Scottish Cuisine

Scottish cuisine resembles the Dutch, in the sense that those who haven't grown up on it tend to describe it with some derision. The champion in that category must surely be the haggis.

Haggis

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy o' a grace

As lang's my airm.

Thus begins Address to a Haggis, by Robert Burns. It is an ode extolling the virtues of Scotland's iconic dish. Yet Edward Topham, an English journalist and author, describes it in rather different terms: "The Haggis is a dish not more remarkable or more disgusting to the palate, than in appearance. When I first cast my eye on it, I thought it resembled a bullock's paunch, which you often meet in the streets of London in a wheel-barrow". I will have to yield one point to him: it's not exactly pleasing to the eye. The list of ingredients may also put you off at first. Start with the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep, mince them with onions, oats and suet, spice with pepper, salt, coriander, nutmeg and mace, or with local herbs like sage, thyme and rosemary. In the past you'd stuff that into a sheep's stomach and cook it, but nowadays artificial casings are very common. The result is a lovely spiced mince with a little kick. Traditionally it's served with neeps and tatties - swedes and potatoes - but the Scots know how to buck tradition, so you can also find it on pizzas or in curries. There are (of course!) haggis flavoured crisps, but also chocolate and even ice cream!

Cock-a-leekie

A Victorian journalist once wrote that France makes the best soups in Europe, followed closely by Scotland. Sure enough, the country boasts an impressive selection and cock-a-leekie is often called Scotland's national soup, although I personally think that Cullen Skink also has a decent claim to that title. As the name suggests, you start with chicken and leek, seasoned with pepper and finely sliced prunes, possibly thickened with rice or barley. To get a hearty flavour, you require a real boiling hen, the older the better. That this isn't to everyone's taste becomes clear once again from the letters of Edward Topham. At the same dinner where he complained about the haggis, he had this to say about the soup: "[the host produced] a large cock, which I dare say had been the herald of the morn for many a year. [..] it was so hard and tough, that it seemed to require the stomach of an ostrich to digest it."

Oats

Oats - a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. - Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language (1755)

The traditional Scottish menu contained a large amount of cereals. The climate isn't well-suited to cultivate wheat, but oats and barley will grow just fine. Both were used in bread and barley is also the base of beer and of course whisky. Oats were consumed mainly as porridge (or porage), nice and filling, and if you can't finish your plate, put it near the fire until the moisture has evaporate and you're left with a bannock, or an oatcake if you spread it a little thinner. Lovely with some smoked salmon, or with Caboc, a soft cream cheese rolled in... pinhead oatmeal! Furthermore, oats are an ingredient in both black and white pudding and of course haggis.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first English dictionary, said that oats are considered fit for horses in England, but for people in Scotland. Robert Fergusson responded to this multiple times in verse, but never quite so pithy as one unknown Scotsman who said: this is why England is famed for its exceptional horses and Scotland for its exceptional people.

Images:

  • Haggis, neeps and tatties
  • Haggis pakora, a Scots-Indian fusion Image Credit: Aymatth2
  • Cock-a-leekie Image Credit: Laurel F
  • Oatcake with salmon and crème fraîche Image Credit: cheeseslave

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