Edible archive needs strong stomach

DISHES such as cormorant soup, sheep’s head broth and half-pay pudding are unlikely to be making an appearance on Ready Steady Cook any time soon.

But they are about to be revived as part of Scotland’s first “edible archive” – a collection of Scottish recipes stretching back hundreds of years and cooked in kitchens across the country.

Compiled by the Scottish Council on Archives (SCA), the project has already collected more than 100 recipes, including an orange marmalade made by the Countess of Sutherland in 1683 and a “soup for 100 children”, which was submitted by NHS Grampian and found in a chief medical officer’s inspection report from 1912. And there are plans to bring the dishes to life with a Heston Blumenthal-style feast in Edinburgh, in which some of the dishes will be recreated and served up to adventurous diners.

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Victoria Brown, research officer at the SCA, said: “People are interested in food and the diversity of it, so we thought this would be a good way to demonstrate the range of food across the regions of Scotland. We’re trying to build a picture of Scotland through its recipes and through its food, and look at how recipes and how we eat has changed over time.”

Some of the more unusual recipes submitted include a locust bread from the archive of Mount Stuart in Bute, which was brought back to the island by the 4th Marquess of Bute following a trip to Tangiers; and a medicinal drink called Wort, concocted in 1773 and submitted by the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh.

They also include half-pay pudding, a modest dish from Fife using very cheap ingredients that was targeted at the poor just after the Second World War and which may become popular again in today’s economic climate.

Brochan Sgairbh, a recipe for cormorant soup in Gaelic, was submitted by the Pairc Community Association in the Western Isles, and a rice pudding recipe, written in code in a letter by a Scottish soldier serving in India in 1808 who was practising his encryption skills, also appears.

Food writer Sue Lawrence said: “It’s hugely important to have an archive like this. It would be a real shame if some of these recipes fell by the wayside. Some recipes from the past don’t translate well because you can’t get some of the ingredients, but it’s very important to actually preserve these old recipes. They make us what we are.”

John Quigley, chef and restaurateur at Glasgow’s Red Onion bistro, said: “The thing about food and recipes from the past is it tells us about our economic background, how poor or rich we were, who the immigrant population was – all sorts of things. So many families pass recipes down the generations. I still have handwritten recipes of my Granny’s. You’re eating things that are unique to your family and have been there for generations.”

So far the archive has collected around 100 recipes but is looking for more contributions and hoping Scots will have a root around for old family recipes and get in touch.

Ben Bennett of the SCA said: “What we’re looking for is recipes with stories. Even the smallest story is important – it might be a recipe for spag bol but with a great memory attached. We’ll accept every recipe that people submit, whether it’s from a foodie angle or more about the history of the recipe, or the personal memory.”

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There are plans to release an electronic cookbook featuring recipes from the archive, as well as hold a feast of some of the dishes at Edinburgh’s Cafe Camino, with catering students trying out some of the recipes and serving them up to diners.

“We want people to try them out if they can,” said Brown. “Hopefully it will be a historical experience that they can gain something from.”

Other organisations that have contributed recipes include the Royal Bank of Scotland, which submitted a 1960s strawberry cheesecake recipe served at a board meeting, and the Royal College of Nursing, which contributed a 1950s muffin recipe entitled “For Husbands Only”, which once did the rounds among young married nurses.

A number of Scottish councils have also made contributions, including a recipe for how to cook turtle from 1771 submitted by North Lanarkshire Council – possibly brought back by a Scottish seafarer – and instructions on how to “dress a cod’s head the Scot’s way” from Orkney Council dated 1712.

Lawrence said that researching old Scottish recipes could be immensely rewarding.

“I’ve researched recipes from my Grannies, my aunts and my Mum for my books over the year. I’ve got lots of old family recipes – everyone’s got a clootie dumpling recipe or a different shortbread recipe.

“People go off and trace their genealogy, but I also think it would be fantastic alongside to look at what our ancestors ate too. It’s a real reflection of who we are as a nation.”