Who would have thought that producing perfect pasties could lead to better GCSE grades and a lucrative career? Cornish teachers, that's who. Nick Morrison enjoys a bite of the action
When it comes to looking for local illustrations of manufacturing, Cornwall does not appear to be awash with examples. There may be plenty of scope to look at tourism, fishing and mining - or, at least, its mining heritage - but manufacturing businesses have traditionally been rather thin on the ground. But, the county can boast one product that is celebrated around the world, and its manufacture is now making up part of an applied GCSE course for hundreds of pupils: the Cornish pasty.
A 12-week programme, put together by Fowey Community College, in conjunction with the Proper Cornish Food Company, covers the entire pasty process, from inception to marketing, via sourcing ingredients, assembling the pasty and trialling the finished product.
And pupils are set the challenge of coming up with their own variation on the meat and potato filling, with the prospect of seeing their version on sale in the school canteen.
Natalie Saenz, head of technology at Fowey, says the course came out of links with Proper Cornish, which included visits to its factory in nearby Bodmin, for students on the applied GCSE in manufacturing course.
"It can be quite a problem finding suitable businesses in Cornwall, because there doesn't seem to be that much manufacturing going on," she says.
"Proper Cornish allowed us to visit the factory and set us a brief to produce different types of pasties. This offered pupils the chance to find out about the different manufacturing processes, as well as the control systems and quality checks."
She says pupils came up with flavours, ranging from a breakfast pasty - made up of sausage, bacon and egg - to a chicken curry version, making them in school before putting them through taste tests.
The competition to produce a new flavour pasty has spread to more than 20 secondary schools across Cornwall, with each school asked to select its best idea to go to a panel of judges at Proper Cornish at the end of this month.
The pupil who invents the winning filling will get an iPod Nano and Pounds 500-worth of catering equipment for their school, and will see their pasty go on sale in school canteens.
Dave Read, new product development manager at Proper Cornish, says the competition gives the county's pupils an opportunity to find out more about one of its best known exports.
"We're proud of Cornwall. We're part of the community and we want to put something back," he says. "Food manufacturing is such a big industry but it has a reputation for being a bit secretive, with companies guarding their recipes closely.
"We want to give the children a chance to see how things work in real life.
Everybody goes to the supermarket and sees all these products, but without knowing how they got there. The resource pack works through the process from the initial concept, samples, making alterations to get the flavours and shape right, then working out marketing, packaging and all the legal side, right through to launching it. We want to bring life into the lesson, instead of it being a paper exercise."
And he says there could be spin-off benefits for the company, which employs more than 160 people and produces 50,000 pasties a day.
"People don't appreciate the opportunities there are to work in food manufacturing," he adds. "We hope they will think about the different areas, from product development, engineering, food safety to transport, processing and sales, and perhaps some of them could come to us when they're ready."
Fowey's involvement with Proper Cornish has whetted its appetite to form links with other manufacturers, and it now runs programmes with a printing company and an electronics firm, among others.
"It is one thing to teach out of a textbook, and there are a lot of resources around, but if you can see it at work it makes a huge difference," says Natalie, a lead practitioner in technology for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. "The children still talk about when they went on the visits, and rather than just seeing it in a book they remember it for real."
A PASTY PRIMER
The origins of the pasty are unknown, but the first written reference is a recipe dating from 1746.
It is believed to have evolved to meet the needs of tin miners, providing a complete hot meal that could be held in the hand. The thick edges meant miners could eat it without consuming any of the dirt or arsenic on their fingers.
The traditional pasty filling is beef and potato, sometimes with onion and swede mixed in, although there is anecdotal evidence of two-course pasties, with meat at one end and fruit at the other.
Pasty makers differ over how a genuine pasty should be made: whether the ingredients should be mixed or laid in separately; whether short or rough pastry is ideal; whether the "crimp" joining the two sides should be at the top or the side.
But there is general agreement that none of the ingredients should be cooked before they are baked in the pastry. The pasty is also said to be the origin of the phrase, "oggie, oggie, oggie", when miners shouted for their pasties, also known as oggies.