The traditional food of Cornwall is shaped by her heritage. Many of the dishes, treats and specialities of traditional Cornish food come from the history of England’s most southerly county. Cornwall’s mining and fishing history provide for some of the county’s unique food, drinks and dishes. Some of Cornwall’s gastronomic specialities have their own Protected Geographic Indication and it’s these typical dishes that you should try while visiting Cornwall. Come and experience some fantastic traditional Cornish cuisine – from Cornish Pasties to Stargazy Pie, to Clotted Cream Teas and Cornish fairings. Read on and find out more about the food and drink that make Cornwall so special.
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Experiencing the traditional, typical food of a county gives you a much greater understanding of the area – especially in a place like Cornwall, where the traditional foods are so tied to the history and heritage. You’ll find dishes and specialities that were designed specifically for those who lived here to be able to eat well with the available foodstuffs. Cornwall’s food history is long and varied and you’ll find a lot of traditional southwest foods and many Cornish recipes – and we’ll share what food Cornwall is famous for and what forms the basis of Cornish food. So come on, join us and explore what to eat and drink in Cornwall and find out how to make some of these famous Cornish dishes at home.
The Best Traditional Cornish Food to Try in Cornwall
Traditional food from Cornwall all has a story and I’ve tried to encapsulate those stories here in this article – to explain why these particular dishes are tied to Cornwall and what makes them uniquely Cornish.
The Cornish Pasty
Since 2011 the traditional Cornish pasty has had Protected Geographical Indication status in Europe. There’s more on what that means here. The Cornish Pasty is the food that’s most associated with Cornwall and it accounts for 6% of the Cornish food economy by itself! A traditional Cornish pasty is a savoury dish – although you’ll find all sorts of variations as you travel through Cornwall, accounting for all types of tastes. While the type of pastry used is not specifically defined, it is most usually shortcrust pastry, but the colour of the baked pastry should be golden and it should not crack during baking. The contents of a traditional Cornish pasty are beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (although swede is often called turnip in Cornwall) and onion along with salt and pepper seasoning.
Pasties have been around since 1393, the word comes from the French “paste” or “Pasta” meaning a pie with whatever ingredients you want inside it, but no dish. A pasty – pastry stuffed with mainly vegetables and cheap cuts of meat was a good cost-effective way of creating a filling meal.
The term – Cornish pasty – has been in use since the 1860s at least, when it was referenced by James Halliwell in his 1861 book, Rambles in Western Cornwall in the footsteps of the Giants when he said “Cornish pasties are very popular with the working classes in this neighbourhood, and have lately been successfully introduced into some parts of Devonshire. They are made of small pieces of beef, and thin slices of potatoe, highly peppered, and enclosed in wrappers of paste.”
Cornish pasties originated as a portable lunch option for miners, farmers and fishermen to take to work. A pasty was made for each household member, with their initials on one end of the pasty. The pasties were carried to work in tin buckets which were heated by burning a candle underneath them. The thick pastry edges were thrown away after the inner bits of the pasty had been eaten to prevent the men from being poisoned by tin or copper dust on their hands.
So where are the best Cornish pasties in Cornwall? Well, it’s not a particularly touristy spot, but the hot counter at the Philip Warren Butchers in Launceston is the best I’ve ever tasted. The butchers are famous for supplying quality meat to many top London (and local) restaurants and you’ll find them here: 1 Dunheved Court, Pennygillam Way, Launceston PL15 7ED. Why not pick up a pasty and take a picnic to Launceston Castle?
Cornish Pilchards aka Cornish Sardines
Humans have lived in Cornwall for thousands of years and fish and seafood has been a source of food since the beginning. The oldest large scale documented fishery in Cornwall is the Pilchard fishery. These small oily little fish used to be caught using “seine” nets. Pilchard seine nets were huge, made of cotton with a small mesh. They were deployed in a horseshoe shape around a shoal of pilchards. The bottom rope was weighted to keep it on the seabed and the top rope used cork floats to keep it on the surface. Traditionally these nets could only be used in shallow water, close to shore. Special double-ended seine boats were used to take the net out and position it, then the ropes and nets were tucked in and pulled together. (That’s a very short way of explaining it, this is a much better explanation of how seine fishing works.) Sardines in Portugal are still caught in this way – you can see them in locations such as Praia de Mira, although they used tractors to pull in the nets now!
This process of catching what was the mainstay of the Cornish fishing industry was hugely labour intensive, and the chances were if you didn’t work down a mine in the 18th and 19th century in Cornwall, then you worked in this industry. Once caught, the pilchards were processed in pilchard cellars. (If you want to see an old Pilchard Cellar in Cornwall, then Church Cove cottage here and Carolina Cellar in Port Quin are great examples. Pilchards were pressed – to get valuable fish oil out of them, then salted and packed into barrels for storage or export. Rome, Italy was a big export market, where Cornish Pilchards are STILL considered a delicacy!
The peak of the Pilchard industry in Cornwall was in the 1920s after which the industry went into decline and stopped altogether in 1970. That was until 1990, when Martin Ellis, a skipper from Cadgwith began experimenting using ring netting to catch pilchards. In 1997, after significant amounts of market research, the Cornish Pilchard was rebranded as the Cornish Sardine and a resurgence began.
The BEST way to eat Cornish Sardines is when they’re fresh, on the barbecue or grill inside a fresh bread roll. Mmmmm. Cornish sardines are in season during January, February, July, August, September, October, November and December. If you can’t get to Cornwall during Sardine season, then consider trying Cornish sardines out of a tin in either oil or tomato sauce – it’s a Moorish taste that’s well worth trying!
Cornish Stargazy Pie
One of the most famous ways to eat Cornish Pilchard aka Cornish Sardines is in a Stargazy pie. This traditional Cornish dish hails from Mousehole (pronounced Muzzel) and is eaten by tradition on December 23rd – also known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve.
A Stargazy – or Starrey Gazey Pie is a pie made of baked eggs, potatoes and pilchards (aka Cornish Sardines) covered in a pastry crust. The pie is unique because a stargazy pie has the fish heads – and sometimes the tails – stick out through the pastry crust – gazing, as it were to the stars.
Legend has it that in one winter in the 16th century the weather was particularly bad in the fishing village of Mousehole – so bad that none of the fishing boats had been able to leave the harbour and as a result, the villagers were slowly starving, being reliant primarily on fish for their diet. A local fisherman, Tom Bawcock, braved the storms, headed out in his boat and caught enough food to feed the entire village. On his return, the entire catch was baked into a pie for the entire village – the heads were left poking out to prove that it contained fish!
Since the 1950’s Tom Bawcock’s Eve has been rolled into the Christmas celebrations in Mousehole – and on December 23rd, the villages parade a large Stargazy pie along with a large procession of handmade lanterns through the village before digging into the pie.
I don’t know whether it’s the best stargazy pie in the world, but you’ll usually find that the Ship Inn in Mousehole has Stargazy pie on the menu as you’d expect.
Fish and Chips
Fish and Chips is often considered Britain’s national dish. (I know, I know, that Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, or Chicken Tikka Massala are too, but stay with me on this!) Cornwall isn’t even anywhere near the location of the first Fish and Chip shops in Britain (those were in London and Lancashire), but it is near the supply of fresh fish. And there is something reassuringly British about having a battered fish and chips takeaway while you’re visiting Cornwall.
While Fish and Chips originated in England, it actually came from immigrant communities in the country. Battered and fried fish came from Sephardic Jews who immigrated from Holland – they originally came from Portugal and Spain and prepared their fish by coating them in flour and frying in oil. Fried fish warehouses were mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and Dickens also mentions “husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil” in a Tale of Two Cities in 1859.
Fish and Chips were actually safeguarded by the UK Government during World War I and were originally sold as a takeaway meal wrapped in sheets of old newspapers. Today’s Fish and Chips are sold in plain paper, cardboard or (horrors) – plastic!
Where to find the best Fish and Chips in Cornwall is a subject of much debate. Fry Magazine announced the Best Fish and Chip shops every year, and in 2021 there were two in Cornwall that made the list (read more here). We’ve had some great Fish and Chips in Cornwall – the best in 2021 was from Archie’s in St. Stephens, St Austell (check out our guide to the best things to do in St Austell here) – and we’ve had some truly not very nice Fish and Chips in Cornwall – the worst and by far the most expensive were from a big name outfit in Padstow. (there’s more on Padstow and food here) My only advice is to read recent reviews of Cornwall’s Fish and Chip shops and let me know what your favourite is!
Cornish Crab – from Newlyn
Crab is landed all over Cornwall, but it’s Newlyn – home to Cornwall’s largest fishing fleet – that is most famous for Cornish Crab. (you’ll see Newlyn mentioned in Lamorna Ash’s award-winning book, Dark, Salt, Clear – life in a Cornish fishing town – just one of our favourite Cornish books).
The crab that you’ll most often get here is known as Cornwall Pasty Crabs or brown crabs. They have a pasty shaped shell with flavourful brown meat in the body and delicately flavoured white meat in the legs and claws.
You can find and eat Cornish brown crab all year round, but they’re at their best in the winter months. Brown crab stocks are relatively healthy here in Cornwall and the majority are caught using crab pots, which is a low impact fishing method. Be sure when you’re buying crab to look for crabs that are “local pot caught crabs” – the best are those that are caught using pots from inshore waters – which means within Cornwall’s 6-mile limit.
You’ll find crab sandwiches throughout Cornwall and I’d recommend trying that, or a crab soup. You’ll tend to find that it’s the white meat that goes into crab sandwiches, but it’s the more flavoursome brown meat that goes into soups and stocks.
Saffron Buns and Saffron Cake
Saffron is known as one of the world’s most precious and expensive spices. It originates from a specific type of crocus flower, the crocus sativus, which was originally grown in Greece, but is today primarily found in Iran, Greece, Morocco, India.. and now Cornwall (more on Cornish Saffron shortly).
Saffron is expensive because each crocus flower produces only three stigmas of saffron and the flower only blooms for one week each year. Saffron stigmas must be harvested by hand in the mid-morning to ensure the flowers are closed to protect the stigma. Around 1,000 flowers will produce about 30 grams of Saffron. You’ve probably eaten Saffron in Boullabaisse or Paella, Risotto or even some fish marinades. So what, I hear you say, does this have to do with Cornwall and how is Saffron an integral part of Cornish culture?
It was in pre-Roman times that tin and copper mined in Cornwall was traded with the Phoenicians of North Africa – often in return for Saffron. The name “Britain” actually comes from the Phoenician name “Baratanac”, meaning “Land of Tin”. Saffron was also historically grown in the milder climates of Cornwall and Devon. (and since 2014, it has been grown again in Cornwall, on the Roseland Peninsular by the Cornish Saffron Company)
A saffron bun or a Cornish tea treat bun is also known as a Cornish revel bun. These were baked for special occasions, feasts – revels – or even the dedication of a church. They’re a rich, spiced, yeasty sweet bun, they contain dried fruits such as currants and raisins, rather like a teacake. And they were traditionally flavoured and coloured with Saffron. (You might find today that this is artificial, due to the cost of Saffron). Larger versions of Saffron Buns baked in a loaf tin are known as Saffron Cakes.
Hevva Cake aka (incorrectly) Cornish Heavy Cake
The word Hevva comes from the Old Cornish language word “hedva”, which in turn comes from the Welsh “hedfa”, which means swarming or flocking. (as, you know, in terms of a swarm of bees). In Cornwall, the word “Hevva” was used by a lookout (or “huer” in old Cornish) located on the Cornish cliffs, when a shoal of Pilchards was sighted. Cornish Pilchards – as you might have read in the section above – were traditionally caught by seine nets, pulled out by boat crew and dragged back into shore.
You can still see a huer’s hut on the Towan Headland in Newquay – it’s thought to have been originally built in the 14th Century. The name “huer” comes from the same derivation as “hue and cry” – you know that too – when people raise a hue and cry because they’ve seen a thief and everyone chases the person. The huers didn’t just rely on shouting when they spotted a shoal of pilchards which was indicated usually by a change in the colour of the water to a reddish dark brown, and the obvious sign of lots of seabirds diving into the water after the fish. The huers also used a trumpet-like instrument to make a lot of noise and two ”bushes” waved like semaphores to signal the news. These bushes were originally gorse bushes covered in white cloth.
Right, so the hevva cake then.
The correct name of this cake is the Hevva cake. It’s not, as is often interpreted, the Cornish Heavy Cake – that’s more a mishearing than anything else, but I can understand why – the accent, and also the fact that cakes are pretty darned heavy too!
A Cornish hevva cake is made of flour, lard, butter, milk, sugar and raisins and it does have its origins in Cornwall. You’ll read some reports that hevva cakes were made by the huers when they returned from alerting the fishing boats. As most huers were male, I’m not convinced by this, suspecting that it’s more likely that their wives, daughters or other female members of the household created the magic that is the hevva cake, but I’m still looking for further evidence!
Hevva cakes are about 1.5 centimetres thick and are marked with a criss-cross pattern on the top to represent the fishing nets.
A Cornish fairing is a sweet, spicy ginger biscuit made from flour, caster sugar and butter mixed with ginger, cinnamon, golden syrup and mixed spices. If you’re a biscuit connoisseur then you could liken them to ginger biscuits or ginger nuts, but softer and more delicately flavoured. The name “Fairing” comes from a term when edible treats were sold at country fairs – this goes back to the 1100s! and the name has come to be associated with ginger biscuits given as treats to sweethearts or children. There wasn’t anything remotely Cornish about them until 1866 when John Cooper Furniss began selling them from his tea room in Truro after baking them in his Truro bakery. They became so popular that he began selling them by mail order. Furniss expanded his business, Furniss foods to incorporate other varieties of Fairings (the orange and lemon is my personal favourite) and while the Furniss Foods company ran into financial difficulties in the 2000’s the business was bought by Proper Cornish and continues to produce and supply Cornish Fairings alongside other Cornish food products.
Cornish Fairings are a great Cornish food option to take home with you.
Cornish Clotted Cream
The origin of clotted cream is not definitive, however, it is most commonly associated with the South West region of Devon and Cornwall. The largest commercial producer of clotted cream in the UK is Rodda’s of Redruth, Cornwall. Their facilities can produce 25 tonnes of clotted cream in a single day!
Clotted cream is a thick, highly calorific cream (more than 500 calories per 100ml!) that is made by indirectly heating full-cream cows milk and then leaving it to cool slowly. This makes the cream content rise to the top and form “clots” or “clouts” (In history, clotted cream is sometimes referred to as “clouted cream”.) Clotted cream has an extremely high-fat content – a minimum of 55%, but an average of 64%. That’s compared to single cream which has a fat content of 18% and full-fat milk is about 4%. The remaining watery liquid, something like skimmed milk was used for making scones, or for drinking. Clotted cream often has a cooked milk, sometimes nutty flavour with often a crusted surface due to how it is prepared. In Cornwall, the unique slightly yellow colour comes from the high levels of carotene in the grass that the dairy cows feed on.
Clotted cream may have been introduced to Cornwall by Phoenician traders who were looking for tin (and were trading saffron for tin too). The method of clotting cream was also used to preserve buffalo milk – and its treatment in this way, the removal of the watery liquid leaving only mainly butterfat meant that the growth of organisms that would spoil the milk would be slowed down or stopped. However it came about it was a way of reducing the waste from milk – and keeping it usable for longer.
In 1998 Cornish clotted cream was registered as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) under European Union law. It was also registered under UK law. The PDO indicates that Cornish clotted cream must be made from milk produced in Cornwall and must have a minimum butterfat content of 55%.
While you’ll find all manner of products containing Cornish clotted cream – from butter to ice cream, biscuits and fudge, but the most famous is the Cornish Cream Tea.
The Cornish Cream Tea
A Cornish Cream tea is a simple premise. A fresh scone (it can be plain or fruited) is sliced in half, spread with a slather of good strawberry jam and then a generous dollop of clotted cream is added. And that’s the way to eat a Cornish Cream Tea. Try the same in neighbouring county Devon and it’s the cream that goes on first. As Nick Rodda, Managing Director of the Redruth based Rodda’s clotted cream company (and Great-Great Grandson of the founders Thomas and Eliza Jane Rodda), says “We always put our cream on top because we are proud of it, Devonians are slightly ashamed of theirs, so they cover it up with their jam.”
Cornwall is a fabulous location for dairy products. That’s because the climate is really too wet and the soil is generally too poor for many arable crops. (although you’ll find lots of daffodils growing here) However, this type of climate and soil combination is ideal for growing grass that supports the production of cows for dairy products. So as well as the more famous Clotted Cream product this has led to an abundance of local Cornish cheese. There are around 60 types of Cornish Cheese. However, it’s not just cow milk that is used for Cornish cheese, you’ll also find Cornish goats cheese and Cornish sheep milk cheese too.
We recommend trying any cheese you can get your hands on (heck, we’re cheese lovers here), but especially the
Cornish Blue Cheese
Cornish Blue cheese is made by the Cornish Cheese company. Thie blue cheese from Cornwall is designed to be eaten as a young cheese and is very different to other English blue cheese – it is mild and creamy rather than somewhat salty and harsher. It’s easy to add into cooking, as it doesn’t overpower other flavours in the same way that perhaps Stilton does.
Cornish Yarg cheese is probably the best known of cheeses made in Cornwall. The recipe is reputed to date back to the 13th century, revived by Allan and Jenny Gray in the 1960s. The name Yarg comes from their own name spelt backwards. Cornish Yarg is a cow’s milk cheese wrapped in nettle leaves, which creates an edible rind on the semi-hard cheese. You won’t get stung by the nettles as the sting is removed by freezing the nettle leaves first. The exclusive producer of Cornish Yarg is found at Pengreep Farm near Truro – Lynher Dairies.
There are several types of Cornish Brie. My favourite is St Endellion Brie – it’s made from vegetarian rennet and full-fat Cornish milk with added double cream. It’s super creamy and absolutely gorgeous. (If you can’t get to Cornwall you can often find St Endellion Cornish Brie in Asda or Waitrose. St Endellion Brie is made at the Cornish Country Larder at Trevarrian near Newquay by the Gaylard family
Cathedral City Cheddar and Davidstow Cheddar
Both of these cheese are available throughout the UK in supermarkets, but they’re also both made in Cornwall at the Davidstow Creamery with milk from Devon and Cornwall within a 50-mile radius of the creamery. Davidstow has neither city nor cathedral status but the Cathedral City logo and brand uses images of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, which is where the original owners, Mendip Foods, were based. The recipe however is a 25-year-old recipe still used after the owners of both Davidstow Cheddar and Cathedral City bought Cathedral city in 1995.
Cornish Gouda is a relative newcomer to the Cornish cheese scene. The Dutch Spierings family moved to Cornwall in 1998 to start dairy farming, but after years of poor milk prices couldn’t’ make a living. Their youngest son, Giel returned from college in 2012 and began the production of Cornish Gouda, creating a viable business model. The cheeses are made by hand using traditional Dutch techniques. The business model isn’t just viable, it’s a fabulously eco-friendly model. All the cheese is made using milk produced by the Spierings family pedigree herd. The herd is born and reared o the farm and is fed by crops grown on their land. All the cheese production is powered by a biomass boiler which is fed from sustainable forestry. If you’re lucky enough to find some of their Extra-Mature Gouda in stock, then you MUST buy it – the 18-month matured cheese is amazing.
Travel Tips for Exploring Cornwall
BOOK ACCOMMODATION IN CORNWALL
- Sykes Cottages for fabulous holiday homes
- Holiday Cottages for great holiday cottages
- Glorious places to stay with Rural Retreats.
- Booking.com for hotels & B&B.s
Read about Cornwall in these incredible books
Here’s how to get to Cornwall
Book the best tours and guides on GetYourGuide
Book Trains & Buses with Omio
Check Megabus timetables and fares to Cornwall here.
Rent a Car with Discover Cars
Never get lost with the Ordnance Survey Maps App
Final Words on the Best Traditional Cornish Food
Delve a little into the traditional food of Cornwall and you get something of a history lesson in the heritage of Cornwall. Here you’ll find many of Cornwall’s traditions and a glimpse into the industrial and fishing heritage that shaped the Cornwall that we know today. The contemporary cuisine of Cornwall receives rave reviews too – and you’ll find some of Britain’s top chef’s making their names known in the county. So whether you try the Stargazy Pie or stick to Cornish pasties, and whether you take your clotted cream in ice cream on a scone or just as is, we hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to the best traditional Cornish food!
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