Ashes to Ashes

Text: Orlando Addis, Photos: Wikimedia Commons and Orlando Addis

In a previous article we saw briefly how kelp ash was used to preserve seal meat. Here we will explore the technique in more detail. Meat was not the only food to be preserved in this way either: fish, cheese and eggs were all also kept by either burying them entirely in ashes or using seaweed ash in the place of salt. The burning of kelp for potash has a long tradition in Scotland and, prior to the invention of artificial fertilisers, was essential to the continued growing of crops in unforgiving soil. 

The anti-microbial effect of the ash is three-fold. Firstly, the fine ashes absorb moisture, drying the surface of the food and preventing harmful bacteria from penetrating it. Secondly, the alkalinity of the ashes inhibits microbial growth by raising the pH. Thirdly, the salt content also reduces the water available to harmful bacteria.

On St. Kilda, Martin Martin observed that “burnt ashes of sea-ware preserves [sheep’s] cheese instead of salt” (1), while on North Uist “they are accustomed to salt their cheese with the ashes of barley straw” (2). On Jura seaweed ash was also used to preserve goat’s cheese (3). As alien as this may seem to us in Scotland today, unsurprising given the prevalence of modernisation over preserving traditional techniques , the use of ash in cheese making is actually quite common. In France goat cheeses are commonly coated or made with ash or charcoal while in the Veneto area of Italy there remains a tradition of cheeses called sottocenere or ‘under ashes’. The ash absorbs moisture helping to form a protective rind around the cheese, while also balancing the acidity of the cheese (4).

Hunting Fulmars on St. Kilda (Wikimedia Commons)

Hunting Fulmars on St. Kilda (Wikimedia Commons)

Back on St. Kilda, the locals, having risked life and limb scrambling over the cliffs with their prehensile toes (potentially even six of them according to legend!), would keep their hard-won wild fowl eggs in peat ash. This method of preserving eggs incredibly still occurs on Iceland. According to Magnus Nilsson (who describes a similar technique used on Iceland) “the alkalinity of the ash would act on the protein of the egg a bit like a thousand year-old egg in Asia, slowly curing it. At the same time the dryness of the ash would desiccate the egg still in its shell, making it possible to store the egg almost indefinitely.” (5). Whether or not the eggs were eaten raw or cooked on St. Kilda, Martin makes no mention, although he does note that they are “astringent to such as be not accustomed to eat them.”. No surprises there then.

There are several references from Orkney and the Western Islands to salting and drying seal and whale meat into ‘hams’ to preserve them, or salting and fermenting the meat otherwise. While this might also have been done with normal salt, on North Uist seaweed ash was also used when salt was not available. While on Bernera, just off the Isle of Lewis, they would use seaweed ash to salt wild sea-birds, keeping them in cow-hides (6). Using ash in preserving meat is actually nothing new or bizarre. Wood ash was once the starting point for making saltpetre, which has been used in ham and charcuterie making since the Middle Ages. In Umbria, Italy, there is a tradition of preserving salumi in the ashes from wood ovens (7). An old American preserving manual from 1918 even suggests that “ham and bacon may also be kept by placing the pieces on a layer of sifted ashes and covering with a thick layer of the same.” (8)

The remains of a 19th Century kelp burning pit on Orkney (Wikimedia Commons)

The remains of a 19th Century kelp burning pit on Orkney (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, we come to fish. Mackerel to be precise, seasoned with seaweed ash “which preserves them for some time instead of salt.” (9) by the inhabitants of North Uist. Similarly to the salting of meat, the seaweed ash draws moisture away from the flesh of the fish, also forming a barrier to further microbial activity and the naturally high salt content of the seaweed ash again helps to prevent bacterial growth. While it preserves the mackerel for a time, you certainly couldn’t leave it there indefinitely without the fish becoming entirely desiccated. What is more, the highly soluble alkali in the ash would react with the water leeching out of the fish to form lye. Leave it like this and you would be well on the way to making Norwegian lutfisk. Whether or not the islanders left their fish to undergo such a transformation, Martin makes no mention. 

So there you have it. Fish, meat, cheese and eggs, all preserved using the ashes from burnt seaweed. Seaweed was once a much more integral part of life in Scotland, not just on the Hebrides or remote St. Kilda, but all around the country. It was used for farming, as part of the diet, but also to preserve the food that kept them alive. Seaweed is now making something of a comeback into our diets, fuelled in part by a revived interest in foraging, but also by the growth in popularity of Japanese food and restaurants. And rightly so. Yet perhaps we still don’t realise just how important it once was in Scotland.

Experimenting with my own kelp-ash cure at the Edinburgh Food Studio (Orlando Addis)

Experimenting with my own kelp-ash cure at the Edinburgh Food Studio (Orlando Addis)

 

1.  Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London: Andrew Bell, 1703) p. 186
2.  Ibid. p. 60
3.  Alexander Fenton, A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology: Vol. 5 The Food of the Scots (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2007) p.245
4.  Venetoformaggi.it, (2016). Cenerentolo [online] Available at: http://www.bottegadellacarne.com/salumi- sotto-cenere.html [Accessed 22/11/2016]
5.  Magnus Nilsson, The Nordic Cookbook (London & New York: Phaidon, 2015) p. 42
6.  Martin (1703) p. 94
7.  Mondodelgusto.it, (2016). Il Mondo dei Salumi: Prosciutto Crudo sotto cenere e sotto vinaccia. [online] Available at: http://www.mondodelgusto.it/notizie/9537/mondo-dei-salumi-prosciutto-crudo-sotto-cenere- sotto-vinaccia [Accessed 22/11/2016]
8.  William V. Cruess, Home and Farm Preservation (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1918) p. 148
9.  Martin (1703) p. 56 

Anger

Maybe the television chefs that do the yell and throw things are doing so for ratings. Is the audience watching this type of cooking show just to see the star chef have a tantrum? Does the same audience watch the cooking competitions not to see the winner, but to see who fucks up and how badly? This audience must really love it when the same competitor then explodes in anger.

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Haggis Tikka Masala

Text: Ben Reade, Photos: Orlando Addis

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, abounds with 'Tartan Tat'!

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, abounds with 'Tartan Tat'!

When we start looking for our national food identity, we immediately come into stormy waters and finding an authentic, elementally Scottish cuisine is problematic to say the least. Firstly, the varied Scottish landscape means that agricultural practices and traditions differ throughout the country by necessity. Moreover, the country is populated by people whose roots and influences are international, and the cuisine reflects that. The genuine living culture of Scotland’s peoples is not a homogenous unit, but rather a vast and complex collage, formed of the individual dynamic identities of each person across the country.

In many ways our food identity is formed by embellished visions of the country itself. Scottish folk culture is a potent feature in defining the country’s self-image, but as we search for the quintessentially Scottish, rather than finding genuine indigenous accounts with which to form our complete picture, we often fall back on easier sources – on poetic notions, and romanticized stories (think Braveheart). As with most popular tourist destinations, people come with a certain preconceived idea of what to expect and, of course, it is provided – the tartan-tat shops do a roaring trade regardless of the product’s authenticity.

Language is one tool which we can use to confirm a dish’s provenance. The etymologies of dishes such as skirlie (oatmeal and onions cooked together like risotto), bree (stock) or kebbock (whole cheese) allow us to unearth their origins. Indeed Scotland has never had a single national language and has always been a plural culture. Scotland’s official languages are Gaelic, Scots and English. Orkney and Shetland were also once the home of Norn, a member of the Nordic family of languages. Just as a nation’s languages can help us understand its food, so food can equally serve as a chronical of a nation’s languages.

North Ronaldsay Sheep is the eponymous breed of the northernmost island of Orkney. The breed is thought to be around 5000 years old, a unique and primitive breed of seaweed eating sheep, originally brought to the island by Norse sailors. It forms part of a genetic lineage of sheep that stretches from Scandinavia, through Orkney, Shetland and Faroes to Iceland. In fact, the island’s agricultural identity is inextricably linked, through the history of its livestock, with other non-Scottish territories across the North Atlantic. Even Scotland’s iconic ginger ruminants are not all they seem at first glance. The prevalence today of red-coated heilan coos (highland cows) is attributed to Queen Victoria’s preference for them over the black-coated ones, which in turn saw their numbers decline as breeders sought to appease the British monarch.

What's more Scottish than haggis, neeps & tatties...right?

What's more Scottish than haggis, neeps & tatties...right?

Scotland has a rich tradition of raising cattle and the men who drove the folds (herds) to market carried with them a small pocket of oatmeal. When in need, the drovers would make a small incision, and bleed the cows into their oats, which were then stirred over a fire to make a primitive form of blood pudding. Blood - or black - puddings have a rich history in Scotland. However, one of the country’s major black pudding producers, due to increasingly centralized slaughter and meat processing no longer has access to Scottish blood and has resorted to using Spanish blood powder. Of course they would rather use locally slaughtered beasts, but as regulation becomes increasingly tight, slaughterhouses have become fewer and animals have faced longer journeys to slaughter - the fresh products like blood becoming increasingly rare at a local level. If a traditional Scottish product is made in Scotland, but with entirely foreign produce, is it still part of the country’s culinary identity?

How the cultural origins of a recipe, the etymology of its name and the geographical origin of the ingredients each reflect upon the identity of the final product is an interesting conundrum. Haggis, the standard bearer of Scotland’s culinary identity is probably adapted from a Roman recipe while its name comes from Old Norse (hǫggva meaning to hack / to chop). Besides the offal, animal fat, oats and vegetables that go into haggis, and which one can assume to find in Scotland itself, spices are also a key ingredient, and they’re grown on the other side of the world! Nor are the traditional accompaniments to haggis any more Scottish than black pepper: neeps (swedes) are most likely of Swedish origin while tatties (potatoes) of course came from the New World. On that point it is interesting to wonder why potatoes and not rice are served with haggis. Rice has been imported into Scotland since the 14th century, some 200 years before the potato even arrived. Scotland now has its own landraces of potato and different varieties of potato were often passed down through the patriarchal lines of fishing communities. The potato is now most certainly a traditional Scottish product, thanks to its domestication here. It’s plain to see that as long as a people consider something as being ‘theirs’, regardless of its history or its providence, it does become part of their identity.

Sir Walter Scott’s romantic vision of the Highlander as a ‘noble savage’, and of Scotland as this island’s last great wilderness, has much to do with outsiders’ perception of this country. Certainly the image of a huntsman and his gillie stalking a majestic stag across the barren muirs (moors) of the Highlands is one which many visitors subscribe to when they book themselves in for a hunting or fishing trip here. Of course, the prospect of sitting down to a dish of Scotland’s finest venison is a large part of the attraction. However, in a 2008 UK-wide survey, only 0.7% of households surveyed reported buying any game at all. While many remain enthusiastic about game consumption, a lack of retail distribution, compounded by food safety paranoia, fears of ‘doing too much themselves’, and a desire for convenience foods often mean that the majority of Scots don’t enjoy the incredible richness of their own country’s wild game. Most of it, sadly, gets exported. Perhaps such a romantic image of the stag is more in keeping with the British aristocracy’s long standing control of wild game in Scotland, as well as with touristic dinners in up-market restaurants, than it is with the daily fare of Scottish people.

Dalmore's stag bottles; an authentic Scottish image or just canny branding?

Dalmore's stag bottles; an authentic Scottish image or just canny branding?

When it comes to exporting Scotland’s image, both as a tourist destination and in the form of Scottish produce, authenticity is the key word. Certainly there exists a perception that everything in Scotland is tangibly more real than elsewhere. Unfortunately, however, this just plainly isn’t true and much of what people assume to be unequivocally Scottish is often just myth (again…think Braveheart).  Sadly, this doesn’t just apply to tourists but to Scots as well who too easily swallow the half-truths repackaged and taught as fact. The myth is perpetuated not just by tourists, but by locals as well, which in turn reinforces people’s expectations of what Scotland should be, rather than what it is. This does of course pose problems, but as with any culture, these myths make up part of the great collage of Scotland’s culinary identity.

Right now in Scotland there is an emerging new school of culinary trailblazers. The interest in finding a new and accurate gastronomy to call our own has never been stronger. Looking past the myths are young, independent restaurateurs, disruptive food supply networks, and markets of local produce are all gaining traction. Together they can increase the understanding of both our modern larder and culinary history. With appropriate training, revitalizing the notion of cooking in schools (and how that links to regional agriculture) has genuine hope for energizing Scotland’s cooks. In the name of public health, sustainability, and of the culinary arts, there is a genuine interest in redefining our position on the global menu, serving up a sincere reflection of our Scotland, and its colourful collage of cultures.

 

Nose to tail eating, for fish.

Most fish in Scotland is sold as fillets. Of course it is. That’s the bit we eat. Aye, but just as a good cook would never let some beef shins or chicken bones go to waste, why aren’t we thinking about fish in the same way? What about the bones, the head, the offal? What happens to that? It seems a shame to waste it.

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