Text: Ben Reade, Photos: Orlando Addis
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.
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.
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.