Scottish cooking – where quality produce can still be found

Scottish cooking was influenced by old European trading links, as well as by a cool-ish climate at home.  Also here are examples of the traditional ingredients in the Scots diet – and a reminder of the quality produce that can be sourced in Scotland today. And, yes, we still eat haggis and lots of oatmeal. 

Traditions And Influences In Scottish Cooking

It is often said that Scottish cooking was influenced by the nation’s European links. Before the now-unravelling union with England in 1707, Scotland had many continental links and, I like to think, a cosmopolitan outlook.

Early books on Scottish cooking include recipes for fish, for example, cooked in the Dutch or the Polish manner, but most of all, they describe French methods.

Sophisticated cuisine of the Scottish Court

The 15th-century King James I insisted on a French cook in his household. By the time of King James V (who had a French wife, Mary of Lorraine), Scottish cooking in the royal court was very sophisticated.

This continued to be so under King James’s daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. But it was a battle, as the Presbyterian streak in the Scots was always on the lookout for something to feel bad about.

Yet some interest in good Scottish cooking and quality food was sustained, partly through trading links – no Lowland laird or Highland chief went without his French claret – and partly through Jacobite links with the Continent.

Haggis for sale
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, / Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!”

French cooking terms in the Scottish kitchen

By the time of Robert Burns, (1759-96) Scotland’s national poet, French culinary terms were quite familiar in Scottish cooking.

They can be found, for instance, in his poem ‘To a Haggis’, though here the poet is comparing favourably the humble Scots dish of haggis with the French râgout or fricassée.

Anyway, further evidence of the French influence in Scottish cooking can be found in the kitchen words of French origin. 

The tassies are in the aumry…

In the aumry (armoire) or cupboard could be fund not just the tassies (tasse) or cups but also the now less familiar verries (verre) or glasses. (I mean less familiar to me, at any rate!)

They might also be stored in the dresser (dressoir) or kitchen sideboard on which might also be displayed the ashets (assiette) or serving plates.

(To be plain, in my upbringing in North-East Scotland, a kind of Scots language stronghold, we would only have used dressers and ashets – the other words were in storage in our linguistic attic.)

Kail (Or Kale) – Traditional Vegetable, Often Overlooked

No journey around Scottish cooking and traditional food is complete without the humble greens. This is the most everyday of vegetables in the Scots diet of old – pre-dating supermarkets and fancy gardening.

Anyway, kale or kail is a northern form of cole, which eventually leads back to Latin colis (or caulis): a stem, especially of cabbage.

The kailyard at Burns Cottage
The kailyard at Burns Cottage

Presumably this also gives us coleslaw – cabbage salad – and cauliflower. Sometimes you see it as borecole, and in its curly overwintering form, it was the vegetable of my childhood! (I grew up in a green pepper no-go area.)

Kale’s historical popularity as a mainstay of Scottish cooking owes much to the fact that it can survive a harsh Scottish winter. 

Many Scottish phrases mention it, indicating its former importance in the Scots’ diet.

The kailyard or kaleyard was an old name for the kitchen garden or vegetable plot. Take a look at the kaleyard at Robert Burns Cottage here.

The symbolic Scots kaleyard

The kaleyard school of Scottish literature is a description of a 19th century vogue for Scottish writing about parochial, cosy (or couthy) subjects.

Cauld kale het up (cold kale warmed) means any old tale or fashion revived.

Kale can even mean, broadly, food itself (like the old generic sense of ‘meat’ as in ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’), which suggests its prevalence in the Scots’ diet of olden days.

It also used to mean more specifically a thick and warming vegetable soup that would have kale in it. (It certainly did in my mum’s house.) Sometimes, modern recipes substitute parsley, but that’s positively decadent.

Kelsae ingin. (Onion originally from Kelso, Scottish Borders). Get someone else to cut it up, if you can.
Tatties in variety, for sale.
As in Ireland, Scotland’s ordinary folk relied on the humble tattie in former times.

Scottish Onions!

As luck would have it, I just happened to have a large onion at hand, giving me an excuse to mention another everyday vegetable. Kelso in the Scottish Borders gave its name to a variety of champion – and inevitably very large – onion. 

The one pictured here is a small example of a Kelsae ingin.

 I don’t mean to look puzzled, it’s just that I’m not looking forward to cutting it up. I’ll wear goggles probably.

On the subject of where vegetables are grown, some potato varieties record the name of places both east and west with a climate which the humble tattie finds pleasant.

For example, Arran Pilot or Pentland Javelin both refer to Scottish places.

I closely scanned the potato pic here and thought that the variety ‘King Edward’ was related to the village of King Edward (Gaelic ceann eadar, roughly ‘the headland between) in Aberdeenshire.

But no, it is an old variety introduced at the time of King Edward VII and named for the PR value. Similarly, I see in the pic ‘Apache’ potatoes. Possibly named for their red skins and if so, quite inappropriate.

(Anyway Scotland hasn’t got any Apaches, only a few Shetland Pawnees. ‘Coughs apologetically’.)

Enough. However, as the Scots are keen gardeners, there has been a long established tradition of vegetable growing.

Plenty of more exotic species can be found in the Scots’ kailyard today. In fact, many country house hotels pride themselves in their kitchen garden.

Scottish rib-roast for high days and holidays
Scottish rib-roast for high days and holidays. Or on this occasion, Hogmanay, as it happened.
What about meat and fish?

Vegetarians etc – look away now. For much of Scotland’s population in the olden days, meat was a luxury in Scottish cooking and it is no coincidence that haggis, the national dish, is basically peasant food that uses up the less desirable bits of the animal.

Today, however, Scotland stands for quality meat.

Stand in the queue in a butcher shop in Scotland (and you should, just to listen to the conversations) and you might well see a sign on the wall or counter.

This will indicate where the butcher has bought the meat. It might even name the farm, which will probably be local.

This is Scots red meat at its best – producing a grass-fed traceable animal. Stringent assurance schemes also help. To be honest, it’s a big subject with a ton of published material. We are also big fans of Q Guild Butchers. (Not an exclusively Scottish organisation.)

Game in Scotland

Venison in Scotland is mostly from red deer, an important animal in the economics of running Highland sporting estates.

Some venison is also farmed and some also comes from roe deer, a species found in increasingly high numbers in woodlands all over Scotland.

The best roasting venison for Scottish cooking, chefs maintain, comes from a young stag culled late in the autumn.

The cook, however, must watch the joint carefully, as venison is a very lean meat which should not be overcooked.

Posh dish with pigeon breast
Here’s a posh pigeon dish – it’s the dish that’s posh, not the pigeon – as a reminder that Scotland also does game birds in some variety, and not just dopey pheasants. Wait, are pigeons ‘game’ though?

The salmon is Scotland’s best-known game fish, though it’s going through something of a conservation crisis at the moment.

Its attractive pink flesh comes from absorbing pigments from certain kinds of crustaceans it feeds on at sea.

Some claim the flavour of a fresh sea-trout (basically a native brown trout which, for reasons not yet explained, has decided to run away to sea) is a match for salmon.

Others say that the taste of the brown trout, grown slowly in a Highland loch, is equally good.

Both salmon and trout are also farmed, the conspicuous fish-farm cages blighting the foreground of many a scenic Highland loch-and-mountain view.

Still, you can’t eat scenery. (And farmed salmon is about one-third the price of rarely obtainable wild salmon in the average local fish shop!)

Quayside seafood platter, Oban
Buy yourself a seafood platter on the quayside at Oban, before catching the ferry to Mull.

Delicious fish from Scotland’s seas.

Again, there is plenty of information around on Scotland’s sea-fish. Given the importance of our fishing industry, especially in North-East Scotland, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find stunningly fresh whitefish and shellfish supplied by local shops.

And that also means the best restaurants and hotels will also have it on their menu. There are issues of sustainability, however, for certain species – though a quite a few restaurants are noting this in their fish buying policies.

A fishy memory from my childhood.

Incidentally, I was brought up in a fishing town in Scotland’s North-East, so the very best of fish often turned up at the back door. (To clarify: I mean through family contacts – I don’t mean because the back door was submerged at high tide or anything like that.) 

And I also have a memory of visiting my grandmother’s house once on a dark evening and walking straight into a line of split cod, hung on the washing line to air-dry. Yes, I was truly slapped in the face with a wet fish.

But I do consider this to be a totally authentic traditional encounter with seafood and Scottish cooking. I don’t suppose anyone air-dries cod now. Granny used it in the dish she called hairy tatties.

Some Scottish recipes on that link – take a look.