‘Pepper awa, gents’: confessions of an unexpected foodie…

James Hogg Exhibition at Bowhill'A portrait of James Hogg . Pic.... Neil Hanna
James Hogg Exhibition at Bowhill'A portrait of James Hogg . Pic.... Neil Hanna
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THE poet, novelist and Ettrick Shepherd, James Hogg, described aptly by Scots as ‘a man o’ pairts’ and by Wordsworth as “a man of original genius”, lived another life in Scotland as a food celebrity.

For in Blackwood’s Magazine (the ‘Maga’) from 1822 until his death in 1835, Hogg starred in and co-wrote the Noctes Ambrosianae, a series of imaginary conversations set in Ambrose’s Tavern in Edinburgh, between the Ettrick Shepherd (Hogg), “Christopher North” (John Wilson, professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University), the “English opium eater” (Thomas de Quincey), and “Timothy Tickler” (Robert Sym, a lawyer).

The Maga’s most popular item – the one which had people queuing in the streets as it came out each month – was the vivid, racy, humorous and satirical talk between the three half-fictitious characters.

Catherine Brown writes in Broths to Bannocks “The Noctes epicures liked mustard with their steaks, apple sauce and mashed potatoes with their roast goose, their turkey devilled, their potatoes mealy, their cheese well ripened and toasted, their Christmas mince pies soaked with brandy and set alight, and their oysters by the hundred.”

Hogg exclaims in Scots: “Hoo mony hunder eisters are there on the brod, Mr Awmrose? Oh! Ho! Three brods! One for each o’ us! A month without an R has nae richt being in the year. Noo, gentlemen, let naebody speak to me for the neist half-hour. Mr Awmrose, we’ll ring when we want the rizzers – and the toasted cheese – and the deevil’s turkey. Hae the kettle on the boil, and put back the lang haun’ o’ the clock, for I fear this is Saturday nicht, and nane o’ us are folk to break in on the Sabbath. Help Mr North to butter and bread – and there, sir – there’s vinegar cruet. Pepper awa’, gents.”

The Shepherd spurned table-fillers with French names: “I like to bring the hail power o’ my stomach to bear on vittles that’s worthy o’t, and no to fritter’t awa’ on side dishes, sic as pates and trash o’ that sort.”

Nor did Hogg approve of new food fashions snubbing traditional broths: “That’s hotch-potch – and that’s cocky-leeky – the twa best soups in natur. Broon soup’s moss-water – and white soup’s like scaudded milk wi’ worms in’t. But see, sirs, hoo the ladle stauns o’itsel in the potch – and I wish Mr Tickler could see himself the noo in a glass, curlin’ up his nose, wi’ his een glistenin, and his mouth watering, at the sight and smell o’ the leeky.”

Each night at 10 o’ clock for supper, the sliding doors of the Paper Parlour opened and “douce, civil, judicious”Ambrose appeared with ashets of fish, flesh and fowl, placed, at the one go, on the table – to avoid any interruption to the flow of conversation.

Both Hogg and North expressed fondness for strong, earthy dishes:

Shepherd: “Beef and greens! Beef and greens! O, Mr North, beef and greens!”

North: “Yes, James, I sympathise with your enthusiasm. Now and now only [winter] do carrots and turnips deserve the name. The season this for rumps and rounds. Now the whole nation sets in for serious eating – serious and substantial eating, James, half leisure, half labour – the table loaded with a lease of life, and each dish a year. In the presence of that haggis, I feel myself immortal.”

The Shepherd, North and Tickler drank jugs of toddy with ‘het water and broon sugar’ frequently, with bowls of punch after the meal, the odd sip of auld port, ‘“ang shamblers [tumblers] o’ ale and pots of draught”, and a Berwick ale of “ripe, racy, and reamy richness”.

The caulker (dram) is always Glenlivet, and the coffee, when it appears, only half-fills the cups, to be topped up with more Glenlivet.

“Taverns were a common venue for men of like tastes and opinions,” writes Annette Hope in A Caledonian Feast, “and thus the clubs came into being – clubs with strange names and stranger customs, like the Right and Wrong Club, whose members (of whom James Hogg was one) bound themselves to agree with any statement, right or wrong, made by anyone in the company.”

Readers can sense in the Shepherd’s words a crisis between old and new in Scotland, as foreign cuisines and more sophisticated habits threaten the simple, traditional Scottish way of eating. We feel it not just in what Hogg says, but in his setting too: while waiting for North one day in the saloon, Hogg sits on a damask cushioned settee, wondering at the strangeness of the feeling when all he has ever been used to is a hard chair, and a rickety one at that.

Perhaps it’s a good idea for Scotland to return to Hogg’s simple, honest gastronomy.