02 Oct Is there a Scottish cuisine?
It might seem strange for a Scottish food tour guide to say this but Scotland doesn’t really have a national cuisine.
At least, not anymore. If tour guests ask ‘What is the best Scottish restaurant in town?’, I struggle to give a good answer.
Excellent Scottish food writers and educators such as Catherine Brown, Sue Lawrence and Wendy Barrie might strongly disagree but I would claim that Scotland does not have a national cuisine in the same way that, say, France, Italy or Japan do. These countries all have recipes, dishes and, arguably, techniques that are known around the world.
Within Scotland, our diverse home-baking remains popular while soups and broths such as cock-a-leekie or Scotch broth are always welcome on a menu. However, mention black bun, drop scones or Cullen skink to anyone outside of Scotland you will draw a blank.
The whole world knows about our whisky but, when I ask international visitors to name some Scottish foods, they usually don’t get beyond haggis and shortbread. And most are not entirely sure what haggis is anyway.
Not unreasonably, the occasional guest mentions Scotch eggs. The origins of which are much disputed. Depending on who you listen to, these started off in Yorkshire, Africa or India. The grand department store Fortnum and Mason may have popularised them. The one thing that every source agrees on is that the Scotch egg didn’t originate in Scotland.
But that is a digression. My argument is that Scotland does not have a repertoire of well-known classic recipes. We used to but most have fallen from favour. Powsowdie used to be a very popular type of broth in Scotland but any recipe that starts with ‘First, char your sheep’s head’ is unlikely to find many fans on a contemporary menu.
The same could be said of crappit heid – a dish consisting of cod or haddock heads stuffed or crappit with oats, seasoning and the minced liver of the fish. Do you have difficulty getting your kids to eat a carrot? Imagine their reaction if you place a bowl of crappit heid in front of them.
Light on prime cuts and big on cheaper ingredients – oats tend to feature prominently – these traditional recipes were the food of the poor. As Scotland rose out of poverty, we lost our taste for many of these long-established dishes. They more or less fell off our tables. There are notable exceptions but our repertoire of regional cooking is in danger of dying out.
People like the aforementioned Catherine Brown and Sue Lawrence have written fascinating books about Scotland’s historical diet and regional recipes. But this blogger wonders how many people will be eating, say, pan-fried herring in oatmeal in thirty years’ time.
Happily, if our collection of traditional recipes is fading then our appreciation of Scotland’s natural larder has grown. As has its global reputation. Scottish cooking may not be famous around the world but our produce is. Ingredients such as our shellfish, soft fruit, game, beef and lamb have expanding markets around the world. Our cuisine may not be recipe or technique-led but it is produce-led. I may not be able to convincingly point guests to the best Scottish restaurant in town but I can point them towards dozens of Indian, Japanese, Chinese, French and modern European restaurants that make great use of the best Scottish produce.
Over the next few blogs, we’ll occasionally focus in on particularly types of produce – be it shellfish or Aberdeen Angus beef – and drill down into why it is so sought after.
In the meantime, book on to one of our food-themed walking tours and we can talk some more.
Main pic shows Scottish langoustines. Pic: Peter Sandground.