Tom Kitchin: ‘It’s about going back to those times when the produce was the hero’

Tom Kitchin. Picture: Julie Bull
Tom Kitchin. Picture: Julie Bull
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I RECENTLY gave a talk at the National Library of Scotland and got a rare chance to look through some of the archives there.

Some of the very first recipes and books are fascinating, but what intrigued me was the way they were written and how they were curated. Many talk of sourcing the produce. Methods tell the reader to, “first, catch a fish”, or “bring the bird home complete with furs and feathers”. It’s what I love about cooking, and for me it’s about going back to those times when the produce was the hero and everything was made from scratch using nature’s wonderful resources.

At our new pub, the Scran & Scallie, chef Dominic Jack wants to put some Scottish classic dishes on our menus – those dishes your granny would have made, and her granny’s granny before her. But we want to breathe new life into them with a modern twist.

We found some Burns poems in a local charity shop, which also inspired us. We wanted to make our menus fun, to reflect the atmosphere of the pub, so we’ve added some old Scots tongue on “oor menu” to be light-hearted, but also as a celebration of our Scottish heritage.

The other beautiful thing about discovering these old recipes and menus has been seeing the wonderful visuals that accompany them. Now, cookbooks and recipes are illustrated by wonderful photography that has been edited, digitally enhanced and retouched to perfection. The old recipes we’ve found are frequently illustrated with hand-drawn or hand-painted sketches of the produce and the finished dishes. What has inspired me so much is seeing the journey of the food brought to life. In one illustration we found, it shows you how to hang venison until it drops from the bone. That level of detail about the produce is where my passion lies.

Because we’ve been so inspired by these traditional recipes, we wanted to bring them into the new pub, not just on the menus, but as part of the interior too. It’s our way of celebrating the concept of the recipe. Some of the walls in our new venue will be decorated with original recipes that the National Library of Scotland has helped us to find. Some of them were collected in the 1800s by Katherine Jane Ellice. She was the wife of Edward Ellice of Invergarry, a village in the Great Glen, in the Highlands. He was, in his time, an influential businessman and politician. Recipes range from fish balls to chicken jelly, leg of pork and even simple toasted cheese. The recipes are brought together in a book that is kept at the National Library of Scotland and I do hope they will continue to inspire cooking for another century or more.

It’s been fascinating for us to learn that the Ellices lavishly entertained guests on a regular basis at Gelnquoich, their shooting lodge in the Highlands, from the 1840s to the 1860s. It’s said that in a single year nearly 1,000 guests attended house parties there. I would love to be able to go back in time and join one of those parties just to see them for myself. Many guests came for the shooting, deer stalking and fishing, while others cruised off the Western Isles in the family’s boats.

Most of the recipes in this book are sourced from their guests. It really shows how, despite all the changes we have experienced, some things truly never change. Recipes are inspired from dishes we borrow from friends and neighbours that we try at parties, favourite restaurants, watch on TV or discover in beautifully illustrated recipe books. Indeed, some things we hope will never change and that’s why we feel so inspired to try to bring back some of these traditional Scottish recipes that the Ellices relished and celebrated with their friends and acquaintances – and indeed many others like them who entertained guests more than 100 years ago.

Twitter: @TomKitchin