Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scottish Cookery - Catherine Brown

A holiday where I can haul along as many books as I please, buy a pile more, and spend some serious time reading them is my idea of heaven, it's not often I come back from a holiday without a pile of new books, my recent trip to the borders was no exception. The book I'm most excited about is 'Scottish Cookery' by Catherine Brown, it'd been on my wish list for a while but never quite made it to the top. The moment I saw it however it became a must buy - and this is one of the problems with internet shopping - it's much easier to stay on the fence over a thing when you can't actually see it. It's a classic sales technique to hand the prospective customer an item, once they're holding it they're much more likely to buy it.

So it was with 'Scottish Cookery', online it sounded interesting, in my hand it came home with me. It's a fascinating book which has been around since the mid 80's but the current edition has been thoroughly updated, it's absolutely worth having. It's a blend of food and social history with recipes, starting with a description of a meal eaten in the edge of the west coast back in the 1970's and a consideration of the diet enjoyed by the average rural Scot before the clearances. Back in the pre industrialised day the Scots diet was frugal but varied made up of whatever could be caught, foraged, farmed, and preserved. Post industrialisation feeding the urban poor is a different matter, it's probably worth noting that the life expectancy in the slummier parts of Glasgow is considerably lower than the rest of the country even now.

Scotland does well for raw ingredients, there's a plethora of game, excellent beef and lamb, all sorts of fish and shellfish (many of which are far easier to find for sale in Europe than the UK), lots of oats and barley, plenty of berries (and rhubarb) on the fruit front, and no shortage of dairy. There's also a long history of cultural exchanges to make things interesting. It's not all haggis, porridge, and deep fried Mars bars, and the foodie revolution hasn't passed Scotland by. One thing that Brown covers that's really caught my imagination is the Fife diet (which I think I'd heard about before but not in any great detail) in 2007 a group of friend pledged to only eat food from Fife for a year, now there are over 3000 participants and demand to fill gaps in the diet have motivated local suppliers to try new things - Fife now has a local cheese.

Realistically eating locally like this can only be a middle class lifestyle choice - it's expensive and as a country we can't produce enough to feed ourselves, but anything that encourages a reconnection with the food we eat is a great thing. (Leicestershire residents were recently up in arms in the local paper about venison being sold from a local country park where it had been sourced from. How, they asked, were they to explain to their children that the deer they'd just seen was now dinner? Post horse meat scandal I would have thought it might be reassuring but then I'd rather know where my food comes from). That it only takes a relatively small number of people pursuing those lifestyle choices to make it feasible for artisan producers to make a living is also quite exciting, it doesn't always have to be about big business.

It's from this book that I've also latched onto the idea of cultural exchange in food which I like the sound of so much more than fusion food (which I guess means something else anyway). Scotland is good on cultural exchange - there are all those sailors who went off and hopefully discovered more than scurvy, the auld alliance with France, the Norse influence that stretches along the coast, interaction with the Dutch herring fleet, all the Italians who came to Scotland (not sure why, but they did and they bought gelato with them) and then all the emigrants who went off to conquer new worlds and who it could reasonably be supposed sent recipes back home sometimes. More recently there are Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Polish influences adding something to the mix (though I'm a bit doubtful about the curried haggis balls I see for sale in Hawick). It's exciting, recipes are full of clues about shared culture and history.

So far I've been dipping in and out of this book for the cultural history more than the recipes though there are no shortage of things bookmarked to try at some point. It's an eminently readable book in the same way that Jane Grigson's and Claudia Roden's books are which is the highest praise I can give - essentially it's inspirational and practical in equal measures, so well worth seeking out.

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