From Sheep Heid Broth to Battered Mars Bars, Olive Geddes, curator of a new exhibition showcasing Scottish food history, shares some fabulous facts.
Part of 2015’s Year of Food and Drink Scotland, ‘Lifting the lid: 400 years of Food & Drink in Scotland’ reveals some weird and wonderful facts about its rich culinary history. Curator of the exhibition, Olive Geddes, shares a few.
Scots are said to eat more sweets than any other country in the world. Tablet and fudge were first made in Scotland in the late 18th century and ‘boilings’ such as ‘soor plooms’ and ‘Hawick balls’ were made at home and sold on the streets by women called ‘sweetie wives’. But sugar was expensive when it was first imported in large quantities from the West Indies from the mid-17th century. It was way beyond the pocket of ordinary people.
Dishes such as Sheep Heid Broth used to be very popular in Scotland. However, the broth was traditionally carried in with the sheep’s head in the dish, so I’m not surprised it has since has died out. Shortbread has been made in Scotland since at least the early 17th century. This delicious biscuit is tasty, easy to make and appeals to those with a sweet tooth, so it has justly stood the tests of time.
The traditional way to make porridge is with water and salt... but on special occasions milk and sugar might have been used. Porridge made from oats has been a staple of Scottish cooking for centuries and was the traditional food given to labourers to sustain them throughout the day. It is as good for you today as it’s always been.
Rhubarb was known as ‘Spring Fruit’ in the early 19th century. During the course of my research for the exhibition, I expected to find recipes for hot puddings and creamy desserts, but was surprised to find a savoury ‘Spring Fruit Soup’ made with rhubarb and ham stock in a recipe book from Dumfriesshire - an interesting idea.
In the 17th century, potatoes were grown by the wealthy as a novelty. In John Reid’s The Scots Gard’ner, published in Edinburgh in 1683, he offers instruction on gardening as well as cooking advice. His suggestion for potatoes was to treat them like parsnips: ‘boyl and peal, chop and bruise them well, powre on butter, and set them on a coal, and if you please strew a little cinamon [cinnamon] upon them'. I’d like to try this one – the addition of cinnamon sounds intriguing.
Curry first came on the scene as early as the late 18th century. There’s an advert in an Edinburgh newspaper of 1798 for ‘Real India Curry Powder’ for sale in a grocer’s shop. It was extremely expensive so the target market must have been the Edinburgh elite. It seems likely that many well-to-do Scots first tasted curry in India or England and brought the recipes back with them. Of course, the Scottish appetite for a good curry has only grown over the years!
There are many more recipes for haggis in English recipe books than Scottish. Thanks to Robert Burns’ patriotic ‘Address to the Haggis’ and that fact that it is traditionally eaten at Burns Suppers, it is very much associated with Scotland, but many other countries have similar dishes using parts of animals that might otherwise be discarded. There are claims that the word haggis comes from the French ‘hachis’ meaning to chop and, historically, the dish was not peculiar to Scotland.
The Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven claims to be the birthplace of the Deep Fried Mars Bar. They can be bought there today but, thankfully, don’t feature largely in the Scottish diet. I do know a few people who have tasted them though –not too bad, apparently!
‘Lifting the lid: 400 years of Food & Drink in Scotland is open at the National Library of Scotland until 8th November 2015.
Interview by Emily Jenkinson