Bill Knot argues that Scottish cuisine is much more than the deep-fried Mars Bar
and that Scotland’s ingredients together, rank as one of the world’s greatest nat/ional larders
Back in the late 1980s, when I was just starting to appreciate the many-splendored joys of malt whisky, I had a friend called Douglas, who acted as my spiritual guide. He possessed a kind of morose wisdom to which I felt immediately drawn, dispensing his pearls in a Scottish brogue reminiscent of John Laurie’s malevolent crofter in The 39 Steps.
“This one,” I said, picking up a glass of a 12 year-old Speyside, swirling and sniffing in the prescribed manner, “has a lovely, honeyed aroma.”
“Aye,” said Douglas, “that’ll be the sweet smell of your liver burning away.
Douglas was a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society – based in Leith, on the Edinburgh waterfront – to which we both made a pilgrimage one year. Our meals were taken at a nearby takeaway: having feasted on deep-fried haggis and chips on our first night, I thought I would choose a lighter option. I ordered the pizza.
The woman behind the counter extended a podgy arm into a freezer, picked up a frozen pizza with a pair of tongs, dunked it in a vast vat of batter, and then plunged it into the deep-fryer. Any member of Scotland’s long-established Italian community would have been horrified, but who needs a wood-burning oven when you’ve got a deep-fryer?
A few years later, reports surfaced in the national media of a chip shop in Stonehaven, near Aberdeen – The Haven – that was selling deep-fried Mars Bars. In the resulting furore, this grotesque confectionery – “indelicacy”, you might call it – became a symbol of urban Scotland’s woefully unhealthy diet. Doctors and nutritionists wrung their hands in despair, even as hundreds of other Scottish chippies adopted the idea: The Haven even tried to win the deep-fried Mars Bar secured status under the EU’s Protected Food Name Scheme.
And yet Scotland’s larder bulges with fine ingredients. Aberdeen Angus and Highland beef, wild (and smoked) salmon, langoustines, scallops, Arbroath smokies, venison, grouse, woodcock, and perhaps the finest soft fruits – blackberries, raspberries, sloes, Tayberries – in the world.
There are some terrific cheeses, too: Dunlop, Lanark Blue, and a whole trolley load of Cheddars, smoked cheeses and goat’s cheeses, as well as various kinds of crowdie (a fresh soft cheese, traditionally used to line one’s stomach before a night on the whisky). Admittedly, the larder is a little short on vegetables, especially those with the temerity to grow above ground, but neeps and tatties will keep the cold at bay, especially when anointed with a wee dram.
I am, of course, preaching to the converted. Most of you reading this magazine will know that Boisdale has been buying, cooking and serving top-notch Scottish produce for donkey’s years, meaning that we Londoners can enjoy splendid steaks, game and seafood without the inconvenience of actually travelling to Scotland and being bitten to death by midges.
Nor are we alone: dining in various restaurants around the world, I have enjoyed Scottish smoked salmon in Cape Town, Angus beef in Taipei and Isle of Mull scallops in a very posh Parisian three-star. It often seems as though Scottish produce is more venerated abroad than at home, although some nonsense about sheep’s lungs has prevented the export of haggis to several countries, including the US.
The venerable haggis house of Macsween, however, has developed a haggis made with sheep’s hearts, instead of lungs: in October this year, it was enough to persuade Canada to lift an import ban instituted in 1971, so there is hope for the future.
So the Scottish larder is full to bursting, but what about the recipes? Is Scotland simply doling out delicacies to the rest of the world, or can she boast a tradition of great cooking as well?
The seminal Scottish cookery book was written by the Orkney-born Florence Marian McNeill, an extraordinary woman, most famous for her authorship of The Silver Bough, a four-volume study of Scottish folklore, covering everything from witches and fairies to second sight and folk songs.
In 1929, she published The Scots Kitchen, containing hundreds of recipes: among them, red herrings (kippers), clootie dumpling (a boiled suet pudding filled with dried fruit), Scotch broth (mutton, barley, root vegetables and pulses), and a whole array of oatcakes, bannocks (“girdle” cakes, traditionally very heavy) and scones. Snatches of prose, poetry and nuggets of history pepper Mrs McNeill’s pages, and it is a fascinating record of Scottish gastronomy.
Despite The Scots Kitchen’s many charms, a modern chef might look askance at the hefty nature of the recipes therein. Oatmeal, barley and suet feature prominently and, while a generous amount of stodge undoubtedly kept body and soul together through the rigours of a Scottish winter in those far-off days before central heating had been invented, it is not the stuff of which elegant tasting menus are made.
Intelligent cooks, however, can take the spirit of these recipes and turn them into something less leaden. Take Cullen skink, for example, named after a fishing village on the Moray coast: a smoked haddock soup traditionally thickened with copious onions and potatoes, and always served with bread.
Poach the fish gently in milk and fish stock with just a few cubes of potato and onion, add a glug of single cream and a scattering of chives, and the result is a delicate, delicious soup; similarly, with cranachan (or Atholl brose), cut down the quantity of oatmeal and make it crunchy, not soggy, add a little whisky, honey, whipped cream and plenty of raspberries, and you have a sumptuous dessert.
This “de-carbing” of traditional recipes by chefs who prize flavour above mere sustenance is inevitable, and is happening all over the planet. The “peasant diet” is no longer sustainable: thanks to motor vehicles and modern machinery, even the Italian contadini, French paysans, Spanish campesini and Scottish crofters who remain (and their number has shrunk dramatically over the last 50 years) simply do not burn enough calories to eat as their forefathers did. You cannot create a balanced, healthy meal with one hand resting on the chip basket.
Three decades after the battering doled out to both my pizza and my palate, Edinburgh still has its chippies (try the venerable L’Alba d’Oro for a splendid fish supper), but, for the curious gourmet, the city now has much more to offer. Many enterprising Scottish chefs and restaurateurs have realised that the bounty on their doorstep is too good to resist, often combining top-notch local produce with French technique in the kitchen, ramping up the flavour without piling on the calories.
This, I think, is the way forward for Scottish food. Not restaurants that serve terrific food made from local ingredients, welcome though they are, but the wider availability of these same ingredients for people to buy and cook at home, and a deeper appreciation of just how good Scottish produce – game, seafood, beef, cheese, fruit – really is.
The rest of the world knows that: why don’t the Scots? Thanks to intelligent, creative, pioneering chefs like René Redzepi at Noma, Denmark has transformed its food scene: once known mainly for ersatz European cheeses and watery bacon, it is now one of the world’s gastronomic hotspots.
Scotland, with a scarcely less hospitable climate and far better raw materials, could do the same. And a wee dram of fine malt is so much more satisfying than a chilly shot of schnapps, whatever the cost to your liver.