Insight into cooking the traditional way
The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill. Birlinn, £20.
This classic cookbook, dating from 1929, has been reproduced in hardback in the first new edition for over 30 years.
The pioneering work has been updated with metric as well as imperial measurements and explanations of some of the terms, but remains a glorious celebration of the best of plain, homely cooking.
But this work, which would be make an impressive Christmas gift or a valuable addition to any kitchen, is more than a mere collection of recipes. Yes, it gives instruction in making Scots Hare Soup, Fat Brose (take an ox head or heel), bannocks and shortbread. But it also represents the life’s work of McNeill, a highly educated daughter of free church minister from Orkney, who starts the book with an essay, long enough to be a dissertation, on food.
For McNeill (1885-1973), in spite of her upbringing in the remote location of Holm, went to university and travelled widely. She taught English in France and Germany, lived for a while in Greece, was an organiser in the suffragette movement and was a social worker in London before moving to Edinburgh, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Her account of eating and drinking in Scotland through the ages includes Burns’ poetry and references to Dr Johnson, and mentions the cuisines of France and ancient Greece, putting the subject in a wide context of history and philosophy and showing McNeill as much more than a good cook. But it also gives a fascinating insight into her own upbringing, where food was produced at home and preserving, pickling and brewing were carried on and nothing went to waste. As cookery writer Catherine Brown says in the book’s introduction: “Economies were made on everything except the children’s education and the manse’s hospitality.”
Mutton was preserved in a barrel, suet was used to make candles and anything that remained went into white pudding, tripe was prepared and raspberry vinegar and ginger beer were made.
Much of this knowledge is featured in the book, together with recipes collected from all over Scotland. Thus we have instructions to prepare Glasgow tripe, to cure Ayrshire bacon, jelly a sheep’s head and make haggis, as well as vegetable dishes such as colcannon, kailkenny and rumbledethumps (the last two a mixture of tatties and cabbage).
These may be redolent of another era but McNeill also includes recipes that are just as relevant today. Superlative Game Soup, Red Pottage and Salmon Soup are just some, with mutton pies or meat balls for a main course. Shetland is featured in a section on fish liver dishes.
Ways to make bannocks of various types (who needs to pay to go to a workshop?), including silverweed bannocks, where the powdered plant root is used as flour (right up to date now that foraging is fashionable), scones, crumpets, biscuits and the shortest shortbread are all included.
There are various seaweed recipes (also very fashionable) and for making cheese. Then there are lots for puddings (many made with fresh fruit) marmalades, jams and jellies and sweets such as toffee and tablet.
Finally there is a section on beverages including punch, wine made from the juice of a birch tree and ale made with heather or treacle.
The book is a fascinating insight into old crofting ways, many of which will be familiar to Shetland readers, as well as being a valuable resource in the kitchen.