Monthly Archives: April 2013

Auld Time cookery

As I write, the Scottish countryside is quizzing by the train window and my head is filled with tales of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, James V and other kings of Scotland. We learned about a huge parts of Scottish history by visiting a strategic place – Stirling.

We visited the village and its castle today and enjoyed the many stories and bits of trivia our tour guide shared with us. I could see the inner courtyard full of tradesmen and market stalls, and in the Great Hall I could hear the music of a 16th century feast and see the nobles in their dress tartans.

Of course another highlight for us besides the usual historical reference was the kitchen. Understanding how people cooked in another age is sometimes even more fun than knowing how they cook in other cultures. It seems odd to us that people would eat swans or peacock, but is that any stranger than say, turducken, that current Southern American specialty?

The kitchens were amazing, large rooms in the underground levels with huge work tables. The staff (mostly men) cooked everything over a large hearth. There was fresh bread, stewed or spit-roasted meat or fish, steamed veggies, and all manner of sweets.

All of the food had to be prepared for not only the guests of the royals but also the many staff, so two kitchens ran full tilt if there was a function going on. Mind you, if you were a simple “lackey boy” who mucked out the stables or stoked the fires, then your daily ration was only a pint of ale and a loaf of bread a day. (I think this is where the term Even youngsters drank ale as opposed to milk or water, as it was less likely to be contaminated. You only had milk if your family owned a cow, goat or sheep.

Interestingly enough, the food of the 16th century was more strongly flavoured, and coloured, than what we are used to today. This was in part to show off at a royal function, using imported spices and dried fruits to illustrate the grandeur that could be afforded. It also often helped with main dishes to disguise the less appealing flavours of pickled or salted meat.

It’s interesting to note too, that the 16th century is when they started to serve dinner in courses. They would start with a “potage” (thick soup), then roasted meat and/or fish, then tarts and small pastries, followed by a large assortment of fruit (dried or preserved usually) and “sweet meats” (cakes, sweet pastries, candies). Of course there would be plenty of imported French wines and beer or cider made locally to wash it all down.

Haggis, neeps & tatties

I am sending my column this week from Scotland, where we are busy sampling local fare.
Today we were in Stirling where we spent a few very interesting hours at Stirling Castle, a pivotal spot in many Scottish battles throughout history and the home to many well known monarchs. We even got to tour the great kitchens where they prepared the food for the people at the castle, armies and royals. (More about that in future columns.)
It was exciting to envision another time and what it must have been like but I was happy to head to a more modem place for lunch.
We stopped at a pub called Nicky Tams (a Scottish expression denoting your going-out duds, as in “this is a place you could wear your Nicky tams!”). The barman was most gracious and made us feel quite cozy. He recommended a local beer called Bitter and Twisted which was lovely, just like the humour on the label. That really put us in the mood for Scottish fare so it seemed appropriate to have “haggis, neeps & tatties”. For those of you who are not familiar with the Highland brogue, this refers to a traditional blood sausage served with mashed turnips & potatoes. For dessert, we shared a “cranocken”. It was a delightful and whimsical dish that mixed raspberries with a whiskey infused whipped cream and crumbled shortbread, then topped with a few roasted oats. It made me hum 🙂

As I sampled this taste of Scotland and thought about tradition, I remembered as a child eating Mom’s meatloaf with mashed turnips and potatoes. I wondered, was this some modern variation on a theme? And didn’t she make a dessert too, that was about taking strawberry jam and whipped cream with graham biscuits? It seems to me she used to say I was a favourite recipe of my Gran’s (great grandma) – she made it when my Gramps was little.

So are we taking bits of our culinary heritage along whether we like it or not? My Mom’s family, the McMurchys, left Scotland eight generations ago. My Gran was a pioneer, but in Canada, living in a mud house on the prairies when she was a young married woman. It doesn’t seem all that far fetched though, to think that all those generations would have looked to create similar meals if possible, and likely found some comfort in an adaptation of an old favourite.

I felt strangely warmed to know that perhaps I had completed a sort of culinary circle of time. Food is always a wonderful combination of having an adventure and coming home, and I had managed to do all of that. I bet tonight if I concentrate (or perhaps after a glass of good scotch) I may even see an ancestor or two in a back booth.

NOTE: The barman at Nicky Tams said there is an old fellow who haunts one of their back booths; the felllow’s granddaughter (now aged 80) was in the pub one day and mentioned that her grandad had been a regular and had in fact passed away one afternoon right in the middle of drinking his pint. Perhaps the beer is just good enough to make people believe such things… Or perhaps it is the power of the haggis, neeps and tatties 🙂

Spring Tips

I’m in the UK visiting friends; we have not only enjoyed great food and drink but we are also “solving the problems of the world”, so to speak. I thought I would share some of our wisdom with you…
We were sitting around the table this morning dunking our rusks in our respective hot drinks, and “spring cleaning” came up. The discussion centred around all the tasks that come around with the changing of seasons. There were people there from England, South Africa, Germany and Canada, all contributing their pearls of wisdom. From an international group of experience, here are our best tips:

– when its time to change the clocks for daylight savings in spring and fall, put a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke and CO2 alarms (did you know that clocks change at a different time in Europe? They change later in spring and earlier in fall)
– Invest in a pair of rubber boots for early spring and late fall walks and “mucking out” the yard or garden; add a pair of heavy wool socks and/or fleece insoles to ensure your toes are toasty (L L Bean is great for buying these items online)
– when making hot cocoa after a cool afternoon outside, stick to real cocoa instead of prepared syrups for a richer taste. Add 2 tbsp cocoa and 1 tbsp honey or sugar per cup. Add a pinch of ground cinnamon for an extra cozy taste 🙂
– when your lovely ceramic tea cups get stained after much use, put a tsp of bleach in them with hot water poured to the top and let them sit overnight. Rinse them well and they look like new!
– when you’re baking tea loaves (banana, lemon, etc. – see my recipe archives for ideas if you need them) bake 2 and freeze one. When you have friends coming over for tea or book club or company coming, just thaw it overnight.

I could go on forever but I’ll leave that for other columns. I hope these tips help you out, or perhaps inspire you to invite a friend for tea so you can share your own tips.



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