. Perhaps the following two delightful graces portray how bad their meals could be. One grace used before the meal was: “Lord, make us able to eat what’s upon table.” A grace said when they gave thanks afterwards was: “The Lord be praised, our stummicks be aised!” When we consider the many different things that we eat and drink in Cornwall today, I doubt if many people would want to go back to having the sort of diet many Cornish folk survived on years ago. However, many items such as pasties and saffron and heavy cake continue to be enjoyed today while fairmaids and mahogany are probably rarely sought after.