Scottish cooking - kail, haggis, oats and more
Scottish cooking influenced by old European trading links, as well as by a cool-ish climate. And we do eat oatmeal and haggis. Sometimes.
Traditions and influences in Scottish cuisine
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. 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 cuisine in the royal court was very sophisticated and 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. By the time of Robert Burns, 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. 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, though 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 honest, 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.)
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. Presumably this also gives us coleslaw – cabbage salad – and cauliflower. Sometimes you see it as borecole, and, to be honest, 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 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.
(Pictured here) Kelsae ingin (Onion originally from Kelso). Get someone else to cut it up, if you can.
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 (or Kelso onion). 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, Pentland Javelin or King Edward (near Banff). However, as the Scots are keen gardeners, there has been a long established tradition of vegetable growing, and 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.
All right, that’s enough about vegetables
– what about meat and fish?
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 indicating 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. (Royan of Elgin is great. Bruce of the Broch also outstanding.)
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.
And, here's a picture of a posh pigeon dish, as a reminder that Scotland also does game birds in some variety, and not just dopey pheasants.
The salmon is Scotland’s best-known game fish. 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, while 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 wild salmon in the average local fish shop!)
Again, there is plenty of information around on Scotland’s sea-fish. Given the importance of the 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 means the best restaurants and hotels will also have it on their menu. There are issues of sustainability, however, for certain species – though a small number of top class restaurants are noting this in their fish buying policies.
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. I don’t suppose anyone air-dries cod now. Granny used it in the dish she called hairy tatties.