St. Piran’s Pasty Toss celebrates Cornish heritage |

St. Piran’s Pasty Toss celebrates Cornish heritage

Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard shows his sons Finn and Carter his technique on how to throw the pasty during last year's St. Piran's Day event.
Elias Funez/

“When I set out for Lyonnesse

A hundred miles away . . .”

That’s what 19th century British writer Thomas Hardy wrote when he traveled to Cornwall, calling it “Lyonnesse,” a strange land of mystery and legend.

Every year Grass Valley captures some of the strangeness with its annual St. Piran’s Day pasty tossing contest. The rain or shine event, which celebrates the Cornish immigrants who settled around the gold mines, is fun for adults, children and especially dogs.

The festivities begin in the City Hall parking lot at Main and Auburn streets on Saturday, March 9 at 9:30 a.m. The slogan: “Everyone’s Cornish today!”

“What would bechance at Lyonnesse

While I should sojourn there . . .”

St. Piran’s Day begins with the bell and call of the town crier and raising of the American and Cornish flags. The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir will lead singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Trelawny,” the national anthem of Cornwall. Then pastys will fly.

Ben Aguilar, vice mayor of Grass Valley and David Parker, mayor of Nevada City will vie in the first heat with hopes of capturing the Mayor’s Trophy. Over the years, Grass Valley has held a slight edge in the competition.

Other contestants will follow, including the police chiefs of the two towns, representatives of service clubs, Cornish descendants and curious on-lookers of all ages.

Winners will receive prizes and every contestant gets a St. Piran’s Day pin. Bring a leashed dog to help clean up the special tossing pastys, made with organic dog food and healthy ingredients.

If you bake, bring a home-baked pasty (the real kind) to the judging table by 9:15 to enter the pasty bake-off. Tess’ Kitchen Store will recognize the “Best Overall” and “Best Traditional” pasty.

Coffee and snacks will be available for purchase at a Cornish gift fair, also in the parking lot at South Auburn and Main streets.

St. Piran is to Cornwall what St. Patrick is to Ireland. In history, he brought Christianity to the Celtic land in the fifth century. In legend, he outwitted menacing giants and taught the Cornish to refine tin. The Cornish flag, a white cross on a black field, is called “St. Piran’s flag.”

The Cornish, once the world’s preeminent hard-rock miners, came from their homeland with the know-how to tap the deep veins when gold was discovered in quartz near Grass Valley. The Americans called them “Cousin Jacks,” and Cornish women became “Cousin Jennies.”

Lyonnesse is the legendary site of Arthur’s last battle and a land fated to sink into the sea. It’s usually located along the Cornish coast between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, the southwestern tip of Britain.

“When I came back from Lyonnesse

With magic in my eyes!”

No one can promise you’ll come away from St. Piran’s Day with a “radiance rare and fathomless,” as Hardy says in his poem. But you could give a dog a thrill, make a child’s day and have a story to put a smile on anyone’s face.

St. Piran’s Day sponsors include the Grass Valley Downtown Association; City of Grass Valley; Grass Valley Male Voice Choir; Grass Valley-Bodmin Sister Cities; Tess’ Kitchen Store and California Cornish Cousins.

Gage McKinney, author and expert on mining and Cornish culture, volunteers with the Grass Valley Downtown Association. For information on his books, visit

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