In assessing the culinary qualities of these two Celtic nations it is necessary to distinguish between stereotypes and reality. Both Scottish and Welsh cuisine sometimes come in for a hard time (mainly from their English neighbours!) with the Scots being characterised as a nation who will deep fry anything (including Mars bars) and the Welsh as a nation who live on leeks and cheese toasties. These cheap stereotypes are rather unfair, however, as both nations have some unique delicacies that the traveler to these wonderful countries would be well advised to sample.
For traditional Scottish food, I’m going to take you through an entire day’s worth of fine eating.
Breakfast: Porridge and milk:
Scotland, as most people will know, can be a fairly cold country, and I imagine that those Highland winters must have been particularly chill-inducing back in the days of the Scottish clans, long before the invention of central heating. What was needed for breakfast, then, was a meal to put some warmth into the body and porridge does the trick perfectly.
Scottish porridge must be made with proper oats. I’m not going to go into detail on how it is made but those who are interested can find detail on the Scottishrecipes.co.uk website. The same website reveals a couple of beautifully quirky stories relating to the making and eating of porridge. It states that there used to be a superstition that porridge must only be stirred in a clockwise direction, lest the Devil get the cook’s soul! Additionally, there was a tradition of eating porridge standing up, with one of the suppositions being that this was an aid to digestion.
Lunch: Scotch Broth:
Scotch Broth is a thick filling soup that is similar to Irish Stew. Indeed, probably the main difference from its Irish cousin is the fact that Scotch broth doesn’t tend to have potatoes as an ingredient. What it does have is lamb or mutton, plus a range of vegetables that typically includes barley, carrots, leeks, and turnips or swedes.
As well as being delicious and filling, it is just the thing to warm you up on a cold wet day, especially if you have been out walking amongst Scotland’s mountains and lochs. It is best served with an accompaniment of wheaten bread and butter.
Dinner: Haggis, neeps, and tatties:
Mention Scottish food anywhere around the world and the chances are that the word “haggis” will be mentioned. By the way, don’t be fooled by the notion that the haggis is an actual creature that runs around the Scottish Highlands “with one set of legs longer than the other”. This is just a tall tale that Scots like to tell to gullible tourists!
Haggis is actually a dish comprised of sheep’s heart, lungs, and liver which are minced and mixed with a number of other ingredients including onion, oatmeal, and spices. This lovely mixture is then further mixed with stock and simmered either inside a sheep’s stomach (traditional) or an artificial casing (more common these days).
Whilst haggis (perhaps understandably) may be perceived as unappealing, it actually tastes nicer than it sounds, with a savoury aromatic flavour. A vegetarian haggis alternative has sprung up in recent years, which may appeal more to those who remain doubtful.
Alongside haggis, it is traditional to eat neeps and tatties. “Neeps” is the Scottish term for turnip (or swede), whilst “tatties” is the term for potatoes. This most Scottish of Scottish dishes is celebrated annually, on the 25th of January, as part of Rabbie Burns’ night meals. Burns immortalised the haggis in his 1787 poem “Address to a haggis” which starts with the lines “Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!” which translates into modern English as “Nice seeing your honest, chubby face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!”
There can only be one winner, in my book, when it comes to choosing a Scottish dessert and that is the wonderfully named Cranachan. It takes one of Scotland’s most famous delicacies (whisky) and combines it with generous quantities of whipped cream, honey, and raspberries, and this fine concoction is topped by some roasted oatmeal. Like haggis, neeps, and tatties, cranachan is often found on the menu on Burns Night suppers, and is also a favourite at Scottish weddings. Cranachan is often served in tall glasses, a bit like the ones that are used for Knickerbocker Glories.
Drink: Whisky (alcoholic choice) or Irn-Bru (non alcoholic choice):
Scotland is famous for its whisky and there are endless varieties of malts for the whisky connoisseur to savour. One interesting point to note is that the Scots spelling is “whisky” whilst the Irish spelling is “whiskey”.
For those who prefer a non alcoholic beverage (or who have to drive), the other iconic Scottish drink is Irn-Bru. A famous advertising slogan, from the 1980s, stated that it was “Made in Scotland from girders” and its popularity in Scotland has been so enduring that for many years Scotland was one of the few countries where Coca Cola couldn’t establish a stranglehold as the number one drink in the fizzy sodas segment.
Other notable mentions:
Freshly caught trout or salmon, from Scotland’s rivers and lochs, make for a delicious meal. Staying on the theme of fish, Scotland is of course part of the island of Britain and its coastal waters bring a veritable feast of sumptuous seafood delicacies. One particular option that is worth looking out is a dish called “Arbroath Smokies”. Arbroath is a little fishing town on the east coast of Scotland, just north of Dundee. The locals take freshly caught haddock and salt them, and then leave them to dry overnight. At that point, they are then hung to smoke for an hour. The process that is used to make them is very specific to Arbroath and its surrounding area and they are considered the perfect accompaniment for chips, as part of a fish supper (which of course is a consummately British dish).
I could go on about other Scottish dishes but I think it’s time to turn our attention to Welsh food.
Wales is a land renowned for its valleys, male voice choirs, rugby, and a huge abundance of sheep. It’s not surprising, therefore, that lamb features heavily when one considers Welsh food. Leeks, too, are synonymous with Wales and they also feature. However, as we’ll see, Welsh food isn’t just about sheep and leeks!
Rarebit is a derivation of the word “rabbit” but animal lovers will be glad to hear that no rabbits are killed in the making of Welsh rarebit. I guess, in that respect, it’s similar to the English dish “Toad in the hole” which contains no toads.
What Welsh rarebit does have is cheese and it is the “culprit” for the stereotype that the Welsh live on cheese toasties. Going back in time to Welsh rarebit’s origins, legend has it that the Welsh peasants weren’t allowed to eat rabbits caught on the estates of the nobility. Denied of rabbit, the ingenuous Welsh decided that melted cheese would be a good substitute.
Cheddar cheese is normally used to make Welsh rarebit and various other ingredients may be added to provide flavour. These include ale, mustard, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.
Laverbread sounds like it should be an Elven dish from Lord of the Rings but is actually a Welsh dish made from seaweed. Seaweed, of course, is a readily available resource and laverbread has been consumed in Wales from the 17th century, being particularly closely associated with the Welsh mining industry.
The seaweed is collected by hand and is washed and then boiled until soft, a process that typically takes several hours. The resultant laverbread is described as “a dark-coloured, almost black, purée” which is “soft-textured, sticky, tastes of the sea and has a high mineral content.”
Laverbread is typically eaten as a breakfast dish, when it is fried with bacon and cockles. With its unmistakable taste of the sea, it is also often combined with other ocean delicacies such as monkfish and crab. And, it can also be incorporated into lamb dishes or turned into soup. All in all, quite a versatile dish and one that has been described as a Welshman’s caviar!
For our final Welsh speciality, I’ve selected Bara brith, which is a traditional Welsh fruitcake/bread. The North Wales Tourism website explains that bara brith translates to “speckled bread” and explains how it came about. One day a week used to be reserved as the baking day and the Welsh women (men didn’t bake in those days) would make the required quantity of bread. At the end of the day, when the stove’s heat was beginning to fade, currants would be added to the last of the bread dough. The resultant speckled bread was also honey-glazed to result in a real treat for the family.
Bara brith is best eaten with butter, and some like to add cheddar cheese. The fact that it can be eaten with cheese reflects the fact that it is as much a bread as a cake. Tourists wishing to try bara brith can buy it from shops but probably the best thing to do is to find a tea-room and enjoy it along with a nice cuppa.
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