Emily Grant begins her journey to explore 600 years of Scottish food history in honor of the 600th year anniversary of the University of St Andrews, beginning with the 15th Century and haggis and neeps shepherds pie with whisky gravy and blackberry swirl cheesecake with whisky caramel.
This article is the first installment of my seven-episode adventure into the culinary history of Scotland. Are you excited yet? Well, you should be! I’m a third year student at the University of St Andrews and—as my spelling (and horrible grasp of international geography, for that matter) may give away—I’m also an American. Though my family does the cliché ‘we’re Scottish’ American routine—kilts and all—the first time I stepped onto Scottish soil was when I showed up for Freshers’ Week in my first year. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Scotland, cold and all, especially St Andrews. I also happen to adore history and cooking. So, when a member of The Fellowship of St Andrews approached me about doing a series of articles about Scottish culinary history since the establishment of the University, I leaped upon the opportunity. So here we are.
In honor of the University’s 600th anniversary, I am dedicating an article to each century during which the University has existed: 15th-21st. In these articles, I want to provide a quick outline of what was going on with the University (and with Scotland in general) at the time—and to provide a modern take on recipes and ingredients from that particular century. My first step on this culinary quest explores the 15th century.
I want to give a bit of historical background about the University during the 15th century before I move on to the food. After the Scottish Wars of Independence against England in the 13th and 14th centuries, and a difference in opinions about papal authority with their ally France, scholarly Scots started to realize the need for an institution of higher learning at home. St Andrews, a long-time center of monastic learning, was a natural choice. In 1410, a school of higher studies was established; in 1411/1412 Bishop Wardlaw of St Andrews granted the University a charter. This charter had to be confirmed by a pope, of which, at the time, there were two (the origin of the Scottish-French awkwardness). Pope Benedict XIII issued six papal bulls from exile in Avignon, which granted full university status to the University of St Andrews in 1413. They were signed into effect in February 1414, making the University official!
Student life then was different—and yet very much the same, in some aspects—than it is today. Students were much younger than they are today; some were as young as twelve. This young starting age seems to be the origin of the academic family system, though the beginnings of Raisin traditions are muddled. They also, apparently, carried weapons around with them in the 15th century, leading to what I think is probably the most hilarious event in St Andrean history: in 1470, some students and “Masters” (professors) were expelled for attacking the dean with bows and arrows. I definitely recommend looking up the early history of the University; I’ve listed the sources I used for my brief adventure into the area at the end of the article.
The 15th century occured, obviously, before agricultural globalization; the average Scot ate what they could farm, hunt, or trade for nearby—the modern locavore’s fantasy. Scottish climate, with bitterly cold winters and near-constant damp, limited what could be successfully grown domestically in a pre-greenhouse era. While wheat (because of the damp) and citrus (because of, well, everything) were impossible in pre-industrial, pre-globalization Scotland, there was a bounty of produce and animal products that are still integral to Scottish cooking even today: root vegetables, lamb, dairy, fish, oats, and berries, just to name a few examples. My goal this week is to fuse these traditional elements of Scottish cuisine with two Scottish dishes that have historical roots in the 15th century: haggis and whisky.
The origins of haggis, Scotland’s iconic sheep pluck dish, are highly contested. Some people claim that a proto-haggis accompanied the Romans during their occupation of Britain. Others postulate that it was part of the Scandinavian contribution to Scottish cuisine. Still more theories connect it to Norman France (via the word “hachis”, meaning “chopped”) and even ancient Greece (through a reference to offal-based sausage in the Odyssey)! Why are there so many theories on this? Because haggis, despite it’s (unmerited) bad international publicity, is just sausage. Sausage is found in most every society, and for good reason. It is a tasty way for those with little access to meat to be economic with protein consumption. Organ meat—known as offal—is edible but spoils quicker than the rest of the animal. Sausage-style preparation permits preservation, meaning what little meat available could be stretched farther. People all over the world have figured this out, and therefore you can pretty much point at any place on a map and find a meat product at least vaguely similar to haggis. People just happen to know what’s actually in haggis and remain ignorant about their other favorite sausage and pudding dishes—hence the bad publicity.
Though the time and place of haggis’ origins are uncertain, the reason this scrumptious sausage/pudding is being included in an article about 15th century Scottish food is pretty straightforward. Though haggis no doubt existed in some manifestation in the British Isles before the 15th century, the first written recipe for it comes from then. And, scandalously, it is found in an English cookbook. A recipe for ‘Hagese’ appears in the cookbook Liber Cure Cocorum from Lancashire written around 1430. I’ll spare my more sensitive readers the details of the recipe. Just think of it as a sausage—a tasty, tasty sausage.
Whisky is similar to haggis in that it no doubt existed prior to the 15th century, but the first written reference to it in Scotland popped up during the 1400s. To be exact, the mention of whisky production comes from the 1494 Exchequer Rolls via the line “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae.” This was enough malt to make, from modern estimates, about 1,500 bottles of whisky. Such a quantity definitely seems to indicate that whisky production in Scotland (the Irish had certainly been making their variation for hundreds of years by then) was in full swing by 1494. Though the word ‘whisky’ comes from the Gaelic word uisce, ‘aquavitae’ was the Latin-derived word for whisky (and distilled alcohol in general) at the time. The name means ‘water of life’ and is a reference to how the spirit was used to cure a variety of ailments during much of its early history.
With these juicy historical morsels in mind, onto the recipes!
Haggis and Neeps Shepherd’s Pie with Whisky Gravy:
Because there aren’t very many available written Scottish recipes from the 15th century, I’ve decided to take a bit more artistic license with the recipes than I will in later articles. I’ve dedicated this article—as I mentioned earlier—to traditional Scottish ingredients and 15th century innovations. Though the name ‘shepherd’s pie’ didn’t come into usage until the 1870s—and potatoes weren’t introduced to the British Isles until the 1590s at the very earliest (they were brought over from Peru by European explorers)—I’ve decided to include a variation of this iconic British dish of Scottish origin. Shepherd’s pie as we know it today definitely did not exist in the 15th century, but there were doubtlessly Medieval Scottish dishes that combined cheaper (perhaps leftover) cuts of meat with root vegetables in a similar way, simply minus the potatoes. I’ve chosen to use shepherd’s pie this week because it is a fantastic way to blend haggis—“new” to the 15th century—with root vegetables (turnips, carrots, and onions) and lamb.
For my 15th century-inspired variation on Shepherd’s Pie I’ve replaced the standard layer of potatoes with creamy mashed neeps/swedes, and mixed haggis in with the lamb, onions, and carrots. Being able to incorporate whisky was just gravy! No more puns, I promise!
Haggis and Neeps Shepherd’s Pie:
– 2 large ‘neeps’/swedes/rutabagas (the reddish ones with yellow flesh, not white turnips!)
– Butter and milk to taste (for swede mash)
– 500 grams of minced lamb
– 1 average-sized haggis (about 350g)
– 2 small, OR 1 large, yellow onion—sliced (or chopped if you don’t like big pieces of onion in your food)
– 3 carrots
– 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
– 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
– Salt and Pepper to taste
– 3 tablespoons plain flour
– About 100 grams of butter, or any sort of animal fat you have on hand
– 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
– 1 bay leaf
– about 500ml chicken stock
– 2 shots of whisky/Scotch
Haggis and Neeps Shepherd’s Pie:
- Peel the neeps and cut them into one inch-by-one inch (approximately) cubes, as you would if you were going to potato mash.
- Put the neep cubes into a saucepan, cover in boiling water, and put on the hob over medium heat. Add a couple of pinches of salt and cover the saucepan with a lid. Leave to boil for about 45 minutes or so, until the cubes give easily to being poked by a fork—like potatoes, but maybe even a bit softer.
- Drain neeps out of the saucepan and mash them (like potatoes), folding generous quantities of butter and milk into them until you reach a creamy consistency that suits your preferences. Add a pinch or two of salt if you feel that it’s needed. (Tip: you can make this mash ahead of time and store in the fridge for up to a day until you’re ready to make the rest of the dish.)
- When you’re ready to make the final dish, preheat the oven to 175C (350F).
- Peel and slice the carrots, further cutting the sliced circles into semi-circles. Boil the carrots in water with a pinch of salt for 10-15 minutes, with a lid on the pan, until they are soft enough to easily pierce with a fork. Then strain the carrots from water and set them aside.
- In a large, deep pan, melt a few pats of butter over medium heat. Then add the onion slices. When the onions start to become translucent, add the minced lamb. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and add the rosemary and thyme.
- Remove the haggis from its casing and slice it into 10 or so pieces. When the lamb has started to brown, add the haggis to the lamb/onion mixture. Use a spoon or spatula to break apart the haggis as it cooks and combine it with the lamb, onion, and herbs.
- Once the lamb and haggis is thoroughly combined and cooked through (should be brown throughout after 10-15 minutes), stir in the cooked carrots and then pour the entire mixture into the bottom of a baking dish or a Dutch oven. Top off your shepherd’s pie with the mashed neeps (as thick as your amount of neeps allows or your preference dictates).
- You can use a meat brush and melted butter to create a buttery crust over the dish, or you can just go ahead and put it into the oven. Cook it in the oven without a lid (especially if you’re using a Dutch oven!) at 175C for 20-30 minutes or until the mash crust is golden brown.
- Allow the dish to cool to edible temperature outside of the oven. Serve alone or with whisky gravy.
- Melt butter (or fat) in a small to medium sized saucepan over medium heat on the hob.
- After the butter is melted (but not after it gets too hot: the flour will clump if it’s too hot), stir in the flour until the two ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Add thyme and bay leaf.
- Allow the mixture to simmer for about 5 minutes—stirring regularly to make sure it doesn’t burn—and then add in stock and whisky.
- Continue stirring and combining the ingredients over simmering heat until the gravy has reduced down to a desired consistency.
- Serve over top the shepherd’s pie or–literally–anything.
Blackberry Swirl Cheesecake with Whisky Caramel in an Oatmeal Pie Crust:
Now, I’m not even going to pretend the average Scot in the 1400s made cheesecake, especially not cheesecake as we know it today. I’m not that crazy! Though, in case you are wondering, some historians trace the origins of cheesecake back to ancient Greece, where flour and honey were pounded together with cheese to create a sweet cake. The Romans adopted it and became the great cheesecake ambassadors of Europe through their campaigns and conquests. And since the Romans invaded Britain, who knows? Cream cheese, as we know it, wasn’t invented and widely circulated until the 19th century, though. Sugar, a New World wonder like potatoes, also wouldn’t have been used in Scotland at the time; instead, honey would have been the sweetener of choice. But these are modern takes on traditional recipes, so I stand by my choices!
I’m going to be honest; I didn’t know any of this when I decided to make cheesecake for my 15th century culinary piece. It has all been rooted up as I’ve been writing this article post-cooking, and as I procrastinate from academic writing. My main reason for making cheesecake for the 15th century is to accentuate how important dairy, berries, and oats were to the Scottish diet at the time, and for centuries beforehand. Meat may have been a delicacy for most of the Scottish population, but they certainly made use of animal products like dairy. Berries, like blackberries and Fife’s own delicious strawberries, grow on tough brambles and require little cultivation and, thus, thrived—and still thrive—in Scotland. Oats (as well as barley) are far more resilient to the damp and cold than wheat and, therefore, played an enormous role in Scottish baking and food in general throughout the country’s history. Keeping these historical tidbits in mind, I present this dessert!
Oatmeal Pie Crust:
– 60 grams of room temperature butter (about 4 tablespoons)
– 2 tablespoons honey
– ¼ teaspoon sea salt
– 250 grams (2 cups) oatmeal (not porridge oats!), can be made by running porridge oats through a blender or food processor if you can’t find meal itself in the store. You can also use oat flour, which is even finer grain, if you have access to it.
Blackberry Swirl Cheesecake:
– 2 small punnets (standard plastic containers) of blackberries
– 1 tablespoon whisky OR 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
– 250 grams sugar (about 1 cup) + 2 more tablespoons
– 700 grams cream cheese/soft cheese
– 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
– 3 eggs
– 115 grams sour cream
– 250 grams sugar (about 1 cup)
– 80 ml whisky
– 45 grams butter
– pinch of salt
Oatmeal Pie Crust:
- Preheat the oven to 175C (350F)
- Either heavily butter a springform cheesecake/pie pan or line a regular pie pan with parchment paper, leaving “handles” of parchment paper exposed on at least two sides of the pan in order to help with eventually removing the pie from the pie pan.
- Combine the softened butter, honey, and salt in a large bowl, using a fork. Once those ingredients are evenly mixed, stir in the oatmeal about a handful at the time, using a wooden spoon to incorporate it into the butter mixture.
- Once you have all the oatmeal mixed in, use your hands to further combine the ingredients. Then press the mixture into the pie pan in order to create a crust.
- Bake the crust for about 10 minutes, until starting to turn golden brown. (Tip: If the oats (since they expand) start to lose shape in the oven, take the crust out of the oven and use the back of a spoon to flatten them and reshape the crust to the pie pan. Then stick it back in the oven for a couple more minutes.)
- Remove the crust from the oven and let it cool in the pan on a cooling rack (or on a heatproof surface) while you make the cheesecake filling!
Blackberry Swirl Cheesecake:
- Preheat oven to 145C (300F)
- Puree 1 punnet (about one cup) of blackberries in a blender or food processor and then pour it though a colander or cheesecloth to catch the seeds and lumps. You should have about 80ml (1/3cup) of filtered puree. If you need more berries to get to the 80ml, just puree some more from the second punnet.
- Add 2 tablespoons of sugar and whisky (or 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract) to the puree. Set puree aside.
- In another bowl, mix together all of the cream cheese with the 250 grams of sugar left, either by hand or an electric mixer until blended together.
- Add the teaspoon of vanilla, 3 eggs (one at a time), and sour cream into the cream cheese/sugar mixture. Mix until evenly combined.
- Spoon half the batter into the crust and then drop about half the blackberry puree, about a teaspoon at time, over the batter already in the crust. To create the “swirl” effect, use a toothpick or fork to spread the puree across the batter.
- Spoon the other half of the batter and the other half of the puree into the crust and repeat the swirling technique.
- Bake in the oven at 145C (300F) for about 45-50 minutes, or until the edges are set and the middle seems solid on top but still jiggles a bit when the dish moves. Don’t overcook it! It’ll continue to cook outside the oven because the pie pan retains heat!
- Turn off oven and leave the cheesecake in the cooling oven for about an hour—check on it every 10 minutes or so to make sure it’s not getting overdone. All ovens cool off at different speeds.
- After an hour of cooling in the oven, put the cheesecake, still in the pan, on the counter or a cooling rack to cool until it is completely and definitely room temperature. For best results, store in the fridge for a few hours, or even overnight, to chill.
- Before serving, garnish with remaining blackberries and drizzle with whisky caramel. Whipped cream and mint are also great touches.
- Pour all of the sugar into a medium-sized saucepan. Pour it in dry (aka without oil or anything else) and leave it over medium heat until the sugar starts to brown and melt.
- Let the sugar cook by itself, stirring occasionally, until it becomes a rich, dark brown.
- Remove the sugar from heat and then add the whisky, butter, and pinch of salt to the liquid sugar. The caramel will steam and bubble like crazy when you do this (so keep your face away from the saucepan!) and then it will begin to solidify.
- Put the caramel mixture back onto heat and let it melt, stirring occasionally, until it’s back to liquid form
- Cool the sauce until it is warm—then drizzle over cheesecake!
That’s it for now! If you’ve made it through the magnum opus of an article—congrats! You know a ton of food history now! If you just skipped through the history bits to the recipes—congrats to you too! I hope you enjoy the recipes. That’s all for this article, though I’ll be back soon with my second installment about the 16th century.
I want to give special thanks to both Katherine Weight and Hannah Risser, dear friends and members of The Fellowship of St Andrews. Katherine gave me the idea for this series and set me up with culinary connections, and Hannah worked diligently to supplement my rather poor knowledge of St Andrews history. Thanks also to Mathilde Johnsen, my dedicated food photographer and to Vivien Collie and Billy Kay, who both provided me with excellent direction on research.
Sources to check out if you’re interested in more St Andrews history:
The University of St Andrews: A Short History by Ronald Gordon Cant
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons and Mathilde Johnsen