When it comes to unusual and unappetizing-looking holiday dishes, there are few treats out there that can compete with the Stargazy Pie, a pie with fish heads protruding through its crust appearing to be gazing skyward.
England is home to a variety of pies, from classics like apple pie and pork pie, to less known treats like steak and ale pie, or pot pie.
But none of these pastry treats can compete with the popular Stargazy Pie, when it comes to wow factor. No matter how elaborate your pie design is, as you just can’t beat half a dozen cooked sardine heads (and sometimes tails) sticking out from the hearty dough crust, looking towards the sky.
It looks delicious, doesn’t it?
So why would anyone ever think that sticking fish heads in a pie was a good idea?
Well, if you believe the legend behind Stargazy Pie, it was actually born out of necessity.
We are in Mousehole, Cornwall.
The legend explains that one winter had been particularly stormy, meaning that none of the fishing boats had been able to leave the harbour. As Christmas approached, the villagers, who relied on fish as their primary source of food, were facing starvation. On 23 December, a local fisherman, Tom Bawcock, decided to brave the storms and went out in his fishing boat. He came back with a legendary catch encompassing seven types of fish (sand eels, horse mackerel, pilchards, herring, dogfish, ling, a a seventh, unknown fish). Legend has it that the entire catch was baked into a giant pie, with the fish heads poking through the crust to prove that there were fish inside.
His feat has allegedly been celebrated every 23rd of December, at the The Ship Inn, in Mousehole, for hundreds of years. The yearly celebration, known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve, draws crowds to the local inn, where a giant Stargazy Pie is served to patrons for free. An older feast, held by the fishermen towards the end of December, included a pie cooked with different fish to represent the variety of catches the men hoped to achieve in the coming year. There is a possibility that Tom Bawcock’s Eve is an evolution of this festival.
But Tom Bawcock’s Eve isn’t the only time Stargazy Pie is made. There are plenty of variations of the pie that many chefs make, and it was even the winning dish on the 2007 season of the BBC’s Great British Menu show.
The main ingredient of Stargazy Pie is the pilchard (sardine), but mackerel or herring is sometimes used as a substitute. Some cooks believe that any white fish will work for the filling, but the sardine heads sticking out are essential for its presentation.
Stargazy Pie consists of a filling made from various types of fish baked with an herb mix and lemon zest. The whole thing is mixed with grated eggs, mashed potatoes and cream, and covered with a layer of Cornish pastry. The heads and tails are then stuck mouth-upwards into the pie, and the whole thing is cooked into the oven.
While some people simply add the pilchard heads merely as a decoration, some cooks claim that adding the whole fish makes the Stargazy Pie even better. Apparently, the horizontal position of the fish allows the oil it releases during cooking to drain into the pie, making it moist and more flavorful….
Images from web – Google Research