Monday, 16 May 2011

You'll have had your tea?

I haven't posted about food for a while. I've still been cooking as much and we have moved next to an organic food market so there's been plenty of experimentation. I've been lucky enough to meet some amazing Scottish producers and will be writing about their wonderful products in the weeks to come. I've decided to start fresh with writing about what food and cooking means to me.

For me being a Scot, this phrase sums up how I feel about food: put another tattie in the pot!

This phrase if you are unfamiliar with it used to be used by my grandmother. If someone popped in for a blether or were visiting the house this would be shouted through to the kitchen. The visitor would then be ushered to the table and a bowl of something would appear, piping hot. I think that with my mothers generation busier schedule this saying died out a bit but it's something that I've always lived by. I like feeding people and welcoming them into my home with something hearty.

Scottish produce has had a simple history and before the hardcore influx of international cuisine, peoples palates were simple. Even though I'm only in my 30's my parents generation were brought up on mince and tatties, stews, soups with very little variation. We lived outside Edinburgh and for them going into the city for a meal was a rare treat. My Grandfather grew vegetables and my Uncles still do. These would be pickled to preserve those that weren't needed for soups and stews or simply given away to neighbours and passers by. During visits, I would be sent out to the potting shed or the green houses to collect fresh tomatoes for lunch or strings of onions that had been drying out for soup. The working class diet was simple but they did not complain for it was good and wholesome. Fancy food - cloutie dumpling or black bun - was for special occasions, and haggis, neeps and tatties were for Burns Night (January 25).

There is a very interesting history attached to Scottish produce. Martin Martin (yes, that really was his name), writing in 1703 in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, tells of the ordinary diet of the people of Skye: there was butter, milk, cheese, potatoes and brochan (oatmeal boiled with water). For poor highlanders and lowlanders, meat was a luxury that was seldom enjoyed except at festivities. However, if there were casualties among the cows, sheep or goats, people would use the entire animal for black puddings, white puddings, sheep's head broth, goat hams and pickled mutton, which would last for months.

Poorer people who lived near the sea would eat shellfish. Oysters, crabs and lobsters were everyday fare. Salmon used to be so plentiful that farm workers would stipulate that they did not want to eat it more than twice a week. There is a lovely tale of a highlander (I can't remember where from, I'll add a link later) visiting London in the early 1800s and ordering beef steak for himself and salmon for his servant. Naturally because the fish was so cheap in Scotland, the underling would dine on this. The man was surprised to discover that his own meal cost only a few pence but his servant's was several shillings. In all the references to meals and food throughout literature - whether it is the critical Samuel Johnson writing about the pre-breakfast dram in 1773, Dorothy Wordsworth writing in 1803 about oat-bread and blue-milk cheese for breakfast or Tom Steel writing about the St Kildans' fulmar brose and puffin-flavoured porridge - there is one overriding sentiment noted by all visitors. And that is hospitality. Given my love of ancient history and my experience in studying the Ancient Greeks, I think there is a link in my mind between them and the Scots. There existed in Ancient Greece, the concept of xenia. This was a particular type of hospitality shown to those who were far from home, manifest in a ritual. Xenia consists of three basic rules:
  • The respect from host to guest. The host must be hospitable to the guest and provide them with food and drink and a bath, if required. It is not polite to ask questions until the guest has stated their needs.
  • The respect from guest to host. The guest must be courteous to their host and not be a burden.
  • The parting gift (xenion, ξεινήιον) from host to guest. The parting gift is to show the host's honour at receiving the guest.
Short of giving people a bath (!), I adore this concept albeit in a much more simplistic and informal form. People are so busy these days that we forget to appreciate those around us. Although we lived less than an hour away from Edinburgh, as a child I would hear my grandparents mocking the people of Edinburgh for their lack of hospitality  There exists a famous phrase: you'll have had your tea. Unwelcome visitors who drop in unannounced around teatime (Scotland: tea = dinner) would be greeted with this idiom. Because Scots are notoriously tight with money, this would be said to deter or embarrass scroungers (I would argue this but I can't really).

Even non-Scots can understand the sentiment, if not all the words, in this verse from Burns's famous poem about egalitarianism, A Man's a Man for a' That, written shortly after the French Revolution (with which Burns sympathised), in 1795.

What though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey and a' that
Gie fools their skills and knaves their wine
A Man's a Man for a' that.

There has never been anything wrong with homely fare. Let us revisit our roots, return to natural ingredients, eschew processed foods, and remember that Scots cooking means honest and - most importantly - good food. The food scene in Scotland is thriving and has gone from strength to strength in the last few decades. I'm hoping that by introducing you guys to new Scottish products that you can share some of this sentiment with me.

Slange Var!

 Slange Var

 Pronounced [Slan je varr]. This is the Scottish for cheers (santé). "Slainte Mhath" in Gaelic.

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