New Scottish Cookery
by Nick Nairn
Published by BBC Books
264 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Scotland is known for many things. For whiskey, of course. For the Highlands. For wode-faced warriors (thanks to Mel Gibson, as well as history). For a very special monster said to live in a loch. It's known for the invention of the telephone, the pneumatic tire and the bagpipes. It's known, as I said, for many things. One thing it's not known for -- at least abroad -- is its cookery. Visitors to Scotland tell horror stories involving breakfasts swimming in fat, of gray roasts and overcooked mutton and vegetables boiled for so long, their origins are indecipherable.
Like many such tales, these stories can be true. And they can be false. It all depends on where you choose to eat. Nick Nairn, author of New Scottish Cookery, host of several food-related BBC television shows (including the very popular Ready Steady Cook) and executive chef of Nairns, cites WWII for having had a negative impact on the food of Scotland. "In Scotland," writes Nairn, "we still suffer a bit of a hangover from the post-war intensive farming industry, when food was seen simply as fuel to get you through the day."
The new Scottish cookery, says Nairn, is influenced by a growing appreciation for the bounties of Scotland. "It is only in the past 15 years that we have begun to value the fact that we have the most wonderful produce available in the world, a fact well known on the continent, to where, sadly, a lot of our produce is exported."
Yet a glimpse at traditional Scottish cooking reveals how the diet of Scots in the past was heavily influenced by the seasons, by region and, of course, by poverty. Some of Scotland's most famous dishes -- haggis, Scotch broth and porridge -- have developed from the cheapest and most basic ingredients -- oatmeal, barley and sheeps' entrails. Scottish flair did, however, manage to transform these staples into wonderfully tasty dishes, which are enjoyed all round the English-speaking world.
Though Nairn passes on the haggis in New Scottish Cookery, many of the dishes we think of as Scottish standards have been included. The section on Soup is a good example for the whole book.
Partan Bree -- which translates to Crab Gravy -- as interpreted by Nairn is a rich crab soup thickened by cream and rice. Another traditional soup, Cullen Skink, is flavored with smoked haddock and enriched with cream. Nairn has also included his own recipe for Scotch Broth "though I've replaced the traditional lamb with beef and left out the split peas. It's as if the nineties had never happened."
Alongside these traditional Scottish soups, Nairn has included soups that are more exotic and some that are completely contemporary. All, however, offer at least a nod to good, Scottish produce. An excellent Carrot, Ginger and Honey soup, for instance, includes the use of clear heather honey. Other honeys can be substituted, but heather honey would give it a truly distinctive flavor. I used the honey I happened to have on hand and, to be completely honest, I wouldn't have used heather honey in the soup even if I'd had it. Heather honey is hard to come by where I live and the stuff is so wonderful, I find it difficult not to eat it with a spoon, never mind melting it into a soup. You'll make your own decision, but it does illustrate one of the points Nairn makes:
I've created these recipes using the great produce that surrounds me but, if you can't access Scottish produce, they'll still work using your best local produce.
In other words, if you're not in Scotland your results will vary, but it's still possible to get great results.
New Scottish Cookery is a beautiful and well rounded book. The food styling is flawless, the photos superb, Nairns directions sensible and easy to follow. Though almost everything looks approachable -- and a great deal looks exceptionally yummy -- here are some personal highlights: the Hot Raspberry Soufflés are easy and impressive, the Bashed Neeps and Chappit Tatties (that's mashed turnips and potatoes in other parts of the world) are extremely easy to prepare and very funny to say. Ditto the Stovies (an especially Scottish execution of potatoes and gravy) and the Skirlie (kind of like Scottish grits, but made with oatmeal). I was delighted with the Fresh Pea and Ham Risotto with Mint for the very reason Nairn states at the beginning of the recipe: "An Italian classic using the best of Scottish ingredients."
Appropriately, Nairn has included many recipes calling for beef, lamb and various game meats, because Scotland is well known for all three. Most of these recipes, however, are far from traditional. Warm Salad of Roast Beef with Mustard Greens and New Potatoes and Loin of Venison with a Game and Chocolate Sauce are two of my favorites from this section.
Whether you're cooking in or a half planet away, New Scottish Cookery is a delight. | September 2004
Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.