Scot­tish flavour

Howker’s fare by Shirley Spear

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - FOOD & DRINK - Shirley Spear is owner of The Three chim­neys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye www.three­chim­

AS I write, we are in the midst of the Scot­tish school half-term hol­i­day. This Oc­to­ber break orig­i­nates from when farm­ers hired school chil­dren to help them har­vest their potato crop. The tat­tie howkin’, as this au­tum­nal job was known, no longer takes place on such a scale, but the hol­i­day re­mains part of the an­nual school cal­en­dar.

The word “howk” means “dig” in Scots. In the case of pota­toes, farm ma­chin­ery pulled by horses or trac­tors turned over the soil throw­ing the earthy tu­bers to the sur­face. Gangs of school chil­dren fol­lowed be­hind, fill­ing their bas­kets un­til heavy with pota­toes. They worked from dawn un­til dusk in all weathers. It was back-break­ing work, but many peo­ple look back fondly on a time when life­long friend­ships were made, fun and free­dom were had and money was earned – though I won­der how much of this cash was handed over at home, as ex­tra in­come for fam­i­lies.

Pota­toes are the ul­ti­mate com­fort food. Boiled or mashed, roasted or chipped, they were an es­sen­tial part of vir­tu­ally ev­ery main meal when I was a child. One of my favourite ways to cook the hum­ble spud, is as part of a hearty soup for lunch on a win­ter’s day.

I made leek and potato soup at home, long be­fore we planned to buy a restau­rant in a re­mote area of the Isle of Skye. It is ex­actly 33 years ago since we made the big move, but this recipe has trav­elled ev­ery­where with me, de­light­ing count­less numbers of peo­ple along the way.

Scot­tish leeks are now in sea­son, along with won­der­ful win­ter veg­eta­bles which add great flavour to tra­di­tional fam­ily pies, casseroles, soups and stews. The Mus­sel­burgh leek – a va­ri­ety that is unique to Scot­land – has re­cently been ac­cepted as a spe­cial prod­uct in need of pro­tect­ing and pre­serv­ing by the SlowFood move­ment’s Ark of Taste. No longer cul­ti­vated on a com­mer­cial scale, it’s of­ten grown in gar­den veg­etable plots and al­lot­ments, favoured for its har­di­ness and re­silience in Scot­tish weather.

This leek was in­tro­duced to the small sea­side town of Mus­sel­burgh near Ed­in­burgh in the early 1800s. With its short, thick white stem and long, leafy, dark green flags, it was greatly favoured for its flavour and con­sid­ered su­pe­rior to other Scot­tish va­ri­eties. To­day, it is rarely seen in shops, but re­mains a pop­u­lar choice for home-grow­ing with seeds pur­chased through the gar­den­ing cat­a­logues.

SlowFood is a world­wide move­ment de­voted to pre­serv­ing all that is best about fresh food within our cul­ture and her­itage. Founded in Italy in 1986, it reignited the im­por­tance of great tast­ing in­gre­di­ents, their true prove­nance and di­rect links with com­mu­nity life and the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. It now ex­ists in many coun­tries across the globe, with thou­sands of mem­bers. Here at home, we have our own SlowFood Scot­land, a di­vi­sion of SlowFood UK and im­por­tantly, we are build­ing a proac­tive, Scot­tish Chefs Al­liance, de­voted to pro­mot­ing the ethos of SlowFood through cook­ing and res­tau­rants.

Scot­land al­ready has a wealth of re­mark­able prod­ucts to boast about and sev­eral of them are listed within the SlowFood Ark of Taste, in­clud­ing some ar­ti­san cheeses, smoked fish spe­cial­i­ties, her­itage ap­ple va­ri­eties, farm an­i­mal breeds. I am proud that much of what The Three Chim­neys has al­ways rep­re­sented in pro­mot­ing Scot­tish in­gre­di­ents, re­flects the SlowFood mes­sage.

LEEK AND POTATO SOUP (Serves 8 or more)

I like to serve my leek and potato soup smooth and creamy, but you can also dice the veg­eta­bles quite small and serve it as a chunky soup, which is more tra­di­tional. The scone recipe uses one of my favourite Scot­tish cheeses, Bon­net goat’s cheese from Dunlop Dairy in Ayr­shire. This hard goat’s cheese can be used in any num­ber of recipes which re­quire grated cheese. It has a very dis­tinct, nutty flavour and is worth find­ing in a spe­cial­ist cheese shop, or per­haps a lo­cal farmer’s mar­ket.


4 large leeks (ap­prox 500g when pre­pared) 2 medium onions (ap­prox 250g when pre­pared) 4 large pota­toes (ap­prox 500g when pre­pared) 50g Scot­tish but­ter Sea salt and black pep­per 2 pints chicken or veg­etable stock, home­made if pos­si­ble ¼ pint fresh dou­ble cream Chopped chives to gar­nish


1. Thor­oughly wash leeks, re­mov­ing the base, outer layer and softer, dark­est green leaves at the top. Chop into small pieces. Be sure to in­clude the firm green tops, as well as all of the white part of the leek. Place in a colan­der and wash again un­der cold run­ning wa­ter. 2. Peel and chop onions into small pieces and add to leeks. 3. Peel and dice pota­toes into small pieces, but keep sep­a­rate. 4. Take a good-sized saucepan with a heavy base and close-fit­ting lid. Melt the but­ter over a medium heat. Add pre­pared leek and onion mix­ture and stir thor­oughly in the hot but­ter un­til coated. Sea­son lib­er­ally with freshly ground salt and pep­per. Turn down the heat to its low­est. Place the lid on saucepan and leave the veg­eta­bles to “sweat” for a few min­utes. Check and stir thor­oughly oc­ca­sion­ally, un­til the leeks and onions are much softer and re­duced in vol­ume. 5. Add the diced pota­toes and stir again. Pour in the stock and bring ev­ery­thing to boil­ing point. Re­place lid and sim­mer slowly for 1 hour. When cooked, re­move from heat and liq­uidise if liked. Al­ter­na­tively, serve as a chunky soup. 6. Just be­fore serv­ing, add dou­ble cream, check sea­son­ing and gar­nish with a few chopped chives.

FEN­NEL AND GOAT’S CHEESE SCONES (Makes 8) In­gre­di­ents

250g self-rais­ing white flour ¼ tsp ta­ble salt 1 level tbsp fen­nel seeds, toasted in a dry fry­ing pan un­til be­gin­ning to pop 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh fen­nel (op­tional) or chopped chives 50g chilled, salted but­ter, cut into small dice 100g hard goat’s cheese, grated, plus a lit­tle ex­tra, finely grated for dec­o­rat­ing the scones 120ml milk, plus a lit­tle ex­tra for brush­ing the scones


1. Pre-heat oven to 200°C, Gas mark 7. 2. Sieve flour into a bak­ing bowl with the salt. 3. Add toasted fen­nel seeds, re­serv­ing a few for scat­ter­ing on top of the scones. 4. Add but­ter and rub into flour mix­ture un­til it re­sem­bles fine bread­crumbs. 5. Add grated cheese and toss it through this mix­ture to­gether with the herb fen­nel if us­ing, or chives. 6. Add milk a lit­tle at a time, while mix­ing through the dry in­gre­di­ents un­til it comes to­gether into a soft ball. Use the blade of a knife to mix, but bring the soft dough to­gether with clean fin­gers, to­wards the end. Work quickly and lightly. 7. Sprin­kle a lit­tle flour on to your work sur­face and shape the dough into a smooth, flat disc around 25mm in depth all-round. 8. Place the scone on a lightly oiled bak­ing tray and score into 8 tri­an­gles, cut­ting al­most right through to the tray. Brush the sur­face of the scone with milk and sprin­kle with a lit­tle ex­tra cheese and re­served fen­nel seeds. Place in cen­tre of oven and bake for 20 min­utes, un­til risen, golden brown and firm to touch in the cen­tre. Serve warm.


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