I have a delightful traveller’s food tale for you today. I found it in The Flowers of Celebrated Travellers: Being a Selection from the Most Entertaining and Instructive Travels by M. Stewart, which was published in 1934, although the particular story is from an account of a journey to the Western Isles in 1773. The ‘celebrated traveller’ is none other than the wonderful lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, who visited the area during that year with his friend and biographer, James Boswell.
Of the Hebridian Tables.
IT need not, I suppose, be mentioned, that in countries so little frequented as the islands, there are no houses where travellers are entertained for money. He that wanders about these wilds, either procures recommendations to those whose habitations lie near his way, or, when night and weariness come upon him, takes the chance of general hospitality. If he finds only a cottage, he can expect little more than shelter; for the cottagers have little more for themselves. But if his good fortune brings him to the residence of a gentleman, he will be glad of a storm to prolong his stay. There is, however, one inn by the sea-side at Sconfor, in Sky, where the post-office is kept.
At the tables where a stranger is received, neither plenty nor delicacy is wanting. A tract of land so thinly inhabited, must have much wild-fowl; and I scarcely remember to have seen a dinner without them. The moor-game is every where to be had. That the sea abounds with fish, need not be told; for it supplies a great part of Europe. The isle of Sky, has stags and roebucks, but no hares. They sell very numerous droves of oxen to England, and therefore cannot be supposed to want beef at home. Sheep and goats are in great numbers, and they have the common domestic fowls.
But as here is nothing to be bought, every family must kill its own meat, and roast part of it somewhat sooner than Apicius would prescribe. Every kind of flesh is undoubtedly excelled by the variety and emulation of English markets; but that which is not best, may yet be far from bad; and he that shall complain of his fare in the Hebrides, has improved his delicacy more than his manhood.
The fowls are not like these plumed for sale by the poulterers of London, but they are as good as other places commonly afford, except that the geese, by feeding in the sea, have universally a fishy rankness.
These geese seem to be of a middle race, between the wild and domestic kinds. They are so tame as to own a home, and so wild as sometimes to fly quite away.
Their native bread is made of oats, or barley. Of oatmeal they spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed palates are not easily reconciled. The barley cakes are thicker and softer. I began to eat them with unwillingness. The blackness of their colour raises some dislike, but the taste is not disagreeable. In most houses there is wheat-flour, with which we were sure to be treated, if we staid long enough to have it kneaded and baked. As neither yeast nor leaven are used among them, their bread of every kind is unfermented. They make onJy cakes, and never mould a loaf.
A man of the Hebrides, for of the women's diet I can give no account, as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whiskey. Yet they are not a drunken race; at least I never was present at much intemperance. But no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram, which they call a skalk.
The word whiskey, signifies water, and is applied by way of eminence to strong water, or distilled liquor. The spirit drunk in the north, is drawn from barley. I never tasted it, except once for experiment at the inn, in Inverary, when I thought it preferable to any English malt brandy. It was strong, but not pungent, and was free from the empyreumatic taste or smell. What was the process, I had no opportunity of enquiring, nor do I wish to improve the art of making poison pleasant.
Not long after the dram, may be expected the breakfast, a meal in which the Scots, whether of the lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied not only with butter, but with honey, conserves, and marmalades. If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped, he would breakfast in Scotland.
In the islands, however, they do what I found it not very easy to endure. They pollute the tea-table, by plates piled with large slices of Cheshire cheese, which mingles its less grateful odours with the fragrance of the tea.
Where many questions are to be asked, some will be omitted. I forgot to enquire how they were supplied with so much exotic luxury. Perhaps the French may bring them wine for wool, and the Dutch give them tea and coffee at the fishing season, in exchange for fresh provisions. Their trade is unconstrained. They pay no customs, for there is no officer to demand them. Whatever therefore is made dear only by impost, is obtained here at an easy rate.
A dinner in the Western Islands, differs very little from a dinner in England, except that, in the place of tarts, there are always set different preparations of milk. This part of their diet will admit some improvement. Though they have milk and eggs, and sugar, few of them know how to compound them in a custard. Their gardens afford them no great variety, but they have always some vegetables on the table. Potatoes at least are never wanting, which, though they have not known them long, are now one of the principal parts of their food. They are not of the meally but the viscous kind.
Their more elaborate cookery, or made dishes, an Englishman at the first taste is not likely to approve; but the culinary compositions of every country are often such as become grateful to other nations only by degrees; though I have read a French author, who, in the elation of his heart, says, that French cookery pleases all foreigners, but foreign cookery never satisfies a Frenchman.
Their suppers are, like their dinners, various and plentiful. The table is always covered with elegant linen. Their plates for common use, are often of that kind of manufacture which is called cream-coloured, or queen's-ware. They use silver on all occasions where it is common in England, nor did I ever find the spoon of horn but in one house.
The knives are not often either very bright or very sharp. They are indeed instruments, of which the Highlanders have not been long acquainted with the general use. They were not regularly laid on the table, before the prohibition of arms and the change of dress. Thirty years ago, the Highlander wore his knife as a companion to his dirk or dagger; and when the company sat down to meat, the men, who had knives, cut the flesh into small pieces for the women, who with their fingers conveyed it to their mouths.
The recipe for the day is from Scotland’s first cookbook – Mrs. McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work, published in 1736. The recipe is a nice addition to the Gingerbread Archive.
To make a Ginge[r] Cake.
Take a Forpet of Flour, a Quarter of a lib. of Butter, a Quarter of a lib.of Sugar, an Ounce and a half of Ginger, a Quarter of an Ounce of Jamaica Pepper; and Nutmeg, half and Ounce of Carvey-seed; mix them all with your Flour, then take a Mutchkin of Triacle, and work it very well, and make it up into your Shape, and send it to the Oven.
Forpet: a corruption of a fourth part, usually of a peck, a dry goods volume of about two gallons.
Jamaica Pepper: allspice
Carvey-seed: caraway seed.
Mutchkin: equal to a quarter of a Scottish pint or roughly three quarters of an imperial pint.