Origins: A Taste of Scotland - #125

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

The Scottish city of Edinburgh is one of the great capitals of Northern Europe.  Situated on the east coast of Great Britain, it has a long history of trading with France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.  It’s a beautiful city and quite interesting to visit.  The Old Town is one of the ancient settlements of Scotland.  It was developed as a walled city and much of its architecture has been preserved.  You can walk through its narrow walkways and see what life was like during the fifteen- and sixteen-hundreds.

Gladstone’s Land is a restored shop and home that was originally constructed in 1617.

There’s the High Kirk of St. Giles, the great Gothic church which is the home of the established Church of Scotland.

You can pop into the Castle and take a peek at the crown jewels...

And then there’s The New Town, which got started in 1767.  It came about as part of Scotland’s participation in what has come to be known as the Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual, cultural and industrial expansion that ran throughout the 18th Century.

Georgian House is a museum which clearly presents life in the New Town as it was in the late 1700’s.  The details of its kitchen and dining room are quite extraordinary.

Which brings me to the subject of food.  Edinburgh has dozens of very good places for eating and drinking.  And yet, for many years all of Scotland has had, shall we say, a weak image in the world of gastronomy.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When most people think about Scottish food they come up with, shall we say, less than the most enticing images.

First to mind is usually Haggis, a nationally famous dish made from the innards of sheep that have been chopped up and boiled in the lining of a sheep’s stomach.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And then they stop thinking about Scottish food and desperately try to think about something else.  Reflect for a moment.  You’ve undoubtedly heard people say: “Let’s go out for French food, or Italian food, or Chinese food.  But I’ll bet you, that you have never heard anybody say: “Let’s go out for Scottish food.”

And yet, for the last few years, I have been having really good meals in Scotland.

I would like to introduce you to Catherine Brown.  She’s the author of a number of books on Scottish gastronomy, including Scottish Cookery and Broths to Bannocks which traces the history of Scottish cooking from 1690 to the present.

CATHERINE BROWN:  Our cooking is based on our good raw materials, on our fish, salmon, our game, our beef... very, very fine quality beef in Scotland.  And also in our cold climate which -- we are cold northerners so that we depend on good warming things, good substantial food; and thirdly, our cooking is dependent on the way that we cook which is different to other, to the rest of the UK.  Because we, our tradition is to cook in a pot, in a large pot over a slow-burning peat fire which gives us not only good broths and stews, but also gives us our national dish, Haggis.

BURT WOLF:  If I were a tourist coming to Scotland for the first time, what would you want me to taste?

CATHERINE BROWN:  Well, there’s quite an interesting dessert which you should have if you, if you come across it in its traditional form.  It was a harvest home dish, and it was set on a table at the end of the harvest.  It was a big big bowl of cream, a big big bowl of toasted oatmeal, a big bowl of berries, fresh berries, and a bottle of whiskey and honey.  And everybody was given their own little bowl, and they took a spoonful of oatmeal and a spoonful of cream and a handful of berries and a bit of honey on top and then a splash of whiskey...

BURT WOLF:  What’s it called?

CATHERINE BROWN:  It’s called Cranican.  The real quality of Scottish food is in its quality flavors which we don’t really need to do a great deal with and that is the beauty of Scottish food, that it speaks for itself and we enjoy that aspect of it.

BURT WOLF:  I’ll drink to that...Slainte! [“slange”]


The national beverage of Scotland is whiskey -- a whiskey of such importance that the rest of the world simply calls it Scotch.  There are about one hundred different Scotch whiskey producers in Scotland and each one has their own very particular approach to the craft.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But it’s not only the skilled labor of the maker that controls the final product.  To a great extent, the taste and color of a particular Scotch whiskey is the result of the physical environment in which the distillery is located.  And that has led to the development of something called the “whiskey trail.”

The whiskey trail is actually a well-beaten path that takes you through Scotland’s Scotch producing districts, which fortunately for the Tourist Commission, takes in all of Scotland.  It is an ideal journey for someone with a great thirst for knowledge.  If you are starting out from Edinburgh, a good first stop would be the Central Highlands.

And this is the Dalwhinnie distillery.  It’s been in operation since 1897.  Its name is Gaelic for “the meeting place.”  Dalwhinnie is the highest distillery in Scotland at over 1000 feet above sea level.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Each of the distilleries in Scotland has chosen a very specific place for its facility.  In the old days one of the most important considerations was the relationship of the distillery to tax agents.  Ideally you would be in a place where the King’s men could never find you.  At the very minimum you wanted to be in a spot where you got enough warning so you could hide your whiskey.

The next most important element in the selection of a site has always been the water supply.  Most of the distilleries are set next to streams.  The water that is drained to make the whiskey comes into the stream from a spring, or drains down from the rain that falls on the nearby hills, or from melting snow.  The trip that the water makes on the way to the distillery gives it a very distinct taste.  If the water passes over and through rocks, it picks up the flavors of the minerals in those rocks.  If it passes through a moor with heather growing, the water will pick up a honey note.  If it passes through fields of peat it will end up with a peatty flavor.  How peatty will depend on the amount of time that the water spends near the peat.  Peat is the remains of compressed plant life, sort of an early form of coal.  Some land formations will filter water for years before delivering it to a stream that feeds a still.  And every inch of the journey will be reflected in the taste of the Scotch.

The type of wood used in the aging cask is also important.  In the early days of Scotch making, the wooden casks were used merely as containers to store the whiskey.  Eventually, however, people discovered that the cask could change the flavor of the Scotch.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Temperature also affects the flavor of Scotch whiskey.  And so does the air.  Scotch spends years maturing in wooden casks, and during that time period, it pulls air into the cask.  If the distillery is near the sea the air may have a salty quality.  That salty air enters the cask and the salty flavor is reflected in the Scotch.

When all the whiskey in a particular bottle comes from the same distillery and has not been blended with whiskey from any other distillery, it has earned the right to be called a malt, or single malt.

The next leg of Scotland’s whiskey trail runs northeast, into a district that faces out on the Moray Firth and the North Sea, and is known as Speyside.  The river from which the area takes its name is one of the world’s great locations for salmon fishing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But before you give up your local fish market, I should point out that the actual cost of hooking a Speyside salmon, when you include the expense of the gear and the guide and the permit, comes in at about 3,500 dollars.  And that doesn’t include the expense of any sauce or perhaps a vegetable, a little parsley would be nice, that’s all extra.  So, I’m pretty much off that court.  Much more in keeping with my budget is the fact that Speyside is single malt heaven.  The granite rocks in the Grampian Mountains appear to add a gentle smoothness, a kind of a soft-water feeling which is very attractive.

Cragganmore is a small distillery in Speyside, but its whiskey is considered to be one of the best.  The area is also famous for its wild mushrooms.  For a classic recipe, take a look at salmon on a bed of roasted fennel with a white wine and cream sauce.  There’s also lots of home-baked fruit cakes, scones and shortbreads.

Now the path works its way across the top of Scotland... to the Isle of Skye which is only fifty miles long and thirty miles wide.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The only distillery on the Isle of Skye is called Talisker.  It was established in 1831, and makes a whiskey that turned out to be the favorite of the great Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson who, amongst his many famous books wrote Treasure Island, the search for the buried treasure of Captain Kidd, a treasure that very well might have included a bottle of whiskey from Skye.

Talisker is considered to have a peppery quality, which goes well with the food of the area.  Skye is famous for fish and shellfish... grilled scallops on a bed of langustine... and monkfish wrapped in slices of Scottish ham.


Now it’s time to turn down and head along the west coast.  This is one of the most romantic parts of Scotland.  Isolated villages.  Tiny port towns.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first settlers in the area are thought to have arrived about 7,000 years ago and made their homes in cliff side caves.  These days the capital of the area is a town called Oban, which is also the name of the local Scotch whiskey.  Authorities believe that Oban is a classic example of the single malts that are made in this area.

The pros describe it as having the aroma of fresh peat with a slight hint of the sea.  They like to add a splash of water and drink it along with a dinner of grilled fish.

Leaving Oban, the trail heads south to the Isle of Islay.  Islay is the most famous of the “Whiskey Islands.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Their stills produce whiskey with flavor notes that remind drinkers of peat and the great North Atlantic ocean.  Then whiskey rests in casks; can be there for three years minimum, or may be there for decades, and during that time period the casks actually breathe in the atmosphere.  The end result is that the climate becomes part of the flavor.

A wee dram of the local whiskey called Lagavulin makes the point.  And to go along with it, the great seafood of the region -- Islay’s famous for its oysters and mussels.

And finally, the trail moves across the southern Lowlands, an area known as the Borders because it borders on England.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  This is one of the most unspoiled spots in Europe.  It’s Scotland’s  garden and it’s covered with rich farmland.  It’s also the birthplace of John Muir, the Scottsman who was a conservationist who moved to North America and actually began the idea of establishing National Parks.

Glenkinchie is a good example of a Lowland whiskey.  The aroma of the local wildflowers ends up in the glass.  And the fields of wheat end up in a wide range of yeast breads.  The Borders are also famous for their traditional Scottish cheeses.

But everything about Scotland is not ancient tradition.  I hear they have a site on the World Wide Web under “” -- I wonder what Robert Burns would have said about that?

And if you would like to see a wee bit of the magnificent Scottish countryside and what elegant country life was like for the British during the heydays of the 1920s, you can get yourself some wheels and head north... over the bridge that crosses the Firth of Forth, which is easier to cross than it is to pronounce.  And on into Gleneagles.

Gleneagles was opened in 1924 and described as “a Riviera resort in the Highlands.”  I assume that the river they had in mind was the Tay that runs near the property.  It was the place to vacation in Great Britain, and it still is.

Gleneagles is also well respected for its cooking.  Scotland’s long association with France is reflected in many of the dishes, but they are also very serious about their preparation of traditional Scottish foods.  All of this is prepared under the direction of head chef Mike Picken, who has agreed to demonstrate a couple of very traditional Scottish farmhouse recipes.

The first is for Highland Meatballs with a Mustard and Whiskey Sauce.  Mike starts by putting a pound of beef into a blender along with one egg, some thyme, rosemary and coriander, plus ten pieces of bread that have been soaked in a little milk, and a chopped onion.  All that is blended together for a few minutes.

The chopped meat mixture is then rolled into balls that are about two inches in diameter.

MIKE PICKEN:  Rolling them up nice and tight.  Make sure there’s no splits in them, otherwise you end up with them starting to fall apart when they cook.  You can smell the onions coming out of them now.  Rolling that into fine pinhead oatmeal.  Okay?  Just to get a nice coating on it.  Doesn’t need any egg or anything; that’ll stick by itself.

Two ounces of unsalted butter are melted in a sauté pan.  The meatballs go in and are pan-fried on all sides until they have a brown coating.

BURT WOLF:  This is a really easy dish and I could do it with ground turkey or chicken also.

MIKE PICKEN:  Yeah, sure.  If you’re looking for something a little less fattening or something like that.  There’s no reason why you can’t.  Just change your flavorings to suit is all.  I think the herbs that we used here today go very well with the beef, but you might want to use something different for turkey or chicken.

At this point they are removed from the sauté pan and placed into a saucepan which is set aside, while the vegetables are prepared.

Carrots are sliced into bite-sized pieces.  Leeks are sliced into rounds that are about an inch long.  Parsnips are cut into small pieces.  The carrots go into a saucepan with some water, a little sugar and a little butter.  After a few minutes the rest of the vegetables are added.  The carrots are started first because they will take longer to cook.  Some celery goes in, and a piece of paper goes on top to hold in the steam.

MIKE PICKEN:  Okay, Burt, I’ve put all the vegetables in there now.  Just a very, very small amount of water with the butter and the sugar.  The reason for the small amount of water -- I don’t want to boil it off in loads of water which ends up getting thrown away. The flavors are in the vegetables, not in the water.

BURT WOLF:   Less water, more vitamins.

MIKE PICKEN:  That’s right, yeah.  See?  Butter paper on there, just gonna let that cook away for another couple more minutes now.

While the vegetables are cooking a second sauté pan goes on the range.  A little butter is melted in it.  A quarter of a cup of minced shallots are added.  A clove of garlic.  A cup of mushrooms.  Those ingredients are sautéed together until the water dries out.  That should take about two minutes.  Then two tablespoons of coarse-grain mustard are mixed in, and finally an ounce of Scotch whiskey.

BURT WOLF:  Now, flaming or not flaming is optional; if your fire insurance policy covers flambé dishes, by all means go right ahead.  If your fire insurance policy doesn’t, then just heat the whiskey, that’ll be fine.

A cup of beef gravy is added.  A few bay leaves go in.  A few more minutes of cooking and the sauce goes onto the meatballs.  Then it’s into a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven for thirty minutes.  When they come out, the meatballs go onto a plate, followed by the mushrooms, the vegetables and a garnish of herbs.  And that is served with steamed new potatoes.

Mike’s second recipe is for a dish called Chicken Stovies with Clapshot.

MIKE PICKEN:  What I’ve done there is taken the chicken and jointed it down, or your butcher can joint in down for you... I’ve got the breast... got the wing... and I’ve got the thigh bone... I’ve taken the drumstick out and we’re going to use that for the stock.  To that, I’ve added some rough cut onion, sliced up, nice and rough there, into the pan and we just put on the stove down there and just cook it away...

BURT WOLF:  A little butter?

MIKE PICKEN:  A little butter in the bottom as well, yeah, and that’s, the stovie means actually cooking on the stove, that’s where it traditionally comes from.  Stovies are actually a traditional dish that would be made from the leftovers from your Sunday lunch in the old days then.  They would maybe have some meat left and meat needed to do more than one day then, so what they had done is they used that down there to cook that down with potatoes, onions, I left the potatoes out of this one cause I’m gonna top it with the clapshot, it’s a little different dish there.

A cup of chicken stock that has been cooked together with a little cream and thickened with a touch of flour and butter is added.  The creamed chicken sauce is traditional but I tried it with just plain chicken stock and it was still a perfectly fine recipe.  It’s your call.  Then some salt and pepper.  Two minutes of additional cooking, and a cup of cubed pre-cooked ham is added.  A quarter of a cup of chopped flat parsley is stirred in and everything is transferred to a heat-proof casserole.

Now it’s time to make the clapshot, which was not developed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It is actually a mixture of bite-sized pieces of turnips, rutabaga and potatoes that have been boiled together in water until they are tender, then mixed with salt, pepper and chopped parsley.

MIKE PICKEN:  Essential when you’re using turnip: plenty of black pepper.  It really just brings the flavor out.

The clapshot goes onto the chicken, about a half cup of bread crumbs go onto the clapshot and the casserole goes under the broiler until the bread crumbs are toasted.  That’s it -- Chicken Stovie with Clapshot.

What also makes Gleneagles attractive is their activity program.  They focused on a series of leisure time undertakings and set up a school for each -- a school that was designed and in many cases is still directed by one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject.  The championship golf course was developed by Jack Nicklaus.

The Equestrian Centre is under the direction of Mark Phillips.

The Shooting School is run by Jackie Stewart.  Not many people know it, but before Mr. Stewart became one of the world’s most famous racing car drivers, he was a champion Olympic shooter.

They have two angling beats for salmon and sea trout on the River Tay, and lochs for brown trout.  The experts explained to me that a salmon beat and trout loch were really just good spots to fish from.

For me, however, the most fascinating school at Gleneagles is the British School of Falconry, where James Knight took me through the introductory course.

JAMES KNIGHT:  This is Talisker.  Now we’ve got about twenty-one birds here at the school.  Most of them are Harris hawks, and the reason we concentrate on them is because of their temperament.  They’re the only birds of prey that we can hand over to the guests, and we know that he’s going to be a hundred percent trustworthy just as he is with us.

There he is.  He’s obviously raring to go.  Now, the most important thing we do with him now -- and I’ll explain it while we’re there -- is we’ve got to weigh him.  Okay?  Before we can use him.  So we take him down the corridor here... and then we’re going to pop him on the scale.  There we go.

BURT WOLF:  He seems to know where he’s going.

JAMES KNIGHT:  Yeah, he gets weighed every day.  The thing to remember about falconry is it’s four thousand years old, okay?  It started in China and Japan as a means of getting food for ourselves, but he’s not going to do that if he’s full and fat, okay?  So he has to be hungry.  He does nothing for us whatsoever, okay?  He purely does it for himself.  So if he doesn’t feel like hunting, he’s not going to do it.  So we have to get him to what we call his hunting weight.  Okay?  And that happens to be one pound, four ounces.  So we’re lucky, he’s just spot on.

JAMES KNIGHT:  Now we’ll try to get him to do a little bit of work for you, and I say “work” because he doesn’t like flying, okay?

BURT WOLF:  Doesn’t like flying?

JAMES KNIGHT:  People always think that birds like to fly and that’s our idea because we can’t fly -- you know, we think it would be great to fly.  But flying for him is work.  And he only does it for a reason, okay?  That’s true of all birds, and with us it’s food, in the wild he’s got to find a mate to build a nest and do all sorts of things, okay, but he’s not thinking “Yippee I’m enjoying this,” okay.  He’s thinking “Yippee I’ve got a bit of beef.”  So to cast him off, you put your arm out straight, okay you can see he’s excited, he’s ready to go, keep hold of the jesses and then I’m just going to take a little step and give him a little push.  Just like an airplane, they always like to take and land off into the wind.  They hate the downwind landing.  So fingers crossed.  So take a little step and give him a push.  There he goes, you see he turns into the wind and lands into the wind.  Now to call him back all I have to do is to put my glove up with some food on and back he comes.  His eyesight is eight times better than ours.  He will see that little piece of beef,  you know, from three or four hundred yards away without any problem.  Right!  So, it’s your go.  So we’re gonna turn these, that’s it, so that your glove is facing into the wind.  I’m just going to step around the side here and I’m going to place the jesses through your thumb, through your middle fingers, perfect, and he’s all yours.

BURT WOLF:  It’s amazing, for over four thousand years we’ve been sending these birds out for our dinner.  Go for it!  And don’t forget...the one with the pepperoni has the extra cheese!  And I hope you won’t forget to join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the things that surround us, and their ORIGINS.  From Scotland, I’m Burt Wolf.