My nephew got married in the highlands of Scotland recently and along with many special and distinctly Celtic traditions, my mind has turned to the sometimes questionable but always distinctive Scottish foods. I have spent many happy times in Scotland over the years and got to know and love its people and ways and a few of its regional delicacies.
As with all cuisines, Scottish dishes have evolved from a combination of geographical, historical and cultural considerations. The wet and cold climate with long summer days and short nights made the growing of oats and barley and root vegetables relatively easy. Sheep and long-haired Scottish cattle are suited to the hills of Scotland so lamb and beef along with fish and game from hunting and fishing are still the most popular proteins. A need for hearty foods in the long Scottish winters and frequently chilly summers led to extensive recipes for carbohydrate rich foods that really stick to the ribs.
The harsh times for the highlanders after the English armies defeated them in the 18th century, plus the great potato famine of the 19th century, led to the ingenious use of less-than-appetizing ingredients.
These historical hardships are the only logical explanation for haggis. This unappealing dish is made from a sort of sausage-meat made from the lungs, heart, liver and other innards of a sheep, which are boiled and then minced and mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, stock and salt and pepper —which is all combined and put inside a sheep’s stomach, which is then sewn closed and then boiled for several hours. It is served with “tatties and neeps” (potatoes and turnips).
White pudding and black pudding are of a similar origin and served at breakfast. They are a type of sausage made from similar ingredients to haggis but with very little meat — although black pudding has the dubious nutritional advantage of including blood in the recipe. Not a dish for everyone.
The prevalence of oats led to the popularity of porridge — similar to American oatmeal but salty, not sweet. In the old days, porridge would be cooled and set, then cut up and taken out as a portable meal — often stored in Scotsmen’s sporrans, the little pouch worn at the waist on the outside of men’s kilts.
Turning to lunch or dinner, don’t panic if you see“Cullen skink” on the menu. Although it sounds disgusting, it is a thick chowder-like soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. It could be washed down with “Irn Bru”, the popular Scottish soda, which is bright orange but tastes much more bitter and frankly like strangely weak fizzy orange juice with prunes.
One thing I do enjoy in Scotland (probably too much) is the delicious array of desserts — most are heavy and filling and very sweet. I have never tried a deep-fried Mars Bar (chocolate and caramel candy bar) as that is just a bit too much for my taste buds to endure! The use of dried fruit, sugar and butter is extensive — shortbread is probably my favorite biscuit (what the British call cookies), which is traditionally made from one-part white sugar, two parts butter and three parts oat flour.
Cakes using dried fruit are very popular and include dundee cake (fruit cake topped with almonds), black bun (very dark and rich fruit cake) and clootie dumpling (a fruit “cake” that is steamed rather than baked). Scottish “tablet” is seriously addictive — it is a bit like a brittle and very sweet fudge that melts in the mouth.
I could go on but this is making me “peckish” (what the British call hungry). For more information, visit www.scottish-at-heart.com.
I say goodbye this week with an interesting and traditional Scottish proverb, not to scold you but rather to make you smile: “Keep your breath to cool your own crowdie.” Literally, this means “Save your breath to cool your own porridge,” but figuratively means to not waste your breath talking about things that do not concern you when you could do something useful with it. Basically, it is a subtle way to say “mind your own business.”
No one ever accused the Scottish of not being clever and funny!
God bless America and of course our Scottish cousins!
Lesley grew up in London, England, and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.