Sandra Dick: So that’s the reason we call it a fly pint
The idea that it’s all thanks to a sugary yeast carried by flies which feed on beech trees in Patagonia – well, it sounds like a tall tale from someone who’s had one too many.
But scientists have unraveled the history behind the unique yeast used in the production of lager, leading to speculation that the yeast, Saccharomyces eubayanus, arrived in Europe centuries ago via ships transporting timber from Argentina or even contained in the stomach of a fly.
Its impact on brewing was discovered by monks in Bavaria as they tried to make a cold beer, an early front-runner to today’s lagers, possibly using a wooden barrel made in Patagonia.
It’s a curious lineage for a brew that, today, we all take for granted. And it certainly contains all the ingredients for the ultimate pub quiz question.
But if the lager we sup is courtesy of a wood-chewing fly from Argentina, where might some of our other favourite consumables come from?
While, of course, we have Sir Walter Raleigh to thank for introducing us grateful Britons to the humble potato, it took longer for one of our favourite dishes, fish and chips, to evolve.
Indeed, it’s thought the chips came about by accident – when rivers froze over and fish were not biting, housewives cut potatoes into fish shapes and fried them in a possibly not very successful attempt to fool their families into thinking fish was on the menu.
At some point fish and chips morphed into a single dish – soon accompanied in Edinburgh by the Capital’s unique “chippy sauce”, brown sauce mixed with vinegar, probably stumbled upon as chip shop owners tried to ensure their expensive sauce lasted longer.
Of course, the only accompaniment to a fish supper is a slug of Irn-Bru. Yet while today’s health campaigners urge Scots to switch from sugary fizzy drinks, there was a time when the aerated water was a health benefit.
Barr’s Irn-Bru dates back to 1875 when Robert Barr decided to develop the family cork-cutting business into producing aerated waters.
He wasn’t alone, as hundreds of Scottish businesses were doing the same – supplying demand from a growing population that suffered miserable living conditions, low quality drinking water and poor diets.
Soft drinks were not only a tasty treat, but guaranteed a safe thirst quencher, which provided a burst of energy from their sugary content.
Barr’s dominated the Scottish soft drinks industry. Its recipe, a closely guarded secret, includes a tiny percentage of ammonium ferric citrate, which puts the iron in the brew.
Perhaps healthier is a cup of tea, discovered accidently when a leaf from a wild bush fell into a pot of boiling water being served to Chinese emperor Shennong in 2737BC, perhaps served with some traditional Scottish shortbread?
In fact, it’s probably the French we have to thank for helping to make the crumbly treat one of the nation’s most popular biscuits. A kind of shortbread was made as far back as Medieval times using leftover dough. By the 16th century it had become a favourite of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose royal endorsement eventually helped create shortbread’s global image.
The queen was said to be particularly fond of petticoat tails – baked to resemble ladies’ skirts – which she ate flavoured with caraway seeds. Her French entourage, based at Little France, quickly followed suit and boosted the biscuits’ popularity.
The French presence in Scotland influenced our tastes in other ways – stovies are said to be derived from the French word “etouffer”, meaning to stew.
Of course, Scots food typically conjures up just one image: haggis. Yet while we think of haggis as quintessentially Scottish, it may well be an English imposter. The first known written recipe for a dish known as “hagese”, made with similar ingredients to today’s haggis, dates from a cookbook written in Lancashire in 1430.
The dish became popular with cattle drovers who would leave their Highland homes to drive their herd to market – instead of a lunch box, their food would be packed inside a sheep’s stomach, ready to cook.
Far more appealing to many will be a box of Edinburgh Rock. Its origins span the country, from Perthshire to Glasgow and finally the Capital. Alexander Ferguson, known as Sweetie Sandy, was born in Doune, Perthshire, and as a lad he’d spend hours mixing sweets in old tins in a garden outhouse, much to his father’s chagrin.
He wanted his son to follow in his footsteps as a joiner, but Sandy’s sweet tooth set him on a completely different career path. He left home and learned the confectionery trade in Glasgow. He set up his Edinburgh business at 1 Melbourne Place near the junction of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile.
Queen Victoria enjoyed his sweet treats so much that the confectionary company was appointed official supplier to the royal household. Today, the site of his old sweet factory is the fashionable Hotel Missoni.
The fashion house behind the hotel has its roots in Italy – home, of course, to pasta. Yet few might associate one of Scotland’s best loved pasta dishes, macaroni cheese, with American president, Thomas Jefferson.
He is said to have returned from a visit to Italy with a pasta machine, which his daughter Mary Randolph used to invent the new dish.
The Americans also gave us the hot dog, after German immigrants took it across the Atlantic in the late 19th century. The word “dog” became a synonym for sausage in the mid-1880s amid accusations that sausage makers used dog meat as their prime ingredient.
The perfect accompaniment, perhaps, to a lager brewed courtesy of a fly.