English Stargazy Pie Dons A Crown Of Sardines

You're probably familiar with Goldfish crackers, the snack that smiles back — but what about stargazy pie, the dish with glaring fish? This savory pastry has an incredibly surprising appearance to those unfamiliar with it. A classic Christmas dish in Cornwall, England — which is also home to the famous Cornish pasty – the stargazy pie uses a run-off-the-mill list of ingredients and would be rather unassuming if it didn't contain whole fish poking out of the crust.

The filling of this pie uses hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, and fish, and its crusty topping is punctuated by the glassy-eyed heads of cooked pilchards, the British name for local sardines. In some versions, the spiky tails of the fish also poke through the short-crust pastry. The fish are supposed to appear as though they are gazing at the stars, giving the pie its name, and some chefs claim that there's also a culinary advantage to this strange presentation. Even though the heads themselves are inedible, they contain plenty of rich fat and flavorful oil, which bubbles up and soaks into the crust as the pie bakes. This makes the pie more rich and tasty. So how did this signature dish come to be, and why is it an essential piece of Cornish Christmas fare? 

A Cornish Christmas tradition

The tale of stargazy pie begins in Mousehole, a small Cornish village with plenty of fables and legends woven into its history. One hero of Mousehole lore is Tom Bawcock, a fisherman said to have lived in the 16th century. In the classic tale of his heroism, stormy weather had plunged the village into a time of dire famine. As Christmas approached, Bawcock took to the stormy seas, braving the weather and returning with plenty of fish to feed the hungry people. 

Legend holds that his miraculous catch was baked into one enormous pie, with the fish left whole and their heads piercing through the shortcrust to celebrate the return of fish to Mousehole. This story would go on to inspire a beloved British children's book, "The Mousehole Cat," which gives at least half of the credit for the fish haul to Tom Bawcock's cat, Mowzer. Even more importantly, this classic tale would become the inspiration for a Mousehole tradition held every December 23rd: Tom Bawcock's Eve.  

Celebrating Tom Bawcock's Eve

As early as the 1950s, Tom Bawcock's Eve has remained an annual celebration in the village of Mousehole. Held at the only pub in Mousehole, the Ship Inn, the event stars stargazy pie, served by a local dressed as Bawcock, beard and all. The whole village, plus plenty of tourists, come together to enjoy the iconic pie, and although it's free to attend, donations for the feast are encouraged. As visitors dine on the distinctly Cornish dish, they also sing the official anthem of the event: "Tom Bawcock's Eve," a folk tune set to the melody of a Cornish song called "Wedding March."

Further holiday delights can be found outside of The Ship Inn, as much of Mousehole will be lit with festive lights, including a giant stargazy pie design that debuted in 2019. Soon, Christmas Eve will arrive, with more merriment to follow. Still, it's tough to top the truly unique, fish-filled revelry of Tom Bawcock's Eve and its famous fishy pie.