DOSSIER

A History of Scottish Food and Drink

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From the Picts to the latest contributions made by new immigrants, everyone has defined this rich gastronomic culture. By Matt Schofield

Scotland is a country rich in culture, steeped in history and saturated with amazing food and drink.

Now a more diverse culture from the myriad of races, settlers and ethnic groups that have come together to eventually call Scotland home.

The first recorded race to inhabit this land were widely regarded to be the Picts (Picti in Latin – painted people). First mentioned during the Roman campaign of Emperor Severus in 210 AD, little is known about their society other than that it died out in the 9th century when they were replaced by Gaelic and Celtic tribes. They did however leave a legacy of brewing and their meagre diet of fish, vegetables and game would almost certainly have been supplemented by Heather ale.

The Picts, along with their Celtic descendants, would have hunted deer and game in Scotland’s valleys, fished by the open sea and the native lochs and eventually raised sheep and cattle in the grasslands and smaller hills for wool and meat. Scottish soil was arable and perfect for growing oats and barley, which was reflected in many medieval recipes. While many root vegetables and soft fruits were also grown leading to most traditional Scottish foods being very healthy.

The arrival of the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, brought new cooking and preservation techniques, alongside improved forms of brewing. ‘Salting’, a technique created by the Norsemen to preserve food on long journeys and ‘smoking’, a style of cooking that would have added new depths of flavour to fish and meats were quickly adopted. New breeds of cattle and sheep were also brought to Scottish shores by Scandinavian settlers. It is thought that the most famous of Scots cattle breeds, the Aberdeen Angus, descended from this lineage.

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Now a culture mimicking that of the United States, it seems we have sadly lost our way

When the Scottish population began to migrate towards towns and castles, Scottish cuisine, especially for the nobles and lairds, began to expand and took on influences from the rest of Europe. The meats on offer would have been far different from today and would have included more recognisable fare like rabbit and pigeon, sitting alongside swan, peacocks and even seals. Fish was also very popular due to strict religious observance and would have seen more unusual fish like pike, eel and lamprey and even sea mammals like the porpoise, being served to guests.

Seasoning also advanced greatly with food often being flavoured with herbs and spices, including garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, peppercorns, mint, root ginger, cloves and nutmeg. Some of these spices would even have been imported from as far as the Middle East, brought back by crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land. Salt however was considered a luxury and would only have been used by lairds and the royal families of the age.

In the 16th century, the Alliance with France was bolstered by Mary Queen of Scots, whose time in France saw her develop a love of French cuisine, leading to her bringing these new cooking techniques home to Scotland with her. These included the introduction of rich sauces, as well as new food terminology including gigot for a leg of lamb and ashet for a platter of food.

Over the past two centuries, mass immigration to Scotland from Italy, China, the Middle East, India and Pakistan has led to new cultures influencing Scottish cuisine in amazing ways. The Italians reintroduced the emphasis on fresh produce and a love of ice creams and sweet desserts, while those from Asia introduced better forms of spices. This fusion of culture looks set to continue with the expansion of the EU.

On the downside Scotland’s reputation for coronary and related diet-based diseases is a result of the wide consumption of fast food since the latter part of the 20th century. Fish and chips shops remain extremely popular, and indeed the battered and fried haggis supper remains a favourite. These have been joined in more recent years by outlets selling pizzas, kebabs, pakoras and other convenience foodstuffs.

Now a culture mimicking that of the States where ready meals line the shelves of every supermarket, it seems we have sadly lost our way and no longer indulge in the abundance of game and seafood that surrounds us. If it is not to be presented to us within a package detailing the appliance to be used and the instructions required to cook then I’m afraid we are lost. It is one thing to say we are greatly influenced by the ever continuing immigration to the country from other such cultures but we should try harder to hold on to that which made us who we are and get back in the kitchen.

Authentic Scottish food isn’t ‘fancy’, but it’s wholesome, filling, generally easy to prepare and surprisingly tasty when you realize that spices aren’t commonly used… salt and pepper being the staples.

It is no longer acceptable to say that we simply do not have time to prepare a meal with the multitude of appliances out there to aid with such things. We all have the ability to cook and should indulge more in fresh fruit, vegetables, game, meat and seafood. Look towards health and do take influence from immigration and look to a more mediterranean diet or otherwise. Focus on what is good for you and your family and celebrate culinary expertise and more importantly longevity.

Did you know?

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Did you know?

  • 40 bottles of Scotch Whisky are shipped overseas each second (yes, that’s right!)
  • More Scotch Whisky is sold in one month in France than cognac in a year
  • Over two thirds of the world’s langoustines are sourced in Scotland
  • Scottish Salmon was the first foreign product to gain France’s prestigious ‘Label Rouge’ quality mark
  • Scottish lobsters are on the menu in over 20 Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo alone
  • In 1970 there were just 11 breweries in Scotland; there are now over 76 craft brewers in Scotland producing a wide variety of specialist beers
  • Some of Scotland’s products have achieved Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, such as Scotch Beef and Lamb, Scotch Whisky and Orkney Cheddar.

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