Although some people may think stargazy pie belongs in a horror film, there’s a rather homely and quintessentially British history behind the dish.
This glorious monstrosity hails from Cornwall and features whole fish poking out of the pie’s crust. Kind of like a weird version of peekaboo.
And we’re here to celebrate it today, with its history deeply rooted in a small Cornish fishing village of yore.
What’s Stargazy Pie?
It’s a pasty-based fish pie. Whole pilchards are typically used, with the goal of ensuring their heads poke from the crust of the pie.
Thusly, the fish are emanating from the pie.
For some reason, the British Food Trust classifies the dish as fun and amusing for kids.
It’s kind of like the way UK education circles include Watership Down as mandatory viewing for kids.
But despite its often terrifying appearance, the recipe is apparently rather tasty. Like a fish pie, but with the fish gazing relentlessly at you whilst you eat them.
But this fish version isn’t something you’ll find nestling on the shelves of your local Greggs.
It’s more one of those quirky regional dishes that’s made its name by looking a bit on the demented side of things.
What’s the History of Stargazy Pie?
The tiny fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall is responsible for stargazy pie.
A local legend has it that the dish is served to celebrate Tom Bawcock (from the 16th century), who apparently was very brave.
Whether he existed or not is unclear. It’s kind of a Robin Hood type deal.
Locals now have what’s called Tom Bawcock’s Eve. It’s held on 23rd December in Mousehole, during which a massive version of stargazy pie is served.
Before the event, locals parade about with handmade lanterns. Then they consume the pie with much gusto and relish in the famous pub The Ship Inn.
Here’s one such event from the 1970s. As you can see, it gets pretty rowdy!
In 1963, the villagers set up local illuminations to add to the whole shindig. Some of the lights are representations of the fish sticking out of the pie.
There’s also a song to go with all this, naturally:
“Merry place you may believe, Tiz Mouzel ‘pon Tom Bawcock’s Eve,
To be there then who wouldn’t wesh, to sup o’ sibm soorts o’ fish,
When morgy brath had cleared the path, Comed lances for a fry,
And then us had a bit o’ scad an’ Starry-gazy pie,
As aich we’d clunk, E’s health we drunk, in bumpers bremmen high,
And when up caame Tom Bawcock’s name, We’d prais’d ‘un to the sky.”
We’re a funny old species us humans, aren’t we?
Local legend aside, it’s really just an excuse to have a bit of a piss-up. That and a celebration of the fishing village’s history, which clearly dates back many hundreds of years.
No one seems to know when the pie came to be. There’s so much mythology and legend around this recipe it’s become shrouded in mystery.
One local man, Jack Guard (aged 95 in a 2017 VICE interview), claimed his wife invented it in the 1960s. He said:
“My wife Dorothy made the first one. The Bowcock story is wonderful and it’s a great festival. I love seeing the kids on the harbour with their lanterns … Bowcock was around in the 1600s, so they say—some think it’s true, some don’t. But I remember the first Stargazy Pie. I was there, you see. It was at The Ship Inn—the landlord, Tom Mitchell, he was friends with my wife and said to her, ‘I’m thinking of starting something.’ That’s how it started. Dorothy and her friend made all these fish pies with egg and such, with the heads and tails all sticking out, and dished them out on December 23rd.”
Whether there’s any veracity behind that claim we don’t know.
But what Mr. Guard’s story does show is how deeply entrenched a tradition like this can become in society.
Whilst it might not be a nationally celebrated dish, for Mousehole’s locals the stargazy pie is a lively celebration of their past, present, and future.
How to Make Stargazy Pie
If you want to scare the bejeezus out of your friends and family sometime soon, why not have a go at this recipe?
The ingredients you’ll need includes:
500g shortcrust pastry
4 eggs (1 beaten to glaze, 3 hard boiled and roughly chopped)
7-8 pilchards gutted, cleaned, and boned (or an alternative fish)
150g white breadcrumbs
3-4 tablespoons of chopped parsley
1 lemon juiced (with rind)
1 chopped onion
Salt to season
Black pepper to season
150ml cider (if you fancy)
Yeah, cobble that lot together in your standard pie making way. Then layer the fish in so they’re protruding out and staring at you.
Then bake it in an oven! And have a festival about it if you fancy, too. Why the hell not?