Howker’s fare by Shirley Spear
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.
PHOTOGRAPH: ANGUS BREMNER