Saturday, January 20, 2007

Foodie at large: Scotch myths

The Times

Burns Night is almost upon us, and every tartan-blooded Scot will be celebrating in traditional manner with noggins of whisky and a steaming haggis while a man in a kilt gets all excited about “the great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”. (There’s nothing Slade could have taught Robert Burns about the commercial value of a good seasonal tie-in.)
For diners at Boisdale, home from home for Celtic expats in London, the night’s celebrations have been stretched into a fortnight, and they’ll be piping in Macsween haggis, wild salmon from the Dunkeld smokery on the Taye, and ribs of 28-day-old Scottish beef right through to next Saturday.
Owner Ranald Macdonald is as Scottish as they come. The son of the 23rd Captain and Chief of Clanranald, he’s a descendant of the Macdonald of Boisdale who told Bonnie Prince Charlie to stop all his rabble-rousing nonsense, and the many greats nephew of Flora Macdonald, who helped spirit him away after the Jacobite army was defeated at Culloden in 1746. Ranald also claims kinship with Elvis’s maternal grandmother, which rather pleases his music-loving side.
Anyway, he was shocked when he learnt I’d never eaten haggis, and decided to remedy the situation and at the same time introduce me to the new range of rare single malts he has launched with Berry Bros & Rudd. And very fine they both were. The haggis was a revelation, which we decided was probably down to the fact that at Boisdale they roast rather than boil it, and serve it with a very good veal reduction.
On the minus side, Ranald rather scuppered the Scottishness of the occasion by declaring that haggis was probably introduced to Britain by the Romans (his forebears would therefore have had to enjoy it as a takeaway from the other side of Hadrian’s wall), and that the national drink of Scotland is no more whisky than it is Irn-Bru.
“Essentially, haggis is an unevolved sausage,” he says, “a mix of blood, offal and local cereal stuffed inside a stomach lining. You’ll find versions of it in rural communities throughout Europe.” In most countries that developed into the meatier sausage that we know today. “But in a poor area such as the Highlands, they wouldn’t have had frying pans, or ranges — just a hole in the roof and a pot over a fire — so virtually every­thing you had would be boiled. And that’s how it’s stayed.” And hence, also, the haggis’s frankly medieval appearance.
And as for the Scottish love of whisky, that didn’t really come about until the early 19th century, apparently. “No, the real national drink of Scotland is claret,” says Ranald, himself a former wine merchant. “Since the 1600s the English had been stuck with oxidised red wine from Portugal as they were their most important partner in the wool trade. But in Scotland, with our French alliance, we drank claret, and had done since the 14th century. So fond of it were we that by 1616 James VI of Scotland [and James I of England] enacted a bill through Scottish parliament limiting my family to one hogshead of claret a year because he believed that the barbaric behaviour of the clans of the west coast was all down to our inordinate love of red wine. Whisky had been produced since the 15th century, but didn’t really take off until after 1780 when the tax on claret made wine too expensive for most people.”
So there we have it, and all from a Scot. So be sure this Thursday to raise a glass — just make sure it’s filled with claret, not scotch.

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