Today is a big day in the United Kingdom. Today, Scots went to the polls to vote either “yes” or “no thanks” to Scottish Independence. It’s monumental, and this vote has been a long time coming. If you haven’t been following the whole ordeal very closely, check out either John Oliver or The Guardian’s video for non-Brits. [Disclosure: both John Oliver and The Guardian are technically English.]
In acknowledgement of the occasion (which ultimately ended up being a no thanks to independence), I decided to explore some hearty Scottish cuisine and celebrate Scottish culture.
Now, believe it or not, I have never set foot in the UK. I haven’t even flown through Heathrow. I desperately want to go, especially to Scotland. I’ve always had a love affair with Scotland. It’s stormy, and beautiful and they seem to do plaid and argyle very well. Scots have a ton to be proud about, and they have a distinct identity. Beyond bagpipes and kilts, haggis and scotch, I can understand why the independence movement has culminated in a vote so important as this. Every vote will count, but I imagine that either way it goes now or in the future, Scottish identity will continue to be as pronounced as it has been for centuries.
But on to the food! I admit, I knew very little about Scottish food before doing a little bit of research during this endeavor. Or, I couldn’t distinguish English fare from Scottish cuisine. And then from Irish food. But I learned a lot! Such as:
- There is a difference between shepherd’s pie and cottage pie. Shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, and cottage pie is made with beef. Looking back, I’ve probably never had actual shepherd’s pie, unless my mom was passing lamb off as beef.
- Scots love oats. Oats go in everything, from sweet to savory, from breakfast to dinner. Actually, I should say, everything goes in oats. All parts of the oats are used, like the inner oat husks that lend to the sour flavor of sowans.
- Potatoes are equally as ubiquitous. But they’re not called potatoes. They’re called tatties.
- That’s right: Scots have the absolute best names for their dishes. Tatties are potatoes. Neeps are turnips. There are kippers, clootie dumpling, stovies, festy cock, howtowdie with Drappit eggs… I can’t help but smile when I try to figure out what each of these mean.
- Some of the names are obvious, once you say them with a fantastic Scottish accent. Case in point: Pottit heid is head cheese. Just try to say it, right now, just like Sean Connery.
- Scotland has also absorbed influences from abroad, such as chicken tikka masala. But no foreign country has influenced Scottish cooking more than France, since there was an alliance way back when. You’ll see the actual French language (boiled gigot, or boiled leg of lamb) or the Scottish version of French dishes (cock-a-leekie soup, similar to a French chicken soup).
- I wouldn’t be surprised if “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” campaign began in Scotland. When looking at Scotland’s National Tourism’s food section, the four categories are: “Breakfast”, “Meat products and dishes”, “Sweets and desserts”, and “Fast food”.
- And on the topic of fast-food, apparently deep-fried Mars bars symbolize the changes in the Scottish diet.
- Food throughout the UK is relatively uniform, but the regional specialities are often denoted by the location in the name of the dish. Such as Forfar bride or Dundee cake or Finnan haddie.
And so on, and so on, and so on. As interesting as the education was, I was tasked with finding actual recipes to make an actual meal. It all sounded so good, but probably because it’s literally meat and potatoes. And oats.
The first recipe I chose was for rumbledethumps, from The Scottish Borders. Not because it sounded good (which it does), but because of the name. I suggested the dish to Keith, and he immediately passed it off as a made up word. [For further fun, rumbledethumps’ comparable names in England and Ireland are ‘bubble and squeak’ and ‘colcannon’, respectively.] What is it? Just a simple casserole of potatoes, cabbage and onion. Ours had Kerrygold Red Leicester cheese in it. The beauty of the rumbledethumps, like so many Scottish dishes, is that you can make it from leftovers or make it to be reheated later.
Mince and tatties is an extremely popular dish in Scotland, but I already had a potato dish in the rumbledethumps. Instead, I minced my own meat and decided to serve it in a pie form. When in doubt, go with pie. Minced meat pie is quite simple; this one just had onions, meat and some thickener to give it a nice consistency. I very quickly threw together a pastry crust (hence its “rustic” appearance), popped it in the oven, and smiled as the savory smell of a meat pie filled the kitchen.
In Scotland, individual-sized pies are considered fast food, sold at football games or as takeaway. So while our pie wasn’t individually sized, there absolutely were no complaints. It was quite delicious, and I can’t wait to try it cold.
For dessert, I was between two well-known options: shortbread and cranachan. Cranachan won out, not just because it was easier (and healthier), but because of the oats! Instead of whisky, I chose to use Drambuie… and had a glass on the rocks as well. It was nice, light and perfect to round out the meal as we settled into an evening of watching the votes slowly come in.
Everyday Scottish food might not have a lot of variety, or even a lot of spice and flare, but it’s hearty food that makes you feel cozy. It’s a great blend of land and sea, and I can’t wait to get the opportunity to go and sample it all for myself in person. (Especially the sea fare…YES.) We’ll see what the next few weeks and months look like as power sharing shifts between Scotland and England. But at least know that we know when we do finally get to try haggis and Scottish blood pudding and kippers and scones, we’ll still be doing it under Union Jack and probably a very distinct Scottish pride.