There are few other times of the year when Scots traditions are embraced with such enthusiasm at home. Usually it’s left up to the ex-pats to don the tartan and praise the old country. But even the Scots who have their black bun and shortie sent by airmail will get a run for their money as the nation prepares to live up to its reputation for celebrating Hogmanay.
What the millions around the globe watching wild scenes of Celtic celebrations on TV don’t realise is that it’s about more than seeing in the bells with a dram of whisky and the best New Year street party in the world. The traditional celebrations continue well into the next day - and not just because no-one’s party finishes before 5am. In fact, it’s probably partly due to the over indulgence of alcohol that the ritual Ne’erday dinner continues to be such a vital part of New Year for so many Scots.
While many prefer not to opt for the traditional turkey at Christmas, most will still be tucking into the traditional Scots steak pie on 1 January. Around the globe, there’s a heady mix of traditional foods eaten on New Year’s Day from lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas with ham in America, to doughnuts in Holland. What these foods have in common is their shape; being round (or vaguely circular in the case of the British steak pie), which symbolises the end of one year with the seamless beginning of the next. But we still opt for steak pie accompanied by nourishing neaps, peas and tatties on 1 January.
The steak pie became the national New Year’s dinner dish in Scotland because New Year’s Day was not traditionally taken as a holiday. (Western society has only been celebrating New Year for the past 400 years.) Families were too busy to cook and bought big steak pies from their local butcher instead. Scottish food writer Catherine Brown remembers her grandmother making the filling for their steak pie then taking the ashet to the butcher to be topped with pastry and cooked in his oversized oven.
Butcher-bought steak pie remains popular today I suspect partly because most Scots are too hung-over to think about cooking on New Year’s Day. Mostly, though, it has to be the classical appeal of this very British dish that guarantees its place on dining room tables at New Year. Tender pieces of beef, succulent and moist from good wholesome gravy, combined with buttery mouthfuls of flaky pastry, the underside steeped in meaty juices; it’s the ultimate comfort food, especially when served with a big fluffy dollop of clap shot (mashed turnips and potatoes) to mop up the extra gravy and stop runaway peas in their tracks.
Yet even although every esteemed food historian hails the steak pie as a classic British dish, surprisingly it doesn’t have a particularly lengthy past (in food history terms). Very early versions of steak pie were first recorded in the 18th century when it began life as beefsteak pudding made with suet. Then legendary household cook Mrs Beeton introduced kidneys to the pudding with her recipe in 1861, eventually leading to the birth of steak and kidney pie, which - for better or worse - became recognised as a British national dish.
Like many classic dishes, the steak pie, so readily available from "traditional"-style restaurants, can vary wildly in quality. Thankfully, the rise of the gastro pub in Britain has seen the renaissance of genuine homemade steak pie, which in itself is another epicurean dichotomy. Do you cook and cool the filling first, adding the pastry top after, and then cook the pie in the oven? Or do you cook the filling and pastry together?
Sheila Hutchins, author of English Recipes and Others, doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that teaches cooking the filling separately from the pastry, advising that if you cover the pastry and reduce the heat after the initial burst from the hot oven, then it won’t burn. However, despite Hutchins’s insistence that this method allows the cooking juices to permeate the pastry, the 21st-century way is to cook the filling first.
Another past-present anomaly concerns the filling itself. Originally, the meat used comprised leftover bits of beef that were often augmented with cheaper sausage meat, while some early variations called for oysters or mushrooms to enrich the pie’s filling. But, like Mrs Beeton’s kidneys (not literally), these additional ingredients are not popular with today’s consumer and tend to be left out. "It’s not everyone that likes offal," says Kevin Smith from W&W Middlemass butcher, who will occasionally make steak and kidney pie on request. "The demand is for pure steak," he adds.
Smith has been in the trade for two decades, owning his Langholm butcher’s shop for the past nine years. The unassuming butcher sticks to premium Buccleuch beef that’s been well hung for his steak pies, which were proclaimed the best in Scotland last year.
In the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders (SFMTA) inaugural hunt for the country’s best steak pies in February 2003, no less than 148 pies were evaluated. Of these, 17 were awarded silver and gold medals and six were selected as regional winners. Then it was up to David Young, chef-proprietor of The Cross in Kingussie, to choose the best of the best. He decided on the golden-topped Buccleuch steak pie from WW Middlemass.
"It stood out from the rest," said the former chief hotel and restaurant inspector for the AA. "It was a fabulous, generously proportioned pie, with tender meat and crisp, flaky pastry in perfect balance." But what really clinched it for Young was "an outstanding, rich gravy with great depth of flavour".
Smith makes individual and family-sized steak pies and "Desperate Dan" specials during the festive season, filled with a hefty 3lb of beef (13.60). WW Middlemass aren’t yet doing mail order (although plan to in time for next New Year), but there are some very respectable and more accessible pies to be had such as the lovely flaky-topped beauties from Inverness butcher, Duncan Fraser. Fraser is renowned throughout the north of Scotland and the 30ft glass counter is crowned with awards dating back to 1963. The old-fashioned shop still operates a ticket system but Fraser will mail goods to anywhere in mainland Britain. Alternatively try Jamesfield Organic or the ever reliable Marks & Spencer.
So if steak pie is the Scots’ New Year’s dinner main course, what’s for afters? Some say trifle, but for traditionalists it is definitely a rich, fruity slice of Clootie dumpling with proper custard or silky double cream. This native Scottish pudding is so named because it is steamed in a ‘cloot’ (cloth) and again like other traditional New Year’s foods, is round, albeit a sort of squashed round.
Good Clootie dumplings are a bit more difficult to buy than steak pies (try www.alex-dalgety.co.uk), but to fulfil all the traditions of New Year, it’s better to make your own anyway. My Granny makes dumpling not only at New Year, but for birthdays too. Maybe it’s because she’s an avid baker, or because she knows that we love the dense, sweet-spiced taste of it, or perhaps it’s because she knows her grown-up grandchildren still get excited at the prospect of finding the carefully wrapped charms she bakes into the dumpling.
A silver coin symbolises wealth, a penny is for a pauper, a key represents a change of home or career, a ring means marriage and a button or thimble stands for bachelordom or spinsterhood respectively. Lately, however, buttons and thimbles have become conspicuously absent in Granny’s dumplings as boyfriends and girlfriends come to join our family celebrations, only to be replaced with additional rings ...
• Duncan Fraser Inverness, tel: 01463 233 066; Jamesfield Organic Abernethy, tel: 01738 850498 or go to www.jamesfieldfarm.co.uk
• SFMTA winners: WW Middlemass Langholm, tel: 01387 380 270; A&I Quality Butchers Inverness, tel: 01463 798 303; Alex E Brown Turriff, tel: 01888 563 379; Patricks of Camelon Camelon, tel: 01324 612 082; Charles Findlay Galashiels, tel: 01896 752 756