I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Some would say that it's a stretch to call traditional Scottish food "cuisine." It leans on the heavy side (probably to combat the chill of the weather that even the country’s tourism industry describes as “generally cool and wet”).
Escoffier chefs do not clamour for recipes for haggis or cock-a-leekie soup. There are no Italian gourmets salivating over the thought of bannock.
Here is a tongue-in-cheek tour of Scotland’s culinary delights.
Mum was right; breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so porridge is the place to start. For the purist, it’s oats cooked in water and salt and it should be, in the words of an actor in a commercial many years ago, “thick enough to stop a bullet.”
Non-Scots like to gussy it up with heather honey, brown sugar, and heavy cream. As an added bulwark against the relentless grey skies and wind a wee dram of single malt whisky is highly recommended.
But, if you don’t give an “Och Aye” for your health then the full Scottish breakfast is for you. This is almost identical to the artery-clogging full English breakfast with the addition of a tattie scone. This confection is mashed potatoes, butter, and salt that is fried; it is sometimes embellished with the addition of cheese.
Or, you could have kippers. These are smoked herring filled with masses of tiny bones, and utterly revolting.
Suitably fortified, you are now ready to waddle off in search of your heritage.
You’ve spent the morning hiking through the blustery glens seeking out the grave of ancestors. The temperature is zooming up close to 50 F and the drizzle is soaking through your rain gear. (“Isn’t this fun Mildred? No, it bloody isn’t Archie.”)
Feeling a little chilled you are in need of something warming, and, lo, there is the The Clachanglootie Inn drawing you towards its smoldering peat fire.
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Scotch broth is what you need. It comes in a wide variety of disguises that mostly centre on pearl barley, root vegetables, and mutton. It’s a proper rib-sticker. If the alternative on the menu is powsowdie, go with the broth. Powsowdie is a soup made by boiling a sheep’s head.
For our main course let’s order rumbledethumps; it’s what the Scots call a neck-filler. It’s a potato, cabbage, and rutabaga (gasp) casserole, given the slightest hint of flavour with the addition of cheddar cheese.
And, for dessert you can’t beat the deep-fried Mars Bar. Nothing says you’ve slipped off the diet more than caramel, nougat, and chocolate coated in batter yanked out of a bath of hot fat.
Most traditional Scottish food is designed to use things that are just about to go . . . off.
— Scott Hutchison, Scottish musician
A Whisky Interlude
After that lunch most of us would want a lie down although the more adventurous might want to visit one or two whisky distilleries. After all, there’s likely a summer tempest blowing outside.
The average distillery tour costs between £7.50 and £75 ($9-$90) and whiskyadvocate.com tells us “over 1.9 million people flocked to visit over 40 Scotch whisky distilleries open to visitors in 2017.” So, there’ll be plenty of company.
In truth, a whisky factory is not a very exciting place. There are some vats and pipes, and a whole lot of wooden barrels doing nothing but getting older. There may be some bagpipes so remember to pack earplugs.
But, if we are honest with ourselves, and we must be, it’s tasting the product we’ve come for.
With the higher-priced visits, you get to slosh down a fair amount of what in Gaelic is called Uisge Beatha, which means “water of life.” For example, Blair Athol Distillery Platinum Tour (£165/$200) includes six “drams.” There is no official sizing for a dram, but six of them are likely to cause a bit of a rumpus with motor control.
Assuming you are still vertical after your six drams you’ll be wanting dinner, which is, of course, what you’ve been waiting for—haggis.
Sheep’s innards, oatmeal, suet, and onions boiled in the animal’s stomach; it’s served with mouth-watering mashed potatoes (tatties) and mashed turnip (neeps). What’s not to like?
I have dealt with haggis elsewhere in an honest, if sadly uncomplimentary manner. Any further mention here would be just piling on, and that’s not nice.
And now, what the Scots call le pièce de résistance—clootie dumpling. It’s flour, dried fruit, sugar, molasses, spices, and suet, because you can’t have too much suet. The whole mixture is boiled in a cloth bag, known as a cloot.
Time to round the evening off with a nightcap and there is nothing better than a Rusty Nail, which is two parts Scotch Whisky to one part Drambuie.
Now, fully loaded with stodge and liquor you are ready for bed. And just think, you can do it all again tomorrow.
A Scottish Foodie Fights Back
- Maconochie was a Scottish stew in a can that was served to soldiers in the trenches of World War I. It was a vile concoction of carrots, turnips, potatoes, and mystery meat under a floating cap of congealed fat. Militaryhistory.org says “Maconochie was tolerated by famished soldiers, and detested by all.”
- In December 2015, Food Standards Scotland reported: “As a nation we have a high fat, high sugar, high-calorie diet—and it’s making us sick. Levels of diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses associated with obesity are stubbornly high in Scotland, and they’ve been that way for years. At the same time, we’re failing to eat enough nutritious, healthy foods like fruit and veg, oil-rich fish, and high-fibre carbohydrates.”
- Is it “whisky” or “whiskey”? In Scotland, it’s whisky. In Ireland, America, and anywhere else the hooch is made the “e” is added to make it whiskey.
- There’s a take-out restaurant in Greenock, near Glasgow, that offers the “Crunchy Box.” For ten pounds you get French fries, fish, two sausages, two pizza slices, two hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and onion rings—all of it battered and deep-fried. The calorie count is 7,000.
- “14 Traditional Scottish Foods That Will Make You Fall For Them.” Jay, flavorverse.com, August 28, 2018.
- “What the Scottish Know About Breakfast That Americans Don’t.” Sarah Chamberlain, myrecipes.com, February 06, 2018.
- “In Numbers: How Bad For You Is a Deep-Fried Mars Bar? Alex Watson, The Scotsman, September 30, 2015.
- “The Best Scotch Distillery Tours for Every Occasion.” Jonny McCormick, whiskyadvocate.com, January 30, 2019.
- “The History of the Clootie Dumpling.” Lovefood.com, January 2, 2018.
- “The Scottish Diet: It Needs to Change.” Food Standards Scotland, December 2015.
My theory is that all Scottish cuisine is based on a dare.
— Mike Myers
© 2019 Rupert Taylor