Category Archives: scotland

Robbie Burns night

Hey! It’s the 200th entry! Woot!

Today, January 25th, is a pretty big day for two reasons. As I type this, the State of the Union is being delivered to millions of TV sets and will outline public policy in the U.S. for the next year. The other reason is one that is centuries old, and while it may only meet the amount of drinking as the first, it certainly yields good food: Robbie Burns Day.

Robert Burns is Scotland’s national poet, despite the fact that he died 215 years ago. His friends celebrated him after he died, then all of Scotland did, and now pockets of people all over the world do. There’s a program of events that involves readings, toasts, and of course lots of scotch drinking. We prepared a night of Scottish food and helped three people celebrate their first Robbie Burns night, which is always fun.

We started the evening with Scotch eggs, which I just tasted two years ago. They always seem to please. Of course, deep-frying anything is a pretty good way to make it enjoyable. We made it with a mustard sauce which I found here that was easy to make and matched the eggs very nicely. The recipe for Scotch eggs themselves didn’t come from that site, but from a book from way back titled The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors with the entertaining subtitle “Recipes you should have gotten from your grandmother” and is reproduced below. A note on the recipe: if you buy spiced sausage meat as we did, you’re good – the meat can elevate this dish from good to fantastic quite easily. If you buy unseasoned, use the seasoning in the link above – it looks pretty tasty and would have pretty much the same effect. Either way, seasoning is the way to go.

The haggis was next, with full pomp and poetry (my terrible Scottish accent got complimented, but only because I was the only one willing to read Address to a Haggis), along with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes, mashed and roasted) and peas (not a Scottish tradition, but some colour was needed). We ended up making Pretend Haggis, as 1) it’s very difficult to get the real haggis ingredients without lots of planning, and 2) our plan for haggis with some organ meat got put off by a butcher who didn’t order a heart. Fake haggis it is! It was still quite tasty – the oats provide a pleasant, different texture, and the lamb and liver gave a very different taste to the entire project. No picture, as it just looked like a meatloaf – no sheep stomach or sausage links to put it in.

tablet

Finally, we finished with Scottish shortbread and tablet, two treasures I discovered when I was in Scotland. The shortbread turned out great, though it wasn’t as buttery as I remember it from Scotland. I think they used twice as much butter as I did, and I used a lot of butter – butter makes any dessert heavenly. The recipe also came from The Frugal Gourmet book.

I was quite nervous about the tablet, though, which I got from A Wee Bit of Cooking, which is a really good cooking blog. There were lots of warnings in the recipe about how you could screw up, but somehow I managed to evade the dire predictions and have it turn out. I think the key is patience, low heat, and arm strength (for stirring). You can’t ever stop stirring and you have to be able to stay there and do that for up to an hour before you can walk away. That’s hard, especially if you have something else on the go. I did the shortbread first and was going to start the tablet while it was baking, but wisely decided to separate the two activities.

All in all, a successful meal and a successful celebration of Robert Burns. And maybe we’ll take a cup of kindness yet for auld lang syne!

Scotch Eggs

8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled, at room temperature
1/4 c all-purpose flour
1.5 lb bulk pork sausage
1 c dry bread crumbs
1/2 tsp ground sage
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, beaten
6-8 c peanut oil for deep-frying (I used vegetable oil)

Coat each hard-boiled egg with flour. Divide the sausage into 8 equal parts (or just grab a bunch as needed and smash it out, like I did).
Make a patty out of each bit of sausage and use it to to each egg completely. Mix the bread crumbs, sage, and salt. Dip the sausage-coated eggs into the beaten eggs; roll in bread-crumb mixture.
Heat the oil to 375* for deep-frying. Deep-fry the eggs, 4 at a time, 7 minutes’ minimum. Drain. Serve hot or cold.

Scottish Shortbread

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 heaping teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 c sugar
1/2 lb butter, softened

Place all of the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl and blend well. If you have a heavy-duty electric mixer, cut in the butter with the machine. If not, do it by hand with a pastry blender.
Knead the dough by hand for just a moment and form it into a circle 3/4″ thick on a nonstick baking sheet and flute the edges (I had to put some flour down and roll it with a rolling pin, then use a thin plastic sheet to pry it up and place it on a baking sheet. Then again, I wanted a nice, smooth top. Definitely flute the edges, though.) Prick the whole circle with a fork. Bake in a preheated 325*F oven for 30 minutes or until it just begins to turn a light golden brown. Allow it to cool for a few minutes, then remove it to a rack for final cooling. When cool, the cookie can be cut, but the Scots simply break it up into pieces and serve it with tea.

If you wish to form smaller cookies from this recipe, just remember to watch the baking time. Smaller cookies will cook more quickly.

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robbie burns night

Well, it’s two weeks after the dinner and coming up on a month after the day itself, but a Robbie Burns night in Taiwan, complete with haggis and deep-fried eggs, does need to be reported, even if it’s after the fact.

It may only be the second time they’ve held the event, but it went off fairly well. The poems were read, the history given, the haggis paraded, and the music played. There were no bagpipes this year – they had a piper, but the closest the pipes got was Taipei, unfortunately. However, this did not put too much of a damper on the evening.

Food: we had an appetizer of deep fried eggs with brown sauce. Egg wrapped in meat and then deep fried – sounds Scottish to me! The brown sauce is classic – they tried a fancy one and it was OK last year, so they went with the original this year. Perfect match.

After the ceremony of parading the haggis about, the food was serves. The tatties and haggis were there, but no neeps (turnips, if you remember from Scotland). Yams were served instead. The haggis was good. Peppery and with onions, it was different than what I had had in Scotland. I think I prefer the highland version given the choice, but for haggis in Taiwan, it was terrific.

Not many stayed around for the singing of Auld Lang Syne at midnight (we didn’t), but the evening was fun and full of good food and was considered a success by everyone there, as far as I’m concerned.

a belt of scotch

The last food/drink entry about the UK I have to offer is a post from the northern highlands in Scotland, home of the legendary drink, scotch. Now, I was a mediocre fan of scotch before I came to visit Adam and Lindsay this summer (my gracious hosts and the reason I came to visit) – it was another alcohol, albeit one of the more expensive and, uh, snobby ones, which is probably why I hadn’t tried that much of it. Adam is a connoisseur, as was Garret, my other tour buddy, and Adam gave me a sampling of what was to come in his home. I had always thought that scotch had to be harsh. Like brandy. I don’t really like brandy.

To be honest, most of the scotch I had tried was blended scotch, a distinction which was made clear to me again and again. A blend comes from a number of sources and while it is still quite nice and tasty in many cases, it lacks any kind of finish, an important distinction. Single malts – as their name may indicate – come from a single batch, and like wine, take distinct smells, tastes, and finishes from their unique conditions. And those conditions create an amazing world of flavours and effects, one which I discovered this summer.

We visited three distilleries, each with a different kind of tour. For me, the uninitiated member, it was a perfect combination. Glenmorangie offered a very basic tour giving basic very basic information: how the grains are put in water to steep (we got a heady whiff of that – like a hammer up your nose!), how they are filtered and then head for the stills (see pic of the still) and boiled to take the alcohol off. It was then over to see the barrels and barrels of scotch sitting and waiting to age properly and gain their own characters. Afterwards we tried many types of scotch (well, the other boys did. I nerded it up camera-style), trying one of our favourites through the entire trip – the 30-year-old scotch done in a Spanish sherry oloroso cask.

The other two distilleries were pretty much the same tour in basic content, although the Balvenie was a very in-depth explanation of everything, from the fact that they are one of three (or two – not many) distilleries that still do their own malting (sprouting and roasting) of the barley, as well a short tour of their own cooperage (barrel-making and fixing). I think they may be the only place with both in operation. We saw the peat that is sometimes added for smokiness, the barrels (they had a 50-year-old barrel in the basement that we got to smell. It was a sweeter batch, but had so much character to it I almost reached out to shake its hand), and the wooden washbacks (where the water and barley sit at first – the other distilleries we visited had metal ones).

The devil is in the details, that much was made obvious to me. Shape and height of stills, material of washbacks, where the water and peat come from, type of barley used, even small differences in times for fermenting and boiling. Of course, the barrels used make a huge difference, since that’s where they sit most of the time. It started as the frugality of the Scots had them using American bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks – used good, low prices! – and now it’s carefully controlled by each distillery. Everyone’s got their source, and the difference it makes is fantastic.

Our last tour was Aberlour, and while it didn’t differ in technicalities at all, the guide made all the difference. He was an energetic young man who sat us down and gave us a history of scotch, of the English disdain until other alcohol crops failed and all that was available was this product from Scotland. He was funny, flippant, and well-informed and the tasting was the most fun I had on any tour. The other people taking the tour were very friendly and with a little booze in all of us (it was our second of the day), conversation and laughter flowed about as freely as our spirits.

The whole process has been an eye-opener for me. I’ve found that I like sweeter scotches, those that are finished (or spend their whole life) in sherry and port casks, while those done in bourbon or wine casks tend to be a little harsh for me. I’m definitely not a fan of smokiness (peat) – a little goes a very long way. That said, I’ll try them all, as you never know. Scotch flavours are very strong as well. As I type this I’m sipping a Bowman bordeaux-cask that is very smoky and tastes heavily of licorice. Licorice? I know! But it’s there. Others taste buttery or oily or have hints of vanilla. They’re like wines, though I find scotch flavours almost overpowering compared to wine. Then there’s the scotch flavour itself – not exactly light!

All in all, I’m very glad I took this tour. In addition to new food and beautiful scenery, I got a peek into this world that I had sort of thought was populated by greying gentlemen and cigar-smokers. It doesn’t have to be that way and while I may not drink scotch every day in the future, I will be sure to have a good bottle on the shelf in case someone who wants to appreciate it visits.

Thanks to Adam and Garret for the company, the expertise, and the many good times on this trip!

my european fluid intake

One thing I can tell you, Europeans have no shortage of ways for you to quench your thirst. Especially if it’s alcoholic. Good wine is relatively cheap, there’s a wide variety of any alcohol made within the EU, there are more beers made just in England that I could care to count, cider is made from just about every fruit now (and probably a few animals), and there are even some non-alcoholic drinks unique to the region. Here’s a brief summary.

Let’s start chronologically: the first thing I had outside of the house. Lunch my first full day was at a pub where a month-long cider celebration was going on: different ciders each week. Ciders are just coming into their own here after being seen as a drink for teenagers for so long. Now they are drunk by businessmen, hipsters, and pretty much everyone else. They come in all sorts of flavours, not just the standard apple. Pictured here are the four we tried with lunch: apple, mixed berry, blackberry, and pear & strawberry. I also tried elderberry, pear (on its own), and other berries. This was possibly the most impressive part of the trip, in terms of drinks, for me.

Alright, English beers. The friend whom I was there visiting is on a mission to drink as many different kinds of beer as he can while there. He’s been there over a year now and is still going strong, though starting to narrow the field on English beers. It’s hard because it seems that every community has its own brewery. Take Wychwood here – we had high tea around the corner from the brewery then a pint at the pub next door (unfortunately, the brewery was closed when we went to inquire about tours). There are bitters, ales, lagers, stouts – each are well differentiated from other members of their families and from similar beers from other breweries.

Not content with their own beer, the English also import large numbers of foreign beers as well. Of course, the big names are in there, but lots of small beers come in as well, especially in beer pubs. These two are from Sweden and Cyprus (the Swedish one, Crocodile, was actually quite good). We had them in a beer haus in Glasgow.

The beer in Copenhagen (bachelor party) was only OK and pretty expensive. I mean, there was Carlsberg, but that’s available anywhere. Tuborg is the swill of kings, though Tuborg classic is decent. I remember drinking some horrible beer with the picture of an elephant on it from 7-11. Then we got to the bar and just drank shots. At least the Jager is cheap there.

Stout is fairly popular everywhere here – much more than in North America, I’d say – but no where is it as popular as Ireland. I went out one evening with Chris’s uncle and some friends of his and had to get a picture of the wee little table teetering with the effort of holding up a half-dozen pints of Guinness. Even the ladies were drinking stout! You certainly don’t see that everywhere you go.

Scotland even has its own brew for the teetotalers, children, and hung-over – Irn Bru. It’s a soda that’s made and sold in Scotland, rather like Inca Kola in Peru. It also outsells Coca Cola here, again like Inca Kola. The taste even reminded me of Inca Kola – a sweet bubble-gummy flavour. This one finished with a bitter orange flavour, however, which I wasn’t a big fan of. Still, something different.

If you’d like to see a little more of what I drank, you can check out the drinkin’ set on Flickr. A specific scotch entry is coming soon.

deep-fried scotland

And now for the darker side of Scottish cuisine: that which is plunged into oil. I didn’t sample much of it, but I saw enough of it. Let’s go chronologically. First, the small-town supermarket.

Yup, haggis, blood pudding, and even Spam. “Succulent pieces of Spam covered in a deliciously light and crispy golden batter”. Ha! If that isn’t lipstick on a pig (ahahaha!), I don’t know what is. Anyway, this was just supermarket cooler merchandise (only a pound! How cheap!) – the real goods lay in the late-night frieries (my term. I think they’re actually called chippers or chippies or chipperies. Something like that.)

That’s what you see when you walk in. Everything covered in batter and a deep golden colour. The menu offered fish and chips, deep-fried hamburgers, deep-fried pizza, and deep-fried chocolate bars, amongst other things that I no longer remember. We had just eaten, so I didn’t feel like any of the deep-friend meals they offered, but I did have to try a deep-friend Mars Bar. They also had a couple of other chocolate bars, though I can’t recall which at the moment. Maybe Oh Henry? It would have to be something with nougat so that there would be something there to withstand the intense heat of the oil, as they cook that sucker for a solid minute or more.

As you can see, it comes out soaked in grease (for obvious reasons). It is kind of nice and melty, a bit of that salty vs. sweet battle going on, though my mind was shouting at me that it was so wrong to be eating it. My teeth hurt afterward. I finished it as the Pretenders (whom we had been following around Scotland, it seemed) finished their set up the road at the giant stadium set up in the castle. Not an experience I’ll soon forget for many reasons, but that sums up pretty much my whole visit to Scotland.

scottish food – non-deep-fried stuff

Scotland has a reputation for enjoying anything deep-fried. While I saw ample evidence of this while there, there are a number of delicious foods that aren’t deep-fried available there as well.

The first of these foods that I fell in love with was Scottish shortbread. A simple snack, it totally entranced me and I had to stop myself from chomping down more. Delicate in taste and texture, incredibly buttery, it was a wonderful snack while I was sitting in the back of the car. I’ve since found a couple of recipes for it on allrecipes.com. It’s going to take a a bit of playing around to get it right and I’m eager to try the recipe with spices (I made the plain one with just eggs, flour, and sugar for Christmas). Shortbread is one of my favourite kind of cookies, in case you hadn’t noticed.

At the same place we bought shortbread, Adam also picked up some lemon cheese. If you haven’t heard of it before, don’t worry, most haven’t. Lemon butter might be a more accurate term, at least in my mind. It has a consistency somewhere between apple butter (nice and spreadable) and honey (not as sticky, but thicker than apple butter). And wow is it ever lemony! Great on toast. Well, as long as you like lemon.

My favourite food item bought from this little tourist stop along Loch Lomond, however, was Scottish tablet. It’s a sugar bar, essentially, with milk, all boiled down perfectly. Check out the recipe on A Wee Bit of Cooking. I want to try making it but am waiting until I have a large block of time to devote to it. Anyway, it melts on your tongue (even more melty than shortbread) and tastes like a perfect piece of well-made candy – sweet, but not sickeningly so. It has a vanilla taste to it due to, well, vanilla.

Lastly, one cannot visit Scotland and avoid haggis. Everyone makes a big deal about what’s in it, but after reading Fast Food Nation, I’m always leery of beef in the states. At least when you’re eating innards you know they’re going to get thoroughly cleaned because everyone knows where they’ve been. Once it’s in your mouth it doesn’t taste any different than any other meat. Haggis always seems to be serves as haggis, neeps, and tatties, with neeps being turnips and tatties being potatoes. It’s pretty chilly up here even in the summer, so root vegetables making up 2/3 of the most famous dish of the region makes sense. I love turnips anyway, so it was a special treat. And a treat it was. I had the dish twice, once in a fancy restaurant (pictured here, the dish, not the restaurant) with oat crackers and a scotch sauce and once at a local pub with just the basic three ingredients and little pepper. Really fills you up well.

While these may not have been the healthiest dishes one can eat, they were like eating lettuce and celery compared to the darker side of Scottish foods: the deep-frying.