Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Pasty

It’s pronounced “pass-tee,” almost like “Patsy,” as in Kline, if you transposed the tee and the ess sounds. As a word, “pasty” has that awful problem of having a somewhat similar meaning as its similar-sounding cousin “pastry” while still being something completely different.

A pasty is nothing more than pastry with some sort of savory food tucked up inside. It is usually shaped like an empanada or a turnover, though it can also be rectangular or in the shape of a log.

The English will put just about anything inside a hefty butter crust: pork pie, minced pie, bakewell tart, beef Wellington, sausage roll, chicken of tarragon pie, and of course the pasty. You can find pasties with steak and Guinness, steak and kidney beans, beans and vegetables, vegetable and chicken, ham and peas. Just about the only thing I haven’t seen available in pasty form are baked beans, which the English prefer to slather on dry toast and eat for breakfast.

I for one am certainly not going to knock the English for their fine appreciation of pie crust at all meals. In the last two weeks, I’ve ventured to try two pasties, and I’m honestly on point try more; but fitting more pie into my daily routine has proven more difficult than I imagined.

When I do indulge here in London, it’s typically in the chocolate category, and something just feels wrong about munching down both a Cadbury bar and a pastry-wrapped hunk of stewed meat in the same day.

On a business trip up to Nottingham not long ago, I found myself in need of sustenance around 11:45 in the morning, a time when calling up a colleague for lunch is completely out of the question. So I popped into a horrid little chain called Greggs (think low-grade Dunkin Donuts, only with savory foods, too) and ordered a Cornish pasty, which they were predictably out of (in England, 99 percent of the time you can absolutely count on the fact that thing will not go according to plan).

I asked instead for a chicken pasty and scurried away with a hot little piece of something exciting warming my hands through a flimsy wax paper packet. I nibbled the first bite cautiously, as you would a hot dumpling from Chinese soup, and found that method to be in good form. Out dribbled some steaming whitish-grayish ooze. Upon further nibbles, I found the gray matter to be like chicken pot pie sauce, or badly made roux. With the hand-held pie cooling, I chomped a bit more and finally found three or four little hunks of chicken.

It was a somewhat underwhelming experience, eating all that shell and gravy to find less chicken then you would expect to find in a can of cat food. Still, it reminded me of the deep south in America, where people slop chicken gravy on their biscuits after church on Sunday.

The other pasty experience begins at this great Jewish bakery I’ve found up the road from my house in an area called Stamford Hill. The bakery is stellar, with black-and-whites, bagels, challah bread, and miniature doughnuts. Its downfall is that it’s closed on Fridays for Shavuot.

One day while walking by, I stuck my head in to see if there would be any enticing snacks for me to eat on the rest of my walk home. I love eating and walking at the same time. There were two pasty-looking things, one with potato and onions and one with Soya. I got the Soya. The pastry was the butteriest and flakiest thing I’ve ever eaten. It was light as air, but buttery to the touch. The Soya was scant and was all but lost in the elegance of the pastry.

From what I’ve gathered, Cornwall in particular is known for its pasties. Train travelers in the U.K. might recall having seen signs for a chain shop called West Cornwall Pasty Co., as they have a stall in nearly every major station in Britain. The next time I’m in Cornwall (or Victoria station for that matter) the pasty will be at the top of my list. Some sight-seeing …

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