Josephine Walbank. Photography by Anya Bryan
For centuries now, pasties have been the undisputed, iconic Cornish delicacy; crisp shortcrust pastry encasing a tempting combination of beef, potatoes, swede and onion. Charlie Choak, known locally as ‘The Pasty Bloke’, teaches the art of traditional pasty-making from his store in the heart of Falmouth. This year, JH&M Choak celebrates 70 years of trading and Josephine Walbank was given the task of finding out more about this quintessential Cornish treat…
Since he was just 5 years old, Charlie Choak has been making traditional Cornish pasties at the store his father founded back in 1948: JH&M Choak. As we sat in the storefront, with his dog Coco Chanel, we joked with the other members of staff and I watched on as a huge row of traditional steak pasties was being made. Throughout my visit, many locals popped in and out of the shop; stopping for a chat and leaving with their lunches in hand. The scene was quintessentially Cornish, and, true to form, it was clear that everybody present was very proud of that fact.
As we spoke, Charlie reminisced how it was his mother who first taught him to make pasties in the store; remembering how he had to stand on an up-turned bucket to even reach the counter. At just 14, he left school to divide his time between college and working with his father. Ever since, he’s been running the company and making pasties.
Very little has changed over the years and Charlie shows evident satisfaction in being able to state that the pasties have remained almost exactly the same over 70 years in trade. According to the professional pasty maker, the only real change that they have made is time-dependent, revolving around the types of meat used.
“When I started making pasties all those years ago, we used to use minced mutton. Bet you don’t even know what mutton is?” he laughs, “It was cheap rubbish really, but that’s what pasties were made of back then. Then we went to using minced meat, and now of course we use diced skirting (which is a cut of steak). It’s much better stuff, because now people want better quality, but they’re willing to pay for it. People don’t mind paying for quality these days. Pasties used to be cheap because people couldn’t really afford anything more, they were cheap things, so this has made a big difference.”
Pasties originated as a meal for workers to take with them to the tin mines, with the meal pre-wrapped, as it were, using the pastry. The classic thick crust was also, originally, meant to be discarded too, as its purpose was just to provide a way to not contaminate the food when holding it. Now, they are firmly established as a staple British food and a popular main meal choice. Pasties come in all shapes and sizes, with new variations of fillings and options to cater for veggies and vegans too.
When I asked about variants in the types of pasties that he’s made and sold over the years, Charlie told a surprising story. “We make corned beef ones sometimes!” he explained, “A friend of mine came up with the idea after he told me a story about his Grandparents. He said that just after the war, since you couldn’t get beef, people were having corned beef instead. His Gran used to make her own corned beef pasties for her husband, which he kept having even after the war. So, one day this friend goes to me, ‘Can I have a corned beef pasty?’ and I tried making one! People tried them and liked them for a while.”
In more recent years, Charlie has taken a step back from having an intensive involvement within the store. But about 10 years ago, his wife came up with the idea of starting to teach pasty-making, which soon became known as the ‘Pasty School’. The school provides a unique taste of Cornish tradition, and Cornwall’s tourism has, of course, had a huge impact upon this. “We get bus companies visiting in the summer and people of all ages come in”, Charlie told me, “Most of them just want to watch you make a proper pasty, by hand, from scratch. They ask hundreds of questions, it’s all just a good bit of fun. Others like to get more hands on and they get to take away a certificate and everything!”
Charlie pulled out one of the certificates that he presents to Pasty School graduates and talked me through the recipe on the back. The recipes are there to encourage attendees to keep pasty-making for themselves at home. The takeaway lesson that he stresses the most is the importance of simple, quality ingredients and filling the pasty right up to the brim. For me, this just represents the store’s charming, unassuming ethos. There’s no scrimping at JH&M Choak – they’re all about doing justice to this edible symbol of Cornish history and culture. Charlie obviously feels strongly about these ideas and after speaking about his life, he reflected upon his career with a sincere nostalgia:
“I’m one of those very fortunate people. I left school when I was young and started straight away, entering into this trade, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve ever done. I enjoy working, and I think I’m very lucky; to serve my whole 70 years of working, and to have enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve enjoyed doing what I’m doing, producing the pasties, and I’ve enjoyed changing things as you go along. I’ve enjoyed doing it all.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Charlie why he thought that the pasty in particular was so important to Cornwall. His answer was simple: “It’s Cornish. You go to Cornwall and you have a Cornish pasty. It’s an iconic thing, isn’t it? I mean, it’s Cornwall!” On a very similar note, I asked him what he thought had made his business so successful. He simply stated, “Because I’m Cornish!”