Category Archives: Scotland

To Make Sowans

Last post I gave you a potted history of sowans, the Scots drink or flummery made from the starch left clinging to oat husks after the oats were threshed after harvest. Well, since then I have been doing a little experimenting, and have – I think – successfully made some. It’s taken a couple of goes, but I reckon I have a good practical method for you, should you fancy having a crack of making it yourself.

In the main, oat husks are used, but I saw other accounts of sowans making and I saw that some recipes used a proportion of whole oat groats, oatmeal or porridge oats. Other recipes – and it turns out that a similar dish in Wales is made1,2 – using buttermilk or whey instead of water to kickstart the fermentation. One modern recipe by Scotland-based chef Craig Grozier uses whey and salt3; the salt providing an excellent environment for the lactic acid bacteria present in the oats and the whey, hastening the fermentation and ensuring the sowans would not be infiltrated by some other spoilage organism. I’ve made sourdough starters enough times to trust the oats and water to work their own magic, to test this, I designed a simple experiment with three conditions:

  1. Oat husks and water;
  2. Medium cut organic oatmeal and water; and
  3. Oat husks plus one tablespoon of the oatmeal, to make up for the fact that the husks may be lacking in healthy bacteria and fungi. Adding some organic oats might help things out.

I left the sowans to ferment for seven days, after which I tasted the liquid and it was far too sour for my liking, but I was impressed with how well it all worked: the sour-sweet oaty smell give off was certainly not unpleasant. It turned out that actually one is not supposed to drink the sour liquid: it should be poured away and fresh water mixed in.4 I was rather surprised as to how much starch came out of the husks.

Emboldened, I tried again, this time with two conditions: one with water and organic oatmeal and the other exactly the same, except for a couple of tablespoons of the sour liquid from the first experiment, to give the sowans a boost. Note I didn’t use oat husks, and there are three reasons for this:

  1. You get very little starch from them, and we are no longer living in the kind of poverty that existed in Scotland two or three centuries ago;
  2. Oat husks are difficult to buy – though I did manage to get some from the Malt Miller – these oats weren’t organic however, and may have had traces of pesticide and fungicide that might kill the natural community of microbes living on the oats;
  3. Because they were so light, it was very difficult to keep them submerged under the water, and consequently, mould grew on any husks floating on, or touching the water’s surface.
Sowans suspended in water ready to be made into porridge or flummery

I gave it a shorter fermentation time and the results were great: sowans as a drink, i.e. the sour water decantated off and the sediment mixed into fresh water.  It was tart, surprisingly sweet (especially the one with the starter) and had a good, raw oat flavour. It would be great to use in a smoothie, or just sweetened with a little maple or agave syrup. However it was the settled sediment that I was more interested in and was looking forward to making the sowans porridge and the cold flummery.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


I was very pleased with the results, and I present them for you below. Whether you make the drink, the porridge or the flummery, the basic recipe is the same. It makes 550ml of drinking sowans or around 450 ml of porridge or flummery. I ate the porridge with treacle and milk, and I ate the flummery with raspberry jam, and I enjoyed them both. I think the flummery would be great flavoured with sweetened raspberry purée or orange flower water.

Basic ingredients:

150 g organic medium oatmeal

650 ml cool water

2 tbs of the clear liquid from a previous batch (optional)

For sowans porridge or flummery:

2 dsp sugar

½ tsp salt

A smidge of oil (for the flummery)

Place the oats, water and starter (if using) into a tub or jar and stir well. Cover the jar with a square of fabric secured with an elastic band. Leave to ferment for four days, giving the mixture a good stir every other day: give the liquid a sniff or a taste; it needs to have a definite acid tang.

When you are ready to strain your sowans, set a fine sieve or a colander lined with a sheet of muslin over a bowl and pour in the mixture. You might have to add a little water to rinse out all of the meal. Make sure you press the meal with a ladle to get as much sediment out as possible.

If you want drinking sowans you are now done, and it can be used now or stored in the fridge.

Cooked sowans ready to eat as porridge or set into flummery

For the porridge or flummery, leave the sowans to settle for 1 or 2 days, pour away the liquid, reserving it to use like buttermilk in another recipe. Don’t worry if there is a small layer of liquid remaining. Give it a good stir and pour into a saucepan; you should have around 150 ml of sediment. Add double the volume of water, plus the sugar and salt, and cook over a medium setting, stirring all the time until the sowans thickens – it will soon become very thick and glossy. If it seems too thick, add a little more water. It should be ready in 7 or 8 minutes.

For porridge: pour into bowls and eat with treacle and milk, or whatever you usually eat with your porridge.

For flummery: pour into a mould or moulds, I used teacups brushed lightly with oil. Cover them and refrigerate overnight before turning onto plates.

References

  1. Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513127 (2016).
  2. White Sowans. People’s Collection Wales https://www.peoplescollection.wales/items/513062 (2016).
  3. Mervis, B. The British Cook Book. (Phaidon, 2022).
  4. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).

2 Comments

Filed under Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Puddings, Recipes, Scotland

Sowans / Sowens

Experiments are under way!

Live-fermented foods are becoming more and more popular here in the UK. We seem to have embraced sourdough bread and its heady community of wild yeasts and bacteria; a community of microbes that not only leaven the dough but also provide that distinctive flavour. They also digest the gluten and other constituents in the flour, making it easier on our own stomachs. The microbes also create nutrients such as vitamins and essential amino acids, and make the food inhospitable to other microbes which would otherwise spoil it; a necessity in a world before refrigerators and freezers. Another live-fermented food is sauerkraut, traditionally made with cabbage, flavoured with caraway, and there are also fermented drinks like kefir (fermented milk) and kombucha (fermented sugar or honey, and tea) which are available in almost every supermarket and grocer’s shop around the country.

I think for many of us in the UK, all of this enthusiasm for live ferments looks like a bit of a fad, despite the growing evidence that foods that contain live cultures of fermenting microbes are very good for us. One reason why some regard them with suspicion is that in the UK we have never had a culture – as it were – of consuming these sorts of foods, except perhaps yoghurt, which unfortunately is all too often laced with sugar, had its fat skimmed away and its healthy microbes killed by pasteurisation.

But the thing is, we did have a culture of eating live-fermented foods, we have simply lost it; but the more I read old cookery books or manuscripts, the more I come across examples of these types of foods and drinks. One of these foods has recently captured my imagination, and that is the Scots fermented oat ‘milk’ or porridge called sowans (sometimes spelt sowens, and pronounced ‘soo-ans’). Sowans goes by a couple of other names; it is called subhan or súghan in Gaelic, and is known as virpa on the Shetland Isles.1

I discovered it leafing through the classic The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian McNeill.2 She describes how it was made: steeping the inner husks of the whole oat grains in water for several days in a large jar called a sowans-bowie until it soured, before being passed through a sieve.3 The resulting liquid would be left to settle for a day or so, where there would be a layer of white starch at the bottom. The liquid would be decanted off, and the starch cooked and eaten like porridge. Reading it, I simply could not understand how a foodstuff could be made just from the oat husks, known as sids in Scots.2 The husks are obviously inedible so how could a porridge or oat milk be made from them?

After a little more detective work, I found that the husks do contain some residual starch. As the oats are threshed to remove their husks, which is a quite violent process, inevitably some of the seed would be left attached to the husks. By mixing the husks in water, the starchy seed residue becomes suspended in the liquid and the natural yeasts and bacteria present on the husks begin to ferment it. After a few days – anywhere between 3 and 14 days depending upon time of year – the mixture becomes sour, rather like, I suppose, a sourdough starter, and then passed through a fine sieve. The milky liquid was drunk as it was, or the starch was allowed to settle so it could be used to make a porridge and eaten with salt, treacle or sugar. The decanted liquid wasn’t wasted, by the way, it was used to make sowans scones, where it was used rather like the buttermilk in regular scones.2 The fermented husks would sometimes be formed into cakes and baked. More often, though, they were fed to pigs or chickens.4

Oat husks

As a foodstuff, sowans is associated with harvesttime and commonly eaten by oat farmers. It is also associated with Hallowe’en, which falls not too long after harvest and the harvest festival. By making sowans, farmers were able to extract every scrap of carbohydrate from the sids that were left behind, after they had sold their crop. In Ireland, sowans was drunk or eaten in some parts of Ireland on St. Brigid’s Day in February.5

It was regarded as good for one’s health – and no doubt it was! The starch would be a precious source of energy and the microbes, and the products of the microbes’ metabolism, provided a whole suite of nutrients. ‘Some authorities claim it had sexual qualities.’ This seems to be because of its resemblance to semen when taken as a drink, which went by the name ‘Bull’s Semen’ or ‘White Bull’s Milk’ in some places. I’ve found one mention of farmlads teasing and goading young women, saying “I’ll be at you wi’ me sowans.”6,7


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this link for more information.


Sowans was particularly associated with Christmas. I found an article in The Family Friend, published in 1861, describing sowans drinking on ‘Auld Yule morning’. The author is simply known as ‘A.H.’. It says it was enjoyed all year round, but at Yuletide it was consumed only as a milky drink. In fact it was customary, and everyone was expected to drink some sowans out of bickers (beakers), “[n]ot that any of us were immoderately fond of sowans”, said one. That said, folk did get a taste for it and ‘there was a good rivalry, too, amongst the sowans makers.’8

After finding all of this out, I hope you can see why I was so intrigued by this unusual food. Determined to make some, I managed to get hold of some oat husks – and they are not easy to get hold of these days! I am currently part way through having a go at making sowans. They are not quite ready to drink or eat, but things seem to be working well. I shall report back soon with the results of my little experiment and hopefully a usable recipe.

Fermentation is occurring!

References

  1. Fenton, A. Sowens in Scotland. J. Ethnol. Stud. 12, 41–47 (2013).
  2. McNeill, F. M. The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. (Blackie & Son Limited, 1968).
  3. Dawson, W. F. Christmas: Its Origin and Associations (Illustrated Edition). (e-artnow, 2018).
  4. Macdonald, F. Christmas, A Very Peculiar History. (Salariya Book Company Limited, 2010).
  5. Nic Philibín, C. & Iomaire, M. C. M. An exploratory study of food traditions associated with Imbolg (St. Brigid’s Day) from The Irish Schools’. Folk Life 59, 141–160 (2021).
  6. Douglas, H. The Hogmanay Companion. (Neil Wilson Publishing, 2011).
  7. Asala, J. Celtic Folklore Cooking. (Llewellyn Publications, 1998).
  8. A.H. Auld Yule; Or Christmas in Scotland. Fam. Friend Ed. by R.K. Philp (1861).

6 Comments

Filed under Britain, food, history, Preserving, Scotland

To Make Digestive Biscuits

Just like the workers of the 19th century, my work days are punctuated by tea & biscuits

I have been promising recently a blog post for subscribers containing my recipe for digestive biscuits, it’s taken me a little longer to write it up than I expected, but here it is.

This blog post complements the podcast episode ‘A Dark History of Sugar Part 2’ on the British Food History Podcast.

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

To subscribe please visit the Support the Blog & Podcast tab.

Leave a comment

Filed under baking, Biscuits, Britain, cooking, food, General, history, Recipes, Scotland, The Victorians

Shortbread

 

The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.

Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.

The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.

Mary Queen of Scots

Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.

In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:

1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon

FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.

Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.

To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.

You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.

Basic shortbread

This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.

To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.

6 ounces flour mix

4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes

2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra

extra caster sugar

Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.

Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:

For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.

For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.

For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.

Variations:

For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.


If you like the blogs and podcast I produce, please consider treating me to a virtual coffee or pint, or even a £3 monthly subscription: follow this post for more information.


41 Comments

Filed under baking, Biscuits, Britain, Desserts, Festivals, food, history, Recipes, Scotland, Teatime, Uncategorized