This week Bernard Darnton delves into the greatest culinary tradition in Europe (except for French, Italian, Basque, Greek, Viennese, Swedish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Luxembourgian, …)
“Scottish cuisine” is not a phrase that fills you with hope. It doesn’t suggest the sophistication of French, the urgent, exotic freshness of Thai, or the “what the hell did that used to be?” of Chinese. Well, maybe the last. No, “Scottish cuisine” makes you think of mashed up sheep’s organs stuffed into a different, unmashed-up sheep’s organ.
Nonetheless, Scottish nationalists have reacted with outrage and denial at the discovery that haggis may have originated in the south of England rather than in Caledonia. Food historian Catherine Brown has made headlines this week with her claim that a haggis recipe published in 1616 in The English Hus-Wife predates any Scottish mention by a hundred years.
The claims have been rebutted by a representative of the Scottish Institute for Arts and Sciences who said, “If yer repeat that again I’ll fuckin’ nut yer, yer little gobshite.”
However, the claim rings true. English cuisine is shaped by England’s climate. That is, it’s crap. Traditional English dishes are, by-and-large, horrible – jellied eels, damp chips with mushy peas, and vegetables boiled until they’re grey. Things have changed a bit recently with the now widespread addition of Jamie Oliver’s frothing spittle.
So haggis will fit right in in England. With its loss, the only item remaining on the traditional Scottish menu is the deep fried Mars bar. While this sounds disgusting, and is enough to give everyone at the Heart Foundation a stroke, it is in fact a work of genius. But you will only ever appreciate this if you consume one when you’re pisseder than a tankful of ill-disciplined newts. I discovered this while living in the Edinburgh of the South.
The unlikely saviour of Scotland’s culinary tradition could be chicken tikka masala. Ali Ahmed Aslam, founder of the Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow, lays claim to inventing the dish. With the help of his local MP, he has applied to the European Union for “Protected Designation of Origin” status.
Protected Designation of Origin status is what’s responsible for rules like the one saying that fizzy wine that doesn’t come from the Champagne region of France has to go by the clumsy appellation of “Methode Champenoise.” Likewise Parma ham that’s not from Parma, Newcastle Brown Ale that’s not from Newcastle, and Stilton cheese that’s not from some rigorously defined bit of the English Midlands. (It’s illegal to make Stilton cheese in Stilton, which is near Cambridge, but you don’t need all those acres of bureaucrats to come up with rules that are simple.)
Unlike these products though, chicken tikka masala doesn’t have the word “Glasgow” in its name so I’m not sure what they’re trying to protect. My Hindi’s not that great (although it’s better than my Glaswegian) but I think “chicken tikka masala” means something like “chicken lump mixture.” Presumably, under the proposed rules, restaurants outside Glasgow’s West End would have to refer to the dish as “Glaswegian-style chicken lump mixture” – an advertiser’s dream.
The EU’s meddling would at least clear up any confusion that the dish might be of Indian origin. A tin of Campbell’s condensed tomato soup is not a traditional ingredient in the Punjab. England, however, looks likely to get stuck with the haggis unless they can pass the blame on to the Vikings.
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