A traditional Cornish pasty is miners’ food — a hand pie filled with beef, potatoes and onions, with a crust that could be used as a handle. (Most are similar in shape to an empanada.) Even the modern versions found at British chain pasty shops, which may have a lighter, flakier crust, still hew toward no-nonsense ingredients inside: steak and ale, cheese and onion, lamb and minty peas.
That's why the results of this weekend’s World Pasty Championships in Cornwall, England, came as a double shock. After judges rated more than 200 entries in professional, amateur and junior categories, the winner of the prestigious Open Savoury Company category was Vienna, Va.,’s Pure Pasty Co.
Not only was this the first time Americans have taken top honors at the seven-year-old international competition, but their prize entry contained barbecue chicken, sweet potato, zucchini, red pepper, sweet corn and, most improbably, pineapple.
“If you thought a great Cornish pasty was filled with meat, potatoes and other vegs in a crimped pastry, you’d be seriously mistaken, it appears,” sniffed the Daily Mail.
“Pasty containing pineapple voted among best in the world,” was the incredulous headline in the Daily Telegraph, which called pineapple “among the most controversial and divisive ingredients chefs can add.” It went on to report that the runner-up was a “vegan yellow Thai pasty” from a bakery in Cornwall before reminding presumably flummoxed readers that, “in previous years the category has been dominated by traditional British entries.”
Mike Burgess, the English-born owner of Pure Pasty Co., says all the hype about the pineapple is overblown. "It's a 10-ounce pasty," he explains by phone from England. "I did a quick calculation of the ingredients, and the pineapple content is like six percent of the whole thing."
Burgess hadn't expected to win, and if any of their four entries had placed, he thought it would have been the chicken masala pasty, which he thought had improved since winning praise from judges at the 2017 competition. When he met the local press after the ceremony, they asked about the ingredients in the barbecue chicken pasty. "I said, 'Well, there's dry rub on the chicken, and we make our own barbecue sauce … Oh, and there's a bit of pineapple as well,' and every journalist there, their eyes just lit up at the word 'pineapple.'"
The Daily Telegraph called for an interview while he was driving on the highway to his mother's house in Cheshire, "and they were totally focused on the pineapple thing. I told them that we wanted acid to lift the sweetness, and we also wanted to balance the spice. But then online, it was like, 'the Hawaiian pizza of the pasty world,' and I'm like, 'what the [expletive]?' Everyone's spoiling for a fight over it."
Burgess dismisses media fears that more avant garde pasties are replacing traditional flavors. "There's a traditional Cornish pasty side of the competition," he says, which use traditional ingredients such as beer, potato and rutabaga, and then there's the Open Savoury section, "where bakeries with chef talent can be creative, and have a go."
That's the natural place to put the Pure Pasty Co., which specializes in non-traditional flavors.
One of last year's contest entries was a riff on a reuben, with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, potatoes and caraway — "the judges slated it," Burgess says — and the shop's menu regularly features pasties inspired by Moroccan lamb, chicken tikki masala, and even "a proper lamb vindaloo." (All cost $8 to $9.)
The prize-winning barbecue chicken pasty is joining the full-time menu as of March 7, Burgess says, though the unexpected victory has the staff scrambling: He's in the U.K. for another week. His restaurant manager, who attended the ceremony, flew back to the U.S. today, and the restaurant's head chef, who designed the original recipe, is in Australia after spending the last four months serving as a chef on an Antarctic expedition.
"We're not a huge restaurant," Burgess says, but since stories have appeared online, "We're seeing a lot more foot traffic, and I don't want them to run out of" the barbecue chicken pasty.
Pure Pasty Co., 128-C Church St. NW, Vienna.
This post has been updated.