Food Lore of the Irish and the Scots
Ireland has a wonderful culinary culture. If you go beyond the wonderful Irish Full Breakfast and the bazillion recipes that call for Guinness, you’ll find a land of tasty victuals and charming restaurants. There are even farmhouses that you can stay a few days at while they teach you to cook regional foods. As I was reading through a few history books, folklore books, and recipe books, I found some wonderful things, shared here.
Dating back as far as 2,000 BCE, there were the fulachta fiadh, meaning “cooking/boiling place of deer.” These dot the Irish landscape and are connected with the legendary roaming warrior band, the Fianna, who hunted deer and wild boar between Beltaine (the beginning of summer) and Samhain (summer’s end), from whose name some say the fiadh part is derived.
While there are many wonderful beef dishes, in ancient Ireland, the cows were not slaughtered as often, as they were kept as a sign of wealth, as could be seen in the Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), which includes tales of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn. Back in these mists of history, the cattle were also not the same breed as we are used to today, being smaller and with curved horns. Being of such importance, they were covered by the ancient Brehon laws.
Some foods were considered magical. Watercress imbued St. Brendan with a longer than usual life span of a far reaching 180 years. Rowans were planted to ward off evil spirits, but their fruits did not go to waste. They were appreciated enough that they are mentioned in a 12th century Fenian poem: “I will eat good apples in the glen and fragrant berries of rowan tree.” Nettles would be used to purify the blood and to help with rheumatism. Garlic was planted near pastures so cattle would eat it, the thinking going that it was healthy for them (which is true, since it’s a very healthy thing for humans, too!).
Although the food itself isn’t magical, Irish soda bread should always have a cross cut into its top. Sure, one would be excused for thinking it was to help it back evenly, but really it was to let the fairies out (although some would say, if they were prone to stressing about what the Church thought, that this would ward off evil – we know better, though, don’t we?). Baking soda was used due to the proper yeast and equipment not being in Ireland for some time, but even it only came to the island in the early 1800s. Until then, alcohol derivatives were used to leaven bread, such as beer, fermented potato juice, or fermented oat husks.
"Lower Class" Bits (Ireland)
There were some food items eaten by monks to show penitence. There was brotchan, a simple broth made with leeks. It is referred to as far back as the 700s in the writings of monks who lived in the Monastery of Tallaght. You could add milk if you wanted to be fancy and weren’t atoning. Another staple of penitent monks were dry eggs. (If you don’t know how penitent Irish monks could be, read up on green martyrdom. The basic premise is that they wanted to show their love for God, but couldn’t die as a martyr – red martyrdom – and so went out into the wilds instead.)
A topic of less joy are the foods looked down upon during An Gorta Mor (The Great Famine). Mostly shellfish and other marine life, it also included some birds. During a time where food was scares, the people would hunt for anything that could be eaten, but that caused those foods to be looked down upon by the more affluent. There was salted ling, called battleboard due to its rock hard texture. Bairneachs (limpets) were regarded as poor people’s food, as acknowledged in the sean fhocal (old saying): “avoid the public house or you will end up eating bairneachs,” which must’ve been started by an upper class prohibitionist.
Holiday Bits (Ireland)
There are also many bits of food lore that go into holidays. Eggs are allowed during Lent, as God himself gave permission to the hens to keep laying them during this fasting season. If you eat a goose on Michaelmas, you’ll not be in want the rest of the year. Really, though, if you can afford goose, you’re probably doing all right anyway. Even the upper class didn’t let anything go to waste, though, with the blood from the goose being turned into goose pudding the next day.
At Christmas, Irish plum puddings would be made, which also included fortune telling trinkets, keeping the thimbles for spinsterhood, but adding buttons for the boys to indicate permanent bachelorhood. Many Irish holiday puddings include stout ale and/or Irish whiskey as ingredients.
At Halloween, colcannon would be made. This dish of mashed potatoes with kale (cabbage if you need to) would have trinkets hidden within, with the finders discovering their futures with rings (for marriage) and thimbles (for spinsterhood). Barm Brack would also be made at Halloween. This speckled bread would also have trinkets baked into it for fortune telling, just as colcannon did. Also on Halloween, thrushes would be hunted. In “Twenty Years a Growing” by Muiris O’Suilleabhain, the author writes “Now, this is Halloween, and it is not known who will be living when it comes again, so I am going to propose another plan to make a night till morning of it. We will all go in twos and threes with lanterns through the island hunting thrushes, and when we have made our round let everyone come back here.” The rushes would then be cooked over a roaring bonfire, another aspect of Halloween throughout the ages.
Though not so much a holiday as a life event, not long ago even the poorest of the Irish would do their best to put out a nice spread for funerals, which would include "a half tierce of stout beer." A tierce is a cask measurement of forty-two gallons. Twenty-one gallons, along with the wine, mead, and cider also mentioned, seems like a really nice amount of the dark stuff to have at one's funeral. That's definitely going in my funeral plans.
When your country’s national food is haggis, a savory dish of sheep’s pluck (the heart, liver, and lungs) mixed with oatmeal, spices, salt, and suet (fat), you know you’re in for a good time when reading up on interesting tidbits regarding their food and drink. After all, what other country has its own special whisky sauce for haggis? It’s also the subject of a wonderful poem Ode to Haggis by Scotland’s poet of renown, Robbie Burns: “Fair fa (good befall) your honest sonsie (comely) face, great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race!” It is thought be some, though I disagree, that the term haggis comes from the French hachis, as found in King James’ Scottish cook. Personally, I fall in the etymological camp of it coming from ‘hag,’ meaning to chop. The dish’s ingredients themselves indicate the food to be of Scottish origin and not French, as well as the French alluding to it after receiving exiled Scottish royalty, due to the Auld Alliance.
I love the Scots-Gaelic terms used for foods. You can preserve fish through blawn (wind drying) or by rizzared or tiled (sun drying) or by pickling or smoking. Rowies are a traditional Scottish breakfast roll from the Aberdeenshire region. Bree is Scots for soup or broth, typically associated with shellfish. A clootie dumpling is so called because it is placed in a cloot, which is a cloth, and then boiled in water over a fire. A kilderkin was a cask of ale that held 16 or 18 gallons. A tappit-hen is a pewter quart measure of ale or claret. Bannocks are whole cakes and farls are quarters.
Even the descriptions of game in Scotland sounds magical, as the moors and forests contained “herds of kye nocht tame’ with flesh ‘of a marvelous sweetness, of a wonderful tenderness, and excellent delicateness of taste.” Add to that a recipe for fairy butter and what more could you ask?
Fairy butter recipe: wash quarter pound of butter in orange-flower water and then beat it together with the pounded yolks of five hard boiled eggs; blanch and pound to a paste with a little orange-flower water and two ounces of sweet almonds; add a bit of grated lemon peel and load (refined) sugar; mix all well together with a wooden spoon (you can’t use iron or related metals, after all) and work it through a stone (same reason) colander.
"Lower Class" Bits (Scotland)
Similar to some foods of the Irish, at one point, salmon was looked down upon by the upper classes and even laborers contracted to have it served no more than three times a week, it was so abundant. Now it is relished by all, similar to the role lobster played in colonial America, where it was overly plentiful at first and is now an elegant meal. Regarding seafood, in general, the Scots were more piscivorous than they were carnivorous (sheep were used for wool and cows for milk). However, its animals were known across the entire island to be of top choice. For example, the English considering Highland mutton to be the “greatest of Luxuries.”
For breakfast, the Scots’ take on it was not to be sneezed at. There would be a wide variety of foods: eggs, venison, smoked salmon, reindeer ham, mutton, barley bread, butter, and honey comb. Notably, some held to the old ways and eschewed tea, coffee, and rolls, but went with the stronger sirloin and venison pasty, with ale, mead, and wine to wash it down. The drink was served out of great quaighs (from cuach, a cup or bowl – an alternate spelling of which is quaich, from where we get the term quaff). One wasn’t ready to start their Highland day without a dram of whisky, or even perhaps a ram’s horn full!
If this sounds like a lot, the breakfast board of the soldiers before battle was amazing. The warriors would be awakened by the skirling of pipes with the piper yelling out “Hey, Johnny Cope, are ye wauken yet?” Along with what’s been mentioned, there were also grouse, boiled eggs, bacon, mushrooms, marmalade, baps, girdle scones, and toast. However, there would not be kail. It was considered to be effeminate, to the point that the Scots would call defeated soldiers “men of kail and brose.” The Highlander himself preferred nettle broth. Truthfully, though, huge swaths of Scotland depended on kail, as Ireland did the potato. Even the 2:00 bell in Edinburgh was called the kail-bell.
Oyster taverns have long been a part of Scottish life and were a staple of the Scottish Enlightenment intelligentsia. Debates theoretical and practical raged while the great thinkers ate oysters and drank Bordeaux and porter (has to be porter for me, with some nice crunchy brown bread). Even after, they were treated with delight, as in the Annals of the Cleikum Club, where “the principle taverns of our Old City… called Oyster-Taverns, in honour of their favourite viand.” If you didn’t want to go to a tavern, it was easy enough to find oyster-wives who would sell them. Obviously pretty lasses, such as Ireland’s Molly Malone, they had “weel-shaped shanks aneath their short yellow petticoats,” they would cry out “Caller Ou (fresh oysters)!”
Holiday Bits (Scotland)
Scottish holidays also had their special foods. Hagmanay (New Year’s Eve) saw black buns, sweetmeats made weeks before the celebration so they could age properly, served with whisky, along with sugared breads, currant loaf, gingerbread, and sowans (smooth oat gruel, whose name is derived from the Gaelic sughan). Burns Night (Jan 25th) would see haggis and whisky. Halloween (Oct 31st) would use buttered sowans, champit tatties, and apples and nuts. Hallow Mass (Nov 1st) would see Hallowfair Gingerbread. At Christmas/Yule (Dec 25th) there would be goose, plum pudding, and sowans (how popular is that dish – or maybe it was cheap and easy).
Though not an official holiday, wedding celebrations held their own unique twist. After the guests had arrived and been served bread and cheese by the bride, the groom would sneak up behind his newlywed spouse smash the wedding cake with his fist. Guests would attempt to grab a piece before it hit the floor, as that was said to be good luck. I agree, as eating a clean piece of cake does seem luckier to me than eating a dirty piece.
My favorite bit of holiday foods is the baking of quarterly bannocks, which are oatcakes, for each of the four seasons of the year, and they were called by their old Gaelic names. It is believed that there may have been four such Highland Quarter cakes: bonnach Bride (St. Bride’s bannock for the first day of spring); bonnach Bealltain (the Beltane bannock for the first day of summer); bonnach Lunastain (Lammas bonnach for the first day of Autumn); and bonnach Samhthain (the Hallowmas bannock, for the first day of winter). The only one still with much written history is the Beltane Bannock, being used in an annual fire ritual: “Everyone takes a cake of oatmeal, upon which are raised nine square knobbs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds, or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulder, says “this I give to thee, preserve thou my horses; this to thee, preserve thou my sheep,” and so on. After that, they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals: “This I give to thee, O Fox, spare my lambs; this to thee, O Hooded Crow, this to thee O Eagle!” Although, it was mentioned by Sir James Frazer, so that’s iffy, it’s also mentioned by a contemporary of Robert Burns, John Ramsay, Lord of Ochiltree, as “a large cake baked with eggs and scalloped around the edge, an bonnach beal-tine, the Beltane bannock.”
Now for the Scotch! Is there a better way to end this article, after all? The oldest reference to Scotch whisky is from the Scottish Exchequer Rolls in 1494, where it reads “8 bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae.” Aqua Vitae, the water of life, is a Latinized version of Gaelic’s Uisge Beatha, which then became uisge and then usky and then whisky. The first mention of a famous whisky is in 1690. Ferintosh, distilled by Fobers of Culloden. In 1784, the owner was bought out and Robbie Burns (who we gladly can’t seem to escape) memorialized the event: “Thee Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland laments frae coast to coast!” Even barley itself was noted for its majority going towards whisky rather than food, with the Scottish literary giant James Robertson noting: “It was not for his benefactions to broth-pot and bake-board that John Barleycorn got title to rank as King of Grain. It was for the gift of his own heart’s blood… the great mass of the bear harvest is destined for distillation and brewing.”
Although of course much is said of Scotch whisky. In older days, though, the drink of the Scotsman was ale. This is mentioned in The Friars of Berwick (circa 1500) with “stoups of ale with bread and cheese,” but is also mentioned by the great poet Robbie Burns in his poem Scotch Drink, where the drink is ale, not whisky. One of favorite styles of ale is the wee heavy, a strong version of the Scottish ale, which use peated barley in the recipe. Much is also written, including by me, of heather ale.
Final Words Bit
I hope you enjoyed this trip down victuals alley. If you feel I’ve missed something, feel free to leave me a comment! You can also check out my articles that relate to this topic, which discuss heather ale, Atholl Brose, the lore of beers, ales, and meads in Celtic lands (as well as Germanic and Anglo-Saxon), cow heart recipes, cooking with black pudding, and many mead recipes.
If you’ll excuse me, this has made me very hungry and I’m off to have some haggis and black pudding. Slainte!
Irish Traditional Cooking (Darina Allen)
How the Irish Saved Civilization (Thomas Cahill)
How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Arthur Herman)
Meeting the Other Crowd (Eddie Lenihan and Carolyn Eve Green)
The Scots Kitchen (F Marian McNeill)
Irish Pub Cooking (Love Food, Parragon Books)
The Best of Traditional Scottish Cooking (Carol Wilson and Christopher Trotter)
Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (William Butler Yeats)
Questions & Answers
© 2018 James Slaven