What comes to mind when you hear the words 'Scottish food'?
Haggis? Shortbread? Porridge? Deep-fried Mars bars (not promoting this one)?
The food of our native Scotland may not exactly have a reputation for being 'fine dining' or 'haute cuisine' but...
.... I'm pretty sure you'll be surprised at just how diverse (and tasty) it is.
The unique blend of races that make up the ancestors of todays' Scots (plus Scotlands' rich and diverse landscape) both played a huge role in shaping this part of Scottish culture.
It's believed that the first people who arrived in the north of Scotland somewhere between 800 BC and 1000 BC, were the Picts.
These ancient people were hunter-gatherers, as were the Celts who came next - and Mother Nature couldn't have provided for them better!
Scotland is a small country, but it has an abundance of water in the form of lochs (lakes), rivers, streams and, of course, the sea which surrounds the Scottish mainland and it's numerous islands.
It also has fertile soil, tons of natural resources and a fairly temperate climate.
Hunting, fishing and raising sheep and cattle provided the meat for meals, and the soil was perfect for growing oats and barley, plus many root vegetables and soft fruits. This made traditional Scottish foods a very healthy diet.
The arrival of the Vikings in Scotland (the first raid of Scotlands' northern isles is believed to have taken place towards the end of the 8th century), added new dimensions to the way Scottish food was preserved and cooked.
The Vikings brought the Scandinavian methods of 'salting' and 'smoking' to Scotland, and they soon became popular. It's also believed that the famous 'Aberdeen Angus' cattle originated from Viking stock brought with the raiders.
Here's a look at the main 'ingredients' of traditional Scottish meals....
Centuries ago, stews, broths, soups, haggis, fish and porridge were what most Scottish people ate regularly.... basic meals that kept the ancient Scots warm and gave them the strength and energy they needed.
The 'heavy', starchy nature of many meals helped to keep stomachs full for a long time too. When encouraging me to eat porridge for breakfast, my Nana used to say "that'll stick to your ribs"... and you know what, she was right!
If you know anything about Scottish food, you've probably heard of the Haggis... but you may not know what it is.
And first of all, let's be clear - in spite of many cartoons and caricatures, a haggis isn't a 'creature' but a food dish!
In fact it may the most well-known and famous item on the list of traditional Scottish foods.
The earliest historical mention of a haggis-like dish appeared in the 15th century.
But similar dishes may well have appeared as early as the 9th century, or before.
The haggis is made from a sort of sausage-meat made from the offal (or innards - lungs, heart, liver etc.) of a sheep.
These are boiled, then minced and mixed with onion, lightly toasted oatmeal, suet, stock and salt and pepper. It's all mixed together and put inside a sheeps stomach which is sewn closed and then the whole thing is boiled for several hours.
Now, I admit this may not sound all that appealing (and personally I don't think it even looks that good while cooking), but it's tasty and worth a try if you're ever in its' homeland.
Haggis is traditionally served at a 'Burns Supper' (or on 'Burns Night') accompanied by 'tatties and neeps' (aka potatoes and turnips).
Burns Night or Burns Supper celebrates the birthday (January 25) of Robert Burns, Scotlands' National Poet. Burns was so enamored of the haggis that he even wrote an entire poem devoted to it's splendors!
And of course, no Burns Supper would be complete without the traditional and world famous drink.... Scotch Whiskey!
This is another traditional Scottish food that dates back to the very early days of Scotland.
Oats were used in many dishes, and porridge was probably one of the most common and versatile meals that the ancient Scots came up with.
Traditional Scottish porridge is made with 'porridge oats' (medium ground oatmeal, NOT 'quick cooking' or 'rolled' varieties), water and salt.
The oatmeal is added to boiling water and then boiled slowly with constant stirring to prevent lumps (lumpy porridge isn't good!). Salt is usually added about 2/3 of the way through the cooking process. It's served with creamy milk and, if you like, a little more salt on top!
Today many people prefer 'sweetened' porridge (or oatmeal as it's known in the US), and sugar, syrup or honey is often added to the unflavored variety. But that isn't the way Scottish porridge is made.
In more ancient times, Porridge may have been one of the worlds' first 'take-away' or fast-foods!
That's because the ancient Scots would cook up a huge pot of porridge, then let it cool and 'set', before cutting it into slices which they would put in a sack (or even their pockets) to be eaten later on that day!
Although these days we don't have to rely on food that is locally-grown, raised, or hunted, traditional Scottish foods really haven't changed very much over time.
But, of course there's a lot more variety available, the influence of more exotic cultures, and newer methods and techniques for preparing meals.
If you ask for a 'full Scottish breakfast' today, you'll get more than the porridge you would have expected hundreds of years ago!
Your plate will probably contain bacon, eggs, Lorne (or square) sausage, black pudding (a type of 'blood sausage'), maybe fruit pudding (a 'sausage' made from suet, wheat flour, sugar and dried fruit such as raisins), grilled or fried tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, and maybe even 'potato scones'.
Now add some toast and marmalade or jam, and a cup of strong, hot tea and you'll be set up for whatever the day may bring! But a gentle warning... when I indulge, the only thing I want to do was go back to bed to 'sleep it off' :o)
Although simple and traditional Scottish cooking still prevails, Scotland now boasts some beautifully modern city centers which have tons of 'fine dining' restaurants featuring 'upgraded' versions of traditional Scottish food plus a huge variety of other cuisines.
Even the 'fast food' side of Scotland food offers a variety of different themes and Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Italian food jostles for position alongside the traditional Scottish fish and chips, fried Haggis... and yes, even those infamous deep-fried Mars bars!
One aspect of the Scottish attitude to food that you might not be aware of, is just how much the Scots like their 'sweets' or puddings (aka 'desserts').
Scottish pies, puddings, cakes, sweets (in this case I mean 'candies') and such are some of the best in the world. I think they rival the French pastries you get in Paris, and that's saying something!
In keeping with the wholesome and filling nature of most Scotland food, Scottish puddings and cakes are often dense, heavy and sweet.
Cakes and buns using dried fruit are very popular - think Dundee Cake (fruit cake topped with almonds), Black Bun (very dark and rich fruit cake), Clootie Dumpling (a fruit 'cake' which is steamed rather than baked) for example.
Soft fruit and apples or rhubarb appear regularly in pies and 'crumbles' (cooked fruit with a 'crumbled' topping made from flour, butter and sugar).
A lighter, but still traditional, dessert is Crannachan (made from whipped cream, whisky, honey, fresh raspberries and oatmeal) which is served in a tall glass, and is delicious!
If you get a chance to visit Scotland, do your best to sample the traditional dishes - and remember that the small family run cafes and 'chippies' (fish and chip shops) are just as likely to have good food as the upscale 'posh' restaurants. Try them both and you won't be disappointed.
All in all, Scottish food is wonderful and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise.