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Greensburg native brings a taste of Britain to Pittsburgh

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Monday, May 23, 2011
 

The pasty, one of Britain's great portable foods, has arrived in Pittsburgh.

When Greensburg native Chris Johnston returned home after a dozen years working in London, he brought with him his love of British foods, particularly the pasty.

Pronounced with an "a" as in fast, the pasty is a savory, hearty, half moon of meat- and vegetable-filled flaky crust that's long been a staple in British workers' lunch pails and on pub menus.

It's also the featured item at Blighty, Johnston's stall in the Pittsburgh Public Market in the Strip District.

"I've been to 65 countries and eaten a lot of food," says Johnston, who lives in Moon with his wife, Maria, and their children, Grace and George. "This is the kind of food I like."

Pasties go all the way back to the 11th century, says Johnston. But the sturdy, filling hand food grew in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries with British workers, particularly those who got their hands dirty, such as Cornish tin miners.

As they worked below ground, the tin miners' hands would get coated with arsenic, Johnston explains. The crust served as a convenient handle that allowed the miners to eat the middle and throw the contaminated outer ends away.

Blighty offers a variety of imported British food items in tins and jars such as Marmite and Branston Pickle.

Johnston creates other take-away items that include sausage rolls and desserts such as Bannofi Pie, a concoction of bananas and English toffee in a pastry shell.

"But the big seller is pasties," says Johnston. Half of his customers are British. The remaining half is divided between people from Upper Michigan peninsula where copper miners and lumberjacks made them part of that area's food culture and Pittsburghers, who Johnston says, mistake them for calzones.

Six varieties are available from the classic Cornish -- filled with tiny cubes of beef, potatoes and root vegetables -- to The BBC, a black and gold filling of black beans and cheddar that Johnston developed during this year's unsuccessful drive to the Super Bowl championship.

"They're reasonably cheap," says Johnston. "For $8, they weigh over a pound. With a salad, they could be dinner for two."

Pasties are convenient and quick, he says. Because the pastry crust contains no yeast, it microwaves well, making it a fast-food option for an office lunch or dinner on a busy night.

His longterm plan is to widen Pittsburgher's exposure to pasties with food carts at special events and on Downtown street corners. He hopes to interest grocers and other food merchants in carrying them in their stores.

Meanwhile, Johnston can be found behind the counter at Blighty inside the Pittsburgh Public Market, 1640 Smallman St., Strip District. Hours: 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Fridays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sundays. Details: 412-567-3737 or www.facebook.com/pages/Blighty/134242006634096 .

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