My upcoming release, A Forbidden Liaison with Miss Grant, is set in 1822 in Edinburgh, during the state visit of King George IV.
One of the many set-piece events laid on for the king was a banquet in Parliament Hall. Three hundred guests – all men! – waded their way through countless courses and copious amounts of booze, not unlike a modern corporate dinner. The menu took no prisoners in terms of dietary requirements, which in Regency times meant anything which once had a pulse. It offered a choice of turtle or grouse soup, stewed carp, braised venison, roast grouse, lobster vol-au-nents, pigeon pate, sole, veal, cold cuts and roasted chickens – I could go on, but I’m already feeling slightly nauseous.
Walter Scott, the architect of what became known as the King’s Jaunt, had specified a number of Scottish ‘delicacies,’ to be included, and these were also offered in other hostelries too. My hero and heroine, dining at Oman’s Hotel on Charlotte Square (now Bute House) were not impressed:
Constance wrinkled her nose. ‘Hodge-podge? ”A traditional Scottish stew made from neck of lamb, served in an ale and barley broth with seasonal vegetables,” according to what is written here.’
‘Another of Walter Scott’s traditions in the making, I reckon,’ Grayson said. ‘It’s listed under Traditional Highland Dishes, along with haggis and sheep’s head, which is something I remember my mother making, and I hope never to have to eat again. The stink of it hung in the air for days afterwards.’
‘And you were obliged to sleep in the kitchenette recess too. In fact it is traditional to cook a sheep’s head broth in the Highlands, though thankfully my mother never did so. There was one wee wifey in the village, Mrs Angus McLeod, who was famed for it, and also for her black puddings, which I must admit I am rather fond of. I don’t see those featured here.’
‘Blood mixed with oatmeal is probably a stretch too far for the Oman Hotel’s diners who include, let us not forget, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll,’ Grayson said, in the obsequious tones of Mr Urquhart.
‘You’ll be dining among exalted company when you’re here. Mind now, to take cream with your porridge instead of salt, lest you betray your humble origins.’
‘It just won’t taste the same, made fresh and served with cream. My mammy used to make it but once a week, to save the coals, and let is set cold in an old drawer.’ Grayson grinned. ‘We were poor but we were happy. We’d have a slab of it every morning, fried on the griddle.’
‘You should recommend they do the same here, during the King’s visit, for the sake of authenticity,’ Constance said, her eyes alight with laughter. ‘The food of Old Gaul, served to their patrons dining in the garb of Old Gaul. Instead of braised cod cheeks, which they have here, they could offer crappit heid.’
‘That sounds so disgusting I’m scared to ask what it is.’
‘Cod’s head,’ Constance informed him, ‘stuffed with oats and a bit of suet.’
According to my mum, my nana, who was from the Isle of Lewis, made a first class sheep’s head broth. I’ve never attempted it myself, needless to say, but there is a recipe for it in the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes Cookery Book that I inherited from my gran – published in 1925. Not content with sheep’s head broth, this wonderful book has instructions on how to dress a sheep’s head and how to make it into a pie. Thrifty Mrs B White from Binnend WRI even gives detailed instructions on how to make dinner for five person for three days from a sheep’s pluck!
I couldn’t find a recipe for one of my favourites, black pudding. I buy it from the butcher, but my nana made her own. Another of my mum’s tales of childhood is of being sent to get a lemonade bottle of fresh pig’s blood from the local farmer. Pig’s blood and oatmeal are the key ingredients.
My WRI cookbook devotes an entire chapter to oatmeal, from brose to gruel to skirley. I love my porridge in the morning, cooked in the microwave and served with milk and a sprinkling of salt, the traditional way. I veer away from tradition with my haggis though, serving it with cauliflower cheese and cabbage rather than neeps and tatties.
For those of a nervous disposition, and of course vegetarians and vegans, please be reassured that, while Grayson is a red-blooded male, my story is actually about two mature protaginists sating quite different appetites. I hope I’ve whetted yours!