‘Recipes are the original open source, offering building blocks that may be adjusted across time, place and seasons to create infinite dishes. You only need to successfully make a recipe once to feel it is your own. Make it three more times and suddenly it’s tradition.’
Canongate have a beautiful collection of books about food on on their list and one of BooksfromScotland’s recent favourites is the wonderful Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil. It’s a brilliant gift to anyone who loves to entertain. She writes:
In English ‘to cook something up’ means to prepare food, but also to invent stories or schemes, to concoct something out of fantasy. When I first started writing I also baked a lot, mostly on days when the writing wasn’t going well. It soothed me, alongside the slow and intangible creation of a novel, to cook up something that was quickly ready and edible. A cake can bring simple, instant self-gratification and appreciation from others, whereas writing – for all its rewards – is always accompanied by self-doubt. Moreover, the reactions of others, even when positive, are rarely enough for me. I’m perpetually hungry for some extra validation, which nobody in the world can give. Only in the act of writing is that hunger satisfied, for I become, briefly, bigger than myself, capable of hosting the entire universe and yet treating every single person in it as if they were my only guest. This feat feeds and sates my ravenous self, my need to be and to have everything.
Stories enact a form of mutual hospitality. What is story if not an enticement to stay? You’re invited in, but right away you must reciprocate and host the story back, through concentration: whether you read or hear a narrative – from a book or a person – you need to listen to really understand. Granting complete attention is like giving a silent ovation. Story and listener open, unfold into and harbour each other.
A recipe is a story that can’t be plagiarised. Compare cookbooks by cuisine and you’ll find recipes that are almost identical, distinguished by minor variations of ingredient quantity or slight deviations in procedure. Debts are gladly acknowledged, sometimes in the name – ‘Julia’s Apple Tart’ – or in a sub-line – ‘Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’. Recipes represent one of the easiest, most generous forms of exchange between people and cultures, especially nowadays, with online food blogs abounding and all kinds of once-exotic ingredients available at your local supermarket. Recipes are the original open source, offering building blocks that may be adjusted across time, place and seasons to create infinite dishes. You only need to successfully make a recipe once to feel it is your own. Make it three more times and suddenly it’s tradition.
No wonder different societies claim the same food as their definitive, national dish. Hummus in the Middle East may well be the most contested case in point. Fed up of the endless, inconclusive debates about the true origins of this popular chickpea dip, a group of Lebanese hummus-aficionados decided to settle the matter once and for all by setting the record for making the largest tub of hummus ever in the hope that the feat would irrevocably associate hummus with Lebanon above all. The idea of consolidating their ur-hummus credentials by producing such an excess is fitting in the context of the famously profuse Arab hospitality, summed up in the half-joking warning to guests: you’ll need to fast for two days before and two days after eating in an Arab household. A year after the Lebanese set their hummus record, the title was taken by a group in Israel who filled a satellite dish with four tonnes of the dip. Months later the Lebanese managed to top that and reclaim the Guinness World Record title. The dispute continues, a mild incarnation of the greater, more intractable regional conflict. I should probably refrain from dipping my finger into such loaded contests about the humble chickpea, but I adore hummus, and my favourite version is one made by a Palestinian friend – without a trace of garlic. And, of course, she is certain hummus was invented in her village.
Our friends at Black & White have been really spoiling us lately with their gorgeous lifestyle books. One of those books, guaranteed to make your mouth water is Ailidh Forlan’s Street Food Scotland: A Journey of Stories and Recipes to Inspire. In the book, she travels round Scotland giving us the best recommendations for food stalls across the country. Here, she tells us about the delightful Melt, providing the best comfort food to the residents of Aberdeen.
Melt will celebrate its fourth birthday on the first of March 2020. It’s a hugely accomplished business now boasting two premises, the Melt Mobile and a street food stall. It bends the rules of my book – does Mechelle’s unconventional timeline of bricks and mortar before an outdoor stall disqualify her from the classification of street food? Perhaps. But are her grilled cheeses of such a high calibre that it would be a crime to walk past without joining the queue for them? Oh, most definitely.
The toasties are thick heavenly doorstops containing your week’s recommended calorie intake in each half. They’re filthy things, loaded with stringy mozzarella and robust cheddar to create the most Instagrammable cheese pull – if you’re of that ilk. The pulled pork, haggis, ham and smoked bacon come from Aberdeenshire Larder in Ellon. It’s all sandwiched between bread from the Breadmaker in Aberdeen, who are, ‘A not-for-profit bakers that employ special needs staff and put profits back into the local community.’
In one shop, Melt gets through a whopping 150 loaves a week, creating toasties like the oh-so-popular Bruiser that has hangover cure written all over it. It’s a marriage of macaroni cheese with a three-cheese blend, haggis and smoked bacon and, as a top secret off-menu perk, if you ask for a ‘Bruiser Bru’, Mel will gift you a pity can of Irn Bru to restore you back to full health. You didn’t hear that from me. Scottish rapeseed oil does a marvellous job of crisping up the outsides of the toasties and Mel chooses to cook with big flat top grills and castiron steak weights to give the customers a bit of a show.
The shop itself transports visitors back to their childhood. ‘The Breville toastie maker came to the UK in 1973, so the design brief was your nan’s living room if it had been designed by Wayne Hemingway,’ Mechelle says. And ‘Mrs Melt’ looks the part. Mechelle’s style has strolled out of the 1950s with her headscarf, pristine eyebrows, winged eyeliner and ‘MELT LIFE’ tattooed on her knuckles, which she paid for in toasties to the artist – now that’s seriously cool.
One February Monday, a newspaper reported that a passer-by kicked one of Melt’s bakers in reaction to them being closed. Heaven forbid anything should get in the way of a hungry woman and her toastie. But the community hasn’t always been so . . . welcoming. Let’s rewind.
‘When we opened the shop, we had dreadful press. It was faddy, it was fickle, it was bread and cheese: “How dare they charge £5 for what we can do at home?”’ Melt was up against it. ‘Aberdonians are so fussy and simple with their taste. You work with it or you fight it. I learned very quickly that if you dare to charge Aberdonians £5 for what they deem to be bread and cheese, it better be the size of a house.’
She ran the shop for a year before venturing into street food, and it soon became pivotal. There were only burger vans in industrial estates, fuelling lunch-break workies when she started up, but it gave her business the road it deserved. ‘Up here the palate’s a little limited. I could go to an event in Glasgow or Edinburgh and use San Francisco-style sourdough bread, that comes out chewy and sticky. In Aberdeen, unless it’s a farmhouse loaf, you’d struggle. They don’t appreciate specialist cheeses either. I tried to do trendy drinks and got met with resistance from people who just want Irn Bru!’
At times Mechelle’s creativity was limited by her audience, but by trading at hundreds of events across Scotland, she could experiment with her produce and then reel customers back in for more. ‘People now come to me because they’ve seen my stall at pop-ups and festivals. There’s no better advertising than getting out there and doing it.’
Aberdonians might have simpler tastes, according to Mechelle. But once she’s converted them, they’re loyal. ‘Almost four years on and my customers are incredibly protective of me; we’ve established a cheese cult!’ There are no regrets here.
A very Scottish toastie comprised of macaroni cheese, haggis and smoked bacon
2 slices of sourdough bread
50g béchamel sauce
100g mozzarella, grated
50g strong Scottish cheddar
50g Marshalls macaroni, cooked
2 rashers of grilled smoked streaky bacon
100g haggis, cooked
METHOD 1. Lay your bread out and generously spread your béchamel sauce onto both slices of bread. 2. Shower one slice of bread with both types of cheese and sandwich together. 3. Oil a hot pan, a skillet is ideal, and place the sandwich into it at a high heat. 4. If you have a heavy pan press this on top. 5. Lift the underside after a few minutes to check it’s browning, adjust heat accordingly. 6. Once browned flip over and cook the other side. When you’re happy it has browned and the cheese has melted put the macaroni and meat inside and continue to heat through for several minutes. 7. Take off the heat and enjoy
Birlinn have a wide variety of cookbooks across their backlist, but BooksfromScotland particularly loves the Food Bible series, a selection of pocket guides that celebrate particular ingredients in Scotland’s larder. And, very presciently, two new bibles have just been released, The Scottish Baking Bible, by Liz Ashworth, and the The Scottish Wild Food Bible by Claire Macdonald. Here, we share a recipe from each.
SCOTTISH STRAWBERRY SPONGE
A light-as-a-feather sponge to complement fresh Scottish strawberries baked for a birthday surprise.The tasting comment?‘Sooooooooooooooooo good!’
Makes a cake 20cm (8in) diameter
85g (3oz) caster sugar
115g (4oz) self-raising flour
30g (1oz) melted butter
150ml (¼ pint) double cream
A little caster sugar to taste
115g (4oz) strawberries, hulled and sliced
Heat the oven to 180°C (160°C fan), 350°F, Gas 4. Oil and line two sandwich tins. Whisk the eggs and sugar until thick and holding the trail of the whisk. If you can, do this over a pan of simmering water because this gently cooks the egg as you whisk. (I find with very fresh eggs this is not necessary.)When the egg is increased in volume, light in colour and holding the trail of the whisk, sift the flour over the mix then fold in very carefully until all the flour is combined,making sure none is stuck to the base of the bowl or the inside of the spoon. Pour the melted butter down the side of the bowl and fold in gently. Divide the mixture between the two tins and bake in the oven for 20 minutes until risen, golden and springy to touch. Cool a little in the tins and then complete cooling on a wire tray. To make the filling, whip the cream until thick and flavour with a few drops of vanilla essence and a little sugar. Spread the cream on one of the sponges, top with sliced strawberries, then place the second layer of sponge on top. Dust the top of the cake with caster sugar and decorate with a fresh strawberry and a rosette of whipped cream.
Baker’s note You can use any Scottish soft fruit, such as raspberries or blueberries
2 large handfuls of nettles
300ml (½ pint) single cream
3 large eggs and 1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
12–15 grinds of black pepper
a grating of nutmeg
Steam the nettles for 2–3 minutes until wilted. Cool, then squeeze out any excess liquid. Whizz in a food processor until smooth, then add the seasonings. Whisk together the eggs and yolk, adding the single cream. Mix the seasoned nettle puree thoroughly into the egg and cream mixture. Butter six ramekins. Divide the nettle mixture evenly between the ramekins. Put them into a roasting tin and pour boiling water into the roasting tin, to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cook in a moderate oven at 180°C (350°F, Gas 4) for 20–25 minutes, or until the timbales feel firm. Take the roasting tin out of the oven and leave to stand for 15 minutes. Then run a knife around the inside of each ramekin, and shake them out onto warmed plates. Serve either as a starter or as an accompaniment to a main course.
Kitchen Press’s remit is to give its readers the most interesting and most beautiful cookbooks, and if you have already bought yourself one of their titles, you’ll know what a treat they are. Here on BooksfromScotland, we have a pre-publication exclusive from their much-anticipated and award-winning book from the fantastic Seafood Shack. If you can’t make the journey to Ullapool to find out just how delicious Kirstie Scobie and Fenella Renwick’s food is, then this book will be the next best thing. It will be released in November 2020.
SMOKED HADDOCK, PEA AND CHORIZO MACARONI CHEESE
If you feel like jazzing up your mac and cheese, try this. The smoked haddock and chorizo gives it a yummy smoky flavour and the peas freshen it up. A great way to get your kids to eat more fish! Smoked trout also works really well as an alternative to smoked haddock.
100g salted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
½ red chilli, finely chopped
1 vegetable stock cube
3 heaped tbsp plain flour
600ml full fat milk
300g Cheddar cheese, grated
1 tbsp chopped curly parsley
juice of 1/2 a lemon
100g chorizo, chopped into chunks
3 fillets smoked haddock, chopped into chunks
150g fresh or frozen peas
1 tbsp chopped fresh chives
Put a large saucepan on a medium heat and add the butter, onion, garlic and chilli, then let it all sweat off for a good eight to ten minutes until everything is nice and soft and very sweet. Make sure you keep stirring so nothing burns. Crumble in the stock cube and add a good grind of black pepper, and fry off for another minute before adding the flour. Fry for a minute or two to make a roux, then slowly add the milk, whisking all the time as you don’t want it to be lumpy. Cook on a low heat until the sauce has thickened, then take it off the heat and add the grated cheese. Stir until the the cheese has melted into the sauce, and add your parsley and lemon juice.
Boil the macaroni for about seven minutes in salted water – it will keep cooking after you drain it so you want it to be al dente. Cooking times can be different for different brands so look at the packet and take off two minutes from the suggested cooking time to make sure it doesn’t overcook. Once cooked, drain your pasta in a colander.
Heat a small frying pan and add the chopped chorizo – you don’t need to add any oil as the chorizo will release plenty as it heats up. You want to get it nice and crispy so fry it off for a few minutes on a high heat, stirring and reducing the heat if it starts to burn. Keep a few pieces of chorizo aside to garnish your dish at the end. Add the smoked haddock and the peas to the remaining chorizo in the frying pan and cook until the haddock starts to flake. Stir the contents of the pan into the cheese sauce and mix in the pasta. You might need give everything another quick blast of heat. Garnish with the reserved chorizo pieces and a sprinkle of chopped chives and serve.
Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity by Priya Basil is published bu Canongate, priced £12.99
Street Food Scotland: A Journey of Stories and Recipes to Inspire by Ailidh Forlan is published by Black and White Publishing, priced £20.00
The Scottish Baking Bible by Liz Ashworth is published by Birlinn Ltd, priced £4.99
The Scottish Wild Food Bible by Claire Macdonald is published by Birlinn Ltd, priced £4.99
The Seafood Shack: Food and Tales from Ullapool by Kirstie Scobie and Fenella Renwick will be published by Kitchen Press in November 2020, priced £20.00
‘There are fights and misunderstandings and new relationships (and a happy ending).’