Tag Archives: 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


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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).

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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.

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

A Hot Toddy

Merry Christmas! I hope you are all able to have some fun in yet another strange Yuletide.

At Christmas we often receive bottles of booze we don’t really like as gifts. My most hated alcoholic drink is whisky, but it is delicious in a hot toddy. Well I was recently gifted some and that’s why it is this year’s Christmas boozy drink post.

What do you think of when imagine a toddy? I think of Scotland, whisky. I think of lemons and spices, and its warming effects on those who have just come in from the cold.

There is a popular myth that the drink was invented in the early 18th century at Tod’s Well Tavern, Edinburgh, to warm up the very cold patrons1, but I found that the hot toddy’s history is a little more complicated. The trouble is, toddies were not created in Scotland, not were they hot, and nor were they laced with whisky.

Whenever I am researching the vintage of a recipe, I always visit The Foods of England website – even if the recipe is Welsh, Scots, or Irish. It’s definition is I would say standard: ‘Spirit such as whisky with hot water, sugar, lemon and sometimes spices such as cloves.’ On the webpage is a quote from the 1788 book Grose Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which states: ‘Toddy, originally the juice of the cocoa tree, and afterwards rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg.’2

Going by that quote, the drink looks like it has its origins in the West Indian plantations. Note it is not a hot drink.

It turns out, however, to have its roots in the East, rather than the West, Indies, or rather the British Raj. There was a Hindi drink known as taddy, which was made from slightly fermented palm sap since at least the early 17th century. During the British occupation of the country in the 18th century, the fermented juice was used to ‘water down’ expensive beer3: expensive because at the time it was difficult to make in hot climates, and therefore had to be imported (this is before the invention of Indian pale ale, or IPA).

By 1820 the drink had evolved into a mixture of alcohol, sugar, ginger and lime.4 It wasn’t hot, but the delicious drink spread through the British Empire, changing depending upon what was available. The palm sap swapped for ‘the juice of the cocoa tree’ in the West Indies, and perhaps the Scots were the first to think of warming it up? Who knows?

Drinking hot toddies in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

However it became the classic whisky-based drink, it certainly became popular as a cure-all for colds and flu. And why not? There’s the lemon with its vitamin C, honey or sugar making the drink viscous and soothing, and hard liquor – nature’s anaesthetic. There may be an element of practical truth to this; those who drink a moderate amount of alcohol are able – on average – to fend off colds better than those who drink heavily, and those who do not drink at all.5

So what should I put in my recipe? I turned to another favourite of mine: the classic and comprehensive Savoy Cocktail Book (1930). Disappointingly, there are just three toddy recipes, and of those only one is hot and contains no whisky (Calvados is the booze of choice) and uses roasted apples. The cold toddies contain whisky only as an option.6 In the end I came up with my own, I had a play around and I think I have the proportions of ingredients just right. I also tried the Calvados toddy, which was also a great success.

Here are my recipes for both cocktails. Let me know if you give them a go.

Whatever you do, be safe, eat and drink plenty, and do as little as possible this Christmas. Thanks for reading my posts, trying the recipes, leaving comments, listening to the podcast, and for supporting me this year. I have the best followers! I’ll be back on 1 Jan 2022 with my usual review of the year.


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A classic hot toddy

Per person:

1 shot (25-30 ml) whisky (or rum or brandy)

2 tsp honey or sugar

Juice of quarter of a lemon

75-100 ml hot water (or tea)

1 cinnamon stick (optional)

1 slice of lemon

Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Put whiskey, honey or sugar, lemon juice and most of the hot water, or tea, into a small glass or coffee cup. Stir with a cinnamon stick, or a spoon, to dissolve the honey.

Taste and see if you need to add more water (I go with the full 100 ml).

Garnish with a lemon slice, the cinnamon stick and a few rasps of freshly-grated nutmeg.

Calvados hot toddy

This is adapted from the entry in The Savoy Cocktail Book. I always buy a bottle of Calvados at Christmastime, but I think rum or brandy would be good substitutes.

For four:

1 dessert apple

400 ml hot water or tea

2 tbs sugar

4 cloves

4 shots (100-120 ml Calvados)

Freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 180°C. Take your apple and make an incision around the apple two-thirds of the way up, cutting just the skin. Place on a baking sheet and roast until, pale brown and the juices have begun to caramelise, around 40 minutes.

In a small saucepan add the hot water, sugar and cloves. Slice the apple in half, roughly chop one half and place in the pan. Keeping the heat very low, allow the flavours to steep in the hot water for around 10 minutes.

Place a shot of calvados in four small glasses, and divide the hot steeped liquid between the four cups, passing through a tea strainer or small sieve.

Garnish each with a clove and a neat piece of roasted apple cut from the reserved piece. Grate a little nutmeg over the top and serve.

References:

  1. Schofield, J. & Schofield, D. Schofield’s Fine and Classic Cocktails: Celebrated Libations & Other Fancy Drinks. (Octopus, 2019).
  2. Toddy. Foods of England http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/toddy.htm.
  3. M., N. Warding Off Jack Frost: The History of the Hot Toddy. Arcadia Publishing https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/November-2018/Warding-Off-Jack-Frost-The-History-of-the-Hot-Tod.
  4. Burton, D. The Raj at the Table: A Culinary History of the British in India. (Faber & Faber, 1993).
  5. Barrett, B. Viral Upper Respiratory Tract. in Integrative Medicine (ed. Rakel, D.) (Saunders Elsevier, 2007).
  6. The Savoy Cocktail Book. (Constable & Co., 1930).

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Filed under Britain, Christmas, Festivals, history, Recipes, Uncategorized

Scotch Woodcock

This post complements the episode ‘Savouries’ on The British Food History Podcast.

When I asked Twitter what the best savoury is, I was surprised and very delighted that Scotch Woodcock was by far the most popular choice. Most of the other votes seemed to be for dishes containing lashings of anchovies too; I obviously need to write more about the popular, salty fish. I talk about Scotch Woodcock in the podcast, so I won’t repeat myself here, except I forgot to mention was that it was a Victorian invention and then, as now, one of the most popular savouries of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The earliest mention of the dish can be found amongst the pages of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and is pretty similar to mine except Gentleman’s Relish is swapped for simple drained anchovies which are mashed and spread on the toast and no spices are used.

If, by the way, you know not of Scotch Woodcock or the concept of the savoury, have a listen to the podcast episode. I also wrote a post about savouries a few years ago.

This makes enough for two for lunch and is very good with a green salad dressed only with salt, pepper and cider or wine vinegar.

The simple foods are best

150 ml double cream

2 egg yolks (or 1 whole egg)

Salt and pepper

Dash of Cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of ground mace (optional)

2 slices of toast kept warm

Around 2 tsp Gentleman’s Relish (my recipe for that here)

Turn your grill to a high setting.

Put a small saucepan on a medium-low heat. Pour in the cream and beat in the egg yolks (or whole egg) then the spices with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring until the mixture becomes scalding hot, but do not allow it to boil. You can tell when it’s ready if when you scrape your wooden spoon through the savoury custard you can see the base of the pan.

Spread the Gentleman’s Relish thinly over the toast (if you’re using my recipe, you can be a little more generous) then spoon over the savoury custard. Don’t worry if there are a few small lumps of cooked egg: it’s very forgiving. Use the back of a spoon to spread the custard right to the very edges of the toast, and grill until the top turns a delicious dark golden brown (or do as I did, and use a chef’s torch).

Serve immediately.


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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.


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