SAY you had been invited for tea to Alan Cumming's pad in upstate New York. You might be forgiven for expecting to be quaffing champagne and chomping on canapés with the recently honoured Scottish actor, but you would be wrong – he's much more likely to serve up a bowl of stovies, a staple of his childhood in Angus.
Cumming's favourite recipe is one of those gathered by award-winning cook and food writer Sue Lawrence in her latest book, Taste Ye Back: Great Scots and the Food that Made Them. A collection of recipes from 70 famous Scots, it's more than a cookbook as it also contains childhood reminiscences tied up with food. From the Prime Minister down, the celebs have served up a recipe that reminds them of their youth, along with anecdotes that give a glimpse of the influences that shaped some of the country's most prominent personalities. A percentage of the book's royalties will go to the Children's Hospice Association Scotland.
Proust had his madeleines, the lemon cakes whose taste immediately transported him back to his childhood, but Lawrence's celebrity offerings have more of a tartan flavour – for Gordon Brown, it's apple and blackberry crumble; Sharleen Spiteri adored chicken and lemon soup; and Andy Murray loved granny's shepherd's pie.
"There's so much knowledge among the older generation that we will lose before long," says Lawrence. "Not the recipes, as they are written down, but the techniques and skills. It was the social history element that became very important writing the book: Midge Ure telling me there was no table in his house until he was 12, or Denis Law telling me that in his 1940s childhood in Aberdeen he didn't think there was such a thing as a main course; he had soup and a pudding, apart from on Saturdays, when they would have homemade fish suppers, courtesy of his fisherman dad," she says.
It's clear from the book that those in their 40s and 50s loved their mum's cooking, while for the younger ones it's grannies who wield the ladle, which tells us something about the changing social changing dynamics of our country. "We are all cooking less and less, and mums have to work nowadays," says Lawrence.
Common favourites that pepper the pages include mince, stovies, soups, tattie scones and chicken and rice, while cloutie dumplings, crumbles, pies, shortbread, tablet and sugar sandwiches are there to sate our national sweet tooth.
"What amazed me were people's first childhood food memories. Siobhan Redmond's was walking around with a bit of string round her neck attached to an apple so she wouldn't drop it, or Andrew Marr being given bicarbonate of soda by his dad so he would throw up his Christmas pudding and could fit in more," says Lawrence.
The most bizarre memory came from Chancellor Alistair Darling, whose 1950s Orkney upbringing saw his granny and aunties using their hands rather than wooden spoons to mix cakes and sauces.
In the days before takeaways, freezers and eating out, it's the regional, seasonal aspect of the recipes and memories that stands out. "Everyone mentioned the cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients that gave the flavour. So it's not just nostalgia and a case of rose-tinted tastebuds: things really did taste better."
And because we're in Scotland, even though these are childhood memories, a dram or two inevitably crops up in the ingredients. "Yes, it wasn't uncommon for drink to be involved in the recipes," laughs Lawrence. There's a wee Sheena McDonald perched on the manse table being bribed with syllabub to have her toenails clipped, or Dougray Scott's dad whipping up an eggnog with brandy. "Only at the weekends, though," says Lawrence.
Here are some of the celebrities with their favourite recipes.
"Growing up in Kirkcaldy, my father was the minister of our local church. This meant that our home, the manse, was always open to visitors. My mum would always have a huge pot of soup sitting on the stove so there was always something hot and nourishing to offer guests. As one of three boys, we had great appetites, so she was also busy making big stews or Sunday roasts served with potatoes and vegetables. We lived by the sea so we grew up eating lots of fish as well.
"In the summertime, the Browns would go out picking raspberries and have those with ice-cream as a treat. My mum was also a great apple crumble and custard person, which we all loved.
"My dad had to look after the cooking for a long time once, while my mother was unwell. He had only one dish: omelettes with cornflour, an ingredient I have never understood for an omelette to this day! But I do remember how hard he tried to make sure my brothers and I were well fed and looked after in my mother's absence. I'm not much better at cooking myself, but I'm okay at rustling up a simple lunch or supper for the boys when needs be, and the microwave is a wonderful invention for when I'm on my own or working late. My father could have done with one of those."
APPLE AND BLACKBERRY CRUMBLE
175g/6oz flour (brown and white mixed)
50g/1oz low-fat margarine
50g/1oz soft brown sugar plus an extra 3 tbsp
2 tbsp muesli (optional)
225g/8oz cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into chunks
225g/8oz blackberries (or rhubarb, washed and cut into small chunks, or raspberries in the summer)
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Put the flour, margarine and butter into a big mixing bowl and rub together through your fingers until it looks like breadcrumbs. Stir in the 50g/1oz sugar, and, for a little extra crunch, add a handful of muesli if you like.
Load the apple chunks and blackberries (or other fruit) into a pie dish. Sprinkle three tablespoons of sugar over the fruit and a tiny dash of water. Pile the crumble mixture over the fruit, smoothing over to make a flat surface without pressing down too hard.
Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, until the crumble top is golden and you can just see the fruit bubbling at the edges.
You can serve the crumble straight away with custard, yoghurt or ice-cream, but it is also good cold if you have any left over the next day.
Sue says: I add an extra 50g/1 oz butter to the crumble to make it moist.
Alan Cumming's earliest memory of food is having mashed-tattie sandwiches while pedalling round the kitchen in Fassfearn, near Fort William. "They are an overlooked delicacy!" Food was very important in Cumming's home because they lived in the country and couldn't just pop out to get something. His mum cooked and baked constantly, and indeed still does.
Even now he still craves stovies, which he finds so comforting and often makes in his own home. "They also remind me of parties and happy times. I actually really love dishes that are just one thing, instead of lots of different bits to choose from."
On occasional trips to the chip shop as a child, his preference was always for white pudding suppers over fish suppers, and it still is. "White pudding rules!" he says.
"I love making soup and hearty things like that, but I pretty much will have a bash at anything – especially in my house in upstate New York, because, like my childhood, it's the kind of place that you have to cook at home, because you are up a mountain and there is no other alternative."
Stovies is a Scottish dish that is traditionally made with beef dripping, but I am a vegetarian so I have made up my own version.
It is real peasant food and ideal for people who, like me, love to have a plateful of one thing. I much prefer a mush-style dish to something with loads of different components.
Stovies are so great for parties on cold winter nights because you can just leave them on the stove and people can help themselves throughout the night as they please.
3-4 cloves of garlic (more, if you like)
4 large onions
8-10 large potatoes
tamari or dark soy sauce, to taste
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste
a couple of handfuls of soya mince
In a wok or large pot, put a good old sloosh of olive oil. (I normally turn the bottle upside down and count until about four.) Chop up some garlic, and fry it in the olive oil for a bit. Don't let it get crispy, but tit needs to permeate the oil and make a tasty base for the stovies.
Take the biggish onions and chop them up into fairly big chunks and add them to the olive oil and garlic. Fry them for a bit longer, then put a lid on and leave them to sweat for a bit (about five minutes).
Now scrub and chop up the potatoes into fairly big chunks. Add to the sweating onions and garlic and leave for a bit to get all infused.
Now comes the fun bit. Get your tamari or dark soy sauce and squirt about 20 or so squirts into the wok, then do the same with your Worcestershire sauce. You could also use BBQ sauce; basically the trick is to make the stovies tasty and to give it a bit of a browny colour. You do all this to taste, and can also add some salt and pepper (although don't go crazy with the salt if you are going heavy on the tamari). Then throw in a couple of big handfuls of the soya mince. (My assistant Joey thought I said soya mints the first time I asked him to buy some, and had a devil of a job tracking any down).
Pour water into the wok so that all the ingredients are just submerged. Bring to the boil for a bit, turn it down to simmer, then go away and check your e-mails or have a bath or something.
Stir occasionally, and once the potatoes are cooked and soft you can give them a little beating up with a spoon to make the stovies more mushy in texture. I usually cook mine for about 30 minutes, with the lid half on, half off. Then turn them off, put the lid on and let them cook in their own juices.
You could also add things like hot sauce or mustard if you felt daring. Enjoy!
Sue says: This dish requires no additional salt if you are using both Worcestershire sauce and tamari sauce.
Poet and novelist
As a child, it was the "complete unpredictability of a bowl of porridge" that author Jackie Kay remembers when she was growing up in Bishopbriggs, near Glasgow. "It could be lumpy, too salty, was always grey and to me was associated with depression. It was eaten a lot at home, and I hated it – still do!"
But she also had good memories: she adored her granny's soup, made from a hough bone, the meat then shredded into the soup with perfectly diced carrots, diced potatoes, barley, marrowfat peas and red lentils. "Granny made this on Wednesdays, and my dad would visit her then and bring home the pot of soup for us. Then, when we all visited her on Sunday, we would return the empty pot."
Neither her mother or father were great cooks, but her mum's macaroni cheese was delicious: boiled Marshalls macaroni layered up with slices of tomato, grated cheese, chopped bacon and onions all over, then oven-baked until golden and gooey. Indeed, Kay still makes a version these days, albeit rather more elaborate.
Her parents were both members of the Communist Party, and with that, according to Kay, came perks: on Saturdays her dad would go to the party butcher and be given four steaks and four slices of square (beef) sausage for free.
When her parents went to Russia to be with fellow communists, Kay and her brother were left with family friends, apart from a couple of days when they stayed near Edinburgh. "I will never forget the gooseberry pie made by the little old man we were left with," she says. "This was a pie out of a fairy tale, just divine. It was really juicy and thick, and the flavours all burst in the mouth. There was a hole in the middle and the syrupy gooseberries oozed out."
Two of her mum's dishes that she loved then and now are rice pudding (which Kay liked to see emerge from the oven topped with a crusty skin, though she never liked to eat it) and apple sponge pudding, made in a square tin.
NEVER-FAIL APPLE SPONGE
1.3kg/3lb cooking apples
2 tbsp sugar
For the sponge:
2 very large eggs (or 3 medium-sized ones)
tsp bicarbonate of soda
125g/4oz caster sugar
125g/4oz plain flour
1 tsp cream of tartar
Peel and core the apples and slice them very thinly, laying them in the bottom of a 23cm/9in square baking tin. Sprinkle with sugar.
For the sponge, beat the eggs and soda together well. Add the sugar very slowly and beat it in thoroughly (several minutes in a food mixer). Sift in the flour with the cream of tartar and fold in gently.
Pour this mixture over the apples. Put the tin in an oven preheated to 180C/350F/gas 4 for 15 to 20 minutes, until just set.
Sue says: I prefer to cook the apples first in a microwave bowl for a few minutes until just done, then drain off any excess liquid before laying them over the base of the tin.
Andy Murray's first food memory is of tipping a plate of custard on his head when he was in his high chair. Apart from this trauma, he has good memories of food, as not only was his mum a good cook but, he says, "My gran is an awesome cook. She studied at domestic science college. When I was wee I used to tell her she was 'a great cooker'."
The favourite childhood dishes that Murray still craves are his gran's Greek shepherd's pie and his mum's fresh fruit salad. If the latter sounds more healthy than the choice of the average Scot, this is backed up by the fact he never eats food from the chip shop – so no fish suppers.
Murray learned the rudiments of cooking at home and some baking too. "I remember making little sponge cakes and covering them with icing and Smarties. Nowadays I can make pretty good pasta with tomato sauce; and I make great smoothies; my top one is strawberry, raspberry and blueberry with a bit of yoghurt and honey – tremendous!"
He has very special memories of Christmas dinners at his gran's home. "There was homemade turkey broth, roast turkey and all the trimmings, then fresh fruit salad and ice-cream. The only problem was that my gran gave us the same-sized portions from age five to 18, so Jamie and I were always starving. Eventually we had to tell her… and last year we got more than one chipolata each. Result!"
GREEK SHEPHERD'S PIE
2 tbsp oil
450g/1lb minced beef
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
butter, for greasing
450g/1lb potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
salt and pepper, to taste
For the white sauce:
400ml/14 fl oz milk
2 tbsp grated cheese
Slice the onions thinly and fry gently in the oil in a large pan until soft, adding the mince and parsley after a few minutes and stirring from time to time. Slice the tomatoes, add to the meat and cook gently for five minutes.
Butter a round souffl dish and arrange layers of overlapping potato slices on the bottom. Season with salt and pepper, and then spread a layer of meat and tomatoes, then another layer of potatoes.
In a pan, make a thick sauce blending the butter and flour, and then slowly adding the milk, stirring all the time. Season well and stir in the grated cheese. Pour over the potatoes and shake the dish so that the sauce penetrates.
Bake in an oven preheated to 180C/350F/gas 4 for 1 hours, or until the potatoes are tender. Serve with a green salad.
Actor and musical performer
"Oh, I have lots of early food-related memories," says John Barrowman about his Glasgow childhood.
"My earliest memory is of my Gran Butler. Her name was Marion but we called her Murn – making me chips and deep-frying Spam slices in her Sandyhills flat. She had the mankiest pot of lard that she recycled for everything fried, so no matter what she made, it tasted really delicious and always had a hint of the flavours of the last foods cooked in the pan. Yum!"
Barrowman's mum is a good baker (see recipe below) and his other gran, Emily Barrowman, used to make "the most amazing pancakes; and my sister, Carole, has inherited that skill. In the States, we eat them for breakfast and top them with butter, syrup or fresh fruit."
Barrowman grew up around a number of very capable women. "My mum, Murn and Murn's sister, Jeannie – and each one could cook. In fact, when I was growing up the kitchen was always the heart of the house. As a result, I love to cook and I'm pretty good at it."
And as for cooking Scottish dishes, the actor's niece Clare and he have assisted his mum in making cloutie dumpling, a staple for the family's Christmas dinner. "My mum puts healthy amounts of whisky and brandy in her recipe. I think Clare and I both still need some practice. This is a family food tradition I don't want to lose. There's nothing better after a delicious Christmas dinner than a thick slice of cloutie dumpling swimming in condensed milk or covered in fresh cream.
"After my mum has wrapped the mixture in the clout, and before she immerses it in the pot of boiling water, everyone in the kitchen has to 'slap the dumpling's bum' so it develops a good thick skin. Works every time."
BANANA AND HONEY BREAD
Makes one loaf
225g/8oz plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
115g/4oz butter, diced
85g/3oz light brown sugar
3 medium-sized ripe bananas
2 tbsp clear/runny honey
Sift together the flour, baking powder and a pinch of salt. Rub in the butter until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and raisins. Mash the bananas in a separate bowl.
Whisk together the honey and eggs, then add this to the dry ingredients, combining well. Pour into a buttered, base-lined loaf tin (900g/2lb) and bake for 80-90 minutes, covering loosely with foil for the last 30 minutes. Cook until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin for five minutes, then remove carefully to a wire rack to cool completely before cutting.
Sue says: This is also delicious served warm as a pudding with ice-cream and strawberries.
Sharleen Spiteri's first food memory is of toast and Marmite, while another favourite when she was about five or six was stuffed olives. This very un-Scottish childhood food gives an inkling of her roots. On her mother's side there was a Scottish influence, but on her father's there was a strong Maltese heritage. Sharleen was aware that she was growing up with two very different culinary backgrounds.
When her dad was home from sea (he was a merchant seaman), the family would go to Ferguson's the Deli, on Union Street in Glasgow, to buy olives, pats, anchovies and other delicacies that were almost unheard of in most Scottish households in the early 1970s. So from eating stew and dumplings and potted hough sandwiches, she also learned to cook kofta: minced beef combined with garlic, onion, red wine and egg, rolled into balls and then grilled. These were servedwith homemade chips. "Well, not really chips: my mum had a big mandoline slicer and she would cut the potatoes very fine, then fry them in olive oil. We would also have a big salad on the table, dressed in good homemade vinaigrette which, after the salad was gone, we would all dunk our bread into."
She did like more unusual foods, such as whelks. "I remember having a bag of these at the Barras, with a pin to poke them out of the shell, and sometimes smearing the black bit on to my face as a beauty spot!"
Another favourite childhood dish was her mum's chicken and lemon soup, which was wonderfully tangy.
CHICKEN AND LEMON SOUP
1 carrot, finely diced
1 whole roast chicken
chicken stock, enough to cover generously
1 lemon, plus extra to serve
Chop and fry the onion in a large pan to soften it, then add the finely diced carrot. Once that has softened too, take a whole roast chicken, remove the flesh and add it to the pan. Then add loads of chicken stock and the rice, and boil until done. Leave to cool until it is just warm.
Squeeze the juice of a lemon and whisk this together with the egg, then, very, very slowly, stir this into the soup so it becomes creamy. The soup should now be a lovely pale yellow colour.
Place a couple of extra lemons on the table (to add a bit more juice to the soup if you want) and a loaf of crusty bread, then serve the soup.
Nick Nairn still remembers sitting in the kitchen of the family house in Boquhan, near Killearn (they had moved there from Lake of Menteith for five years while his dad, Jimmy Nairn, was doing The One O'Clock Gang Show on television), at the age of four. Watching his mum making soup, he tried to copy her. He chopped the vegetables with a butter knife, stirred the soup with cold water in a tin can and wondered why it was so repellent!
His mum was – and still is – a very good cook, and the family ate very well on salmon, game, beef and lamb. However, she always served plain fare, because his dad reckoned anything resembling "foreign muck" – cooked with onions, garlic and herbs – was the "work of the devil". Nairn was 19 when he tasted his first curry – and that was in Asia.
Both his grandmothers were good bakers. The chef remembers a jug of milk souring on the windowsill, the secret ingredient for the fabulous scones.
But it was his mum's meatloaf, cooked in a glazed earthenware jar, that was a childhood favourite, as well as tomato soup made with home-grown tomatoes, stock from a ham bone, onion, carrots and orange lentils. The meatloaf would be served with homemade chips and some of his dad's own tomatoes, cut thickly and dressed with salt and pepper.
"The Nairns," says the chef, "are obsessed with potatoes! Dad has always grown them and used to favour only the floury varieties, but is now siding with me and enjoying more waxy varieties, such as Charlotte."
150g/5oz minced pork or bacon (use smoked bacon so you don't need to add salt)
450g/1 lb lean beef mince
2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs, to bind
Mix all the ingredients together then pack them into a 900g/2lb stone jar and seal it with a double layer of tin foil. Set the jar in boiling water in a tall casserole dish and simmer in an oven preheated to 180C/350F/gas 4 for approximately three hours. Serve with homemade chips and home-grown tomatoes. r
Taste Ye Back: Great Scots and the Food That Made Them, By Sue Lawrence, is published by Hachette Scotland on 13 August, priced 20. Readers can order a copy for 18 (including p&p). Call 0870 755 2122 quoting the reference code BSH711 or visit www.pressoffers.co.uk/bsh711. Please allow 28 days for delivery. Offer subject to availability
Nick Nairn's regular column returns next week.