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Stargazy Pie: Why this Cornish delicacy is only cooked once a year

Chef Jamie Porter shows an off-season Stargazy Pie.

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On a hot summer day in the Cornish seaside village of Mousehole. In the kitchen of The Old Coastguard hotel, chef Jamie Porter is bent low over a bench, unfolding a marvelous fish fantasy that’s all heads, no tails.

He’s shoving mackerel noggins into slits in a pastry lid, tweaking bulging eyeballs so that they stare straight into the sky, egging crust with soft strokes as if it’s a Franciscan fresco.

“There weren’t many things I had to agree to do when I joined this company,” Porter confides, tucking a gaping fish lip into a rapacious jaw socket, “but making Stargazy Pie was one of them.”

Porter hails from Padstow, a town on the northern coast of Cornwall, the southwestern tip of the UK which points out into the Atlantic Ocean. Mousehole, a tiny fishing port, sits on Cornwall’s southern coast.

He’s perhaps used to more refined cuisine, having trained both with British TV chef Rick Stein at the celebrated Seafood Restaurant in Padstow and at the Waterside Inn in Berkshire, west of London, alongside internationally renowned chef-patron Alain Roux.

But watching Porter at work on this cannot but inspire awed reverence. Particularly if you’ve just persuaded him to make this fantastical fish pie months before the one day of the year it’s supposed to be eaten – December 23, at the festival of Tom Bawcock’s Eve.

Beneath the pastry, Porter has packed a rich, buttery roux with smoked haddock, hake, cod, mackerel and herbs. The sand eels, pilchards, ling and dogfish are missing on this occasion, but everything depends upon the season. Occasionally, Porter upgrades the recipe, throwing in lobster and mussels and monkfish, maybe even mushrooms.

The pie is out of the oven, 20 minutes later, dead heads gasping to escape pastry and six entreating eyeballs gazing whitely at the ceiling.

It’s cut, crackling crisp, oozing a deliciously salty, buttery, custard of sea flavors into my mouth. Porter seems oblivious to the effect of the pie (unfairly maligned…

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