“With the exception of the Lincolnshire fens, there are no greater areas of good land in Britain than can be found in the Merse, the Lothians, the East of Fife, the Vale of Strathmore and the Howe of the Mearns,” writes F Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen.
“On the whole, the remark of the French traveller, Estienne Perlin, in 1552, ‘Nothing is scarce here but money’, is substantially true of Scotland throughout her history.
“Cistercian and Benedictine monks, who came to Scotland in the 11th and 12th centuries, built the Border abbeys and established a farming tradition with new methods completely unknown to the Scots,” explains Catherine Brown in her cookbook, Scottish Regional Recipes.
“The sheep farming tradition they developed was perhaps the most important, and the textile industry of the riverside towns owes its origins to the early stocking of the hills with sheep.
“The Border area, blessed with the finest alluvial soils, was also suitable for wheat, oats and barley. The monks kept cows, pigs and sheep in the self-supporting communities as well as enjoying the plentiful river salmon.”
A fictional Borders dining club called the Cleikum Club, first created by Sir Walter Scott in his novel St Ronan’s Well in 1824 and then turned into a cookbook called Mistress Margaret Dods’ Cook and Housewife’s Manual in 1826, preserved a few of the abbeys’ recipes.
“These jolly monks knew something of the mystery,” expounds the Cleikum Club president Mr Peregrine Touchwood: “Their warm, sunny old orchards still produce the best fruit in the country. You English gentlemen never saw the Grey-gudewife pear. Look out here, sir. The Abbot’s Haugh yonder – the richest carse-land and fattest beeves in the country. Their very names are genial and smack of milk and honey.
“Scotland has absolutely retrograded in gastronomy. Yet she saw a better day, the memory of which is savoury in our nostrils yet, Doctor. In old Jacobite families, and in the neighbourhood of decayed monasteries – in such houses as this, for instance, where long succeeding generations have followed the trade of victuallers – a few relics may be found. It is for this reason I fix my scene of experiment at the Cleikum, and chose my notable hostess as high priestess of the mysteries.”
“To this ancient hostel now – you will scarce believe it – have been confined scores of admirable receipts in cookery, ever since the jolly friars flourished down in the monastery yonder:
The Monks of Melrose made fat brose
On Fridays, when they fasted.”
“Sir,” replied Dr. Redgill, “I should not be surprised if they possessed the original receipt – a local one, too, I am told – for dressing the red trout, in this hereditary house of entertainment.”
“Never doubt it, man – claret, butter and spiceries,” said Touchwood. “Zounds, I have eat of it till – it makes my mouth water yet. As the French adage goes, ‘Give your trout a bottle of good wine, a lump of butter, and spice, and tell me how you like him.”
Red or other trout, or carp, or perch; salt, mixed spices, onions, cloves, mace, black and Jamaica peppercorns, claret or Rhenish wine, anchovy, lemon, cayenne, flour, butter, stock.
“Clean the fish very well; if large, they may be divided or split. Rub them inside with salt and mixed spices. Lay them in the stew-pan and put in nearly as much good stock as will cover them, with a couple of onions and four cloves stuck in them, some Jamaica and black peppercorns, and a bit of mace; add when the fish have stewed a few minutes, a couple of glasses of claret or Rhenish wine, a boned anchovy, the juice of a lemon, and a little cayenne. Take up the fish carefully when ready, and keep them hot. Thicken the sauce with butter kneaded in browned flour; add a little mushroom catsup and a few pickled oysters, if approved; the sauce, though less piquant, is more delicate without the catsup. Having skimmed and strained, pour it over the fish.”
[Meg Dods’ Recipe]
“It was a land of milk and honey when the Border monasteries were at the height of their wealth and power,” writes Catherine Brown in Scottish Regional Recipes: “The friars not only ate well but also possessed many ‘admirable receipts in cookery’. This one was celebrated at the Cleikum Inn:”
1½pt chicken and/or veal stock (725ml); 4oz cooked chicken, finely chopped (100g); 3 eggs; ¼pt cream (150ml); 1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped; salt & pepper.
“Put the stock into a pan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat. Put the eggs and cream into a bowl and beat together. Add about ¼pt (150ml) of the hot soup gradually, beating all the time. Pass through a sieve back into the stock. Add the chicken and heat through to thicken, but do not boil or the egg will curdle. Season, add parsley and serve immediately.”
“Friar’s chicken is served (old style) with the carved chicken in the soup,” explains F Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen: “Meg Dods recommends the addition of a little mace, and adds: ‘The stock may be simply made of butter, and the meat may be nicely browned in the frying pan before it is put to the soup. Rabbits make this very well. Some like the egg curdled, and egg in great quantity, making the dish a sort of thin ‘ragout’ of eggs and chicken. Another old recipe gives a flavouring of cinnamon.”