This is a charming cookbook filled with surprises that twist and turn like the waterways that surround the islands of Scotland. The recipes here are traditional ones and surely ones most of us have never experienced. They present us with a culinary journey teeming with the flavors of the Scottish coast and island gardens.
When we think of Scotland, we have images of heather-laced hills and mountains, and of the deep lochs edged into mountain ravines. There is more, though, to Scotland: 790 islands, many of them populated for centuries by hardy folks experiencing brief summers and long, windy winters.
Author Sue Lawrence grew up in Scotland and has always visited the islands to enjoy the scenery and food. An award-winning food writer for almost three decades, she became concerned about the potential loss of the recipes and cuisine that had evolved on those islands.
This book is dedicated to those local ingredients and recipes. Change has been inevitable on those islands. Refrigeration and improved transport make, say, berries available year round, rather than waiting patiently for a late spring to warm and nourish native raspberries. The island stores have ingredients from far beyond the local geography. The locals have cleverly integrated “new” ingredients into their classical recipes.
The culinary environment can be easily summarized. The islands are surrounded by seas with a bounty of fish, shellfish, and, yes, even seaweed. Basic vegetables are grown on island soil. To instill complexity in the dishes, combinations of vegetables are integrated, like a Seaweed Salad based on celeriac and carrots.
The recipes here come in ten short chapters. Let’s tour the book and highlight some of the definitive ideas you might enjoy.
Breakfast Breaks has recipes using beremeal, a barley brought to Britain in the 8th century by the Vikings. It’s a specialty grain, one that, no, you cannot buy at Amazon. You’ll need to visit Scotland to get your own supply so you can enjoy Cranberry and Orange Bere Muffins.
Soup, Vegetables, and Seaweed offers some ideas that you might find interesting for your Thanksgiving table. There is Clapshot, mashed potatoes, and turnips with butter and chives. Reested Mutton Soup is surely intense;. mutton is salted, rested for 10 days, then hung over a peat fire until very dry and cardboard stiff. Sliced thin, the mutton goes into a pot with onion, carrots, turnips, and potatoes
For our Thanksgiving this year, we will enjoy the Braised Red Cabbage with Blueberries. The flavor mix here includes juniper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, orange, cider vinegar, onion, and apple. It is sure to be bright with color and flavor.
Lastly, I am intrigued by the Seaweed Salad that includes celeriac, lemon, and carrots, plus a dressing of ginger, vinegar, yogurt, and sesame seeds
Fish covers ideas central to the islands. There is a familiar Scotch Pancakes with Smoked Trout and Horseradish. And a Hot Smoked Trout Potato Gratin. Hot smoking is a style of fast smoking of meats that is centuries old and still practiced by the island natives. Lastly, salt cod is, for many of us, an acquired taste. So I am a bit curious about the Salt Cod Pâté. Who would imagine?
Shellfish deserve their own separate chapter. You’ll find a tempting Islay Whisky Crab Rarebit [toasted bread topped with Cheddar-style cheese, some mustard, tabasco, Worcestershire, and crab meat]. Rarebit is a Welsh dish that has migrated to Scotland and is ideal for those cold winters. Many Welsh versions are made with beer but all versions let you enjoy beer on the side.
In this same chapter, there is a Beef and Oyster Pie and the Scallop Tempura with Dipping Sauce is one of those dishes representing “outside” influences.
Meat begins with Braised Shoulder of Shetland Lamb with Anchovies and Rosemary, a rather comprehensive amalgam of sea and land.
You might enjoy the Spicy Beef Soup: diced beef with onion, carrots, red peppers, zucchini, ginger, chili, curry paste, tomatoes, tomato purée, beef stock, and sour cream.
Game reflects the hunting tradition that is still deeply held on the islands. Venison Casserole is suggested with red pepper, tomatoes, carrots, onion and “gutsy” red wine. I like that “gutsy” adjective and I intend to ask my wine merchant for suggestions. Venison Lasagna will be a rich treat and the Chicken and Mushrooms with Whisky Sauce points to the common use of whisky in many of the recipes here.
Berries and Rhubarb points to the dependence of island residents on native plants for their sustenance. There is a very Scottish Rhubarb, Honey and Oat Cobbler. Author Sue Lawrence offers her own interpretation of a Canadian recipe, Blueberry Grunt, a blueberry pudding topped with sweet dumplings.
Baking ideas are traditional and rich. You’ll find Lemon Oat Bars, made with a crumble of flour, oats, butter, and sugar and then filled with a mixture of condensed milk and lemon juice. Cakes with intense flavors are offered: Rhubarb, Apple and Ginger Cake and Toffee Almond Cake. The Islay Whisky Cake continues the whisky glory paired with a battery of supporting flavors: cloves, cinnamon, dates, walnuts, pineapple. And, to ice this cake, you’ll employ sugar, whisky and still more pineapple juice.
Cheese has been made on the islands for centuries and is woven into composite recipes like Tattie Scones with Cheese and Spinach. The scones here are made with mashed potatoes. Perhaps for a cocktail hour with all that whisky, you could enjoy Cheese and Chili Puffs [canapes!].
Honey and Gin may seem to be an odd name for a single chapter but it all works. You can begin with simple Honey Ice Cream. On the complex scale, you might enjoy Smoked Mackerel, Baby Potato, Crispy Bacon Salad with Gin-Infused Caper Dressing. The author assures us that gin-infused capers are something not to be ignored. Gin is happily employed in Gin Mayonnaise, Venison Gin Pie, Gin Cured Salmon, and — I’m not making this up — Gin and Tonic Cake. My wife’s favorite cocktail is a G&T. I wonder if she is about to enjoy a new favorite cake!
A Taste of Scotland’s Islands has recipes that will intrigue you and recipes you cannot ignore. I have stickies on a half dozen that my wife and I will be testing over the next few weeks. Where to begin? Oh, gee, the Gin and Tonic Cake. I don’t know whether to serve it with coffee or just have a tall G&T on the side. I’ll let you know.
If you have foodies on your holiday gift list, this book will be a surprise to be remembered. And treasured.