Fifth Empire Company

SCOTCH EGGS

 
A Scotch Egg, split in two.

20th December, 2020

On I recent walk along the banks of the River Frome I watched dark clouds approaching over the prominent mound where King John’s hunting lodge used to stand on the Purbeck Hills. I quickened my pace to reach the Quay inn on Wareham Quay before the rain came on. Seated inside, with menu in hand, my eyes drifted down the page seeking something warm and filling but light on the stomach and purse which would also, under government guidelines for a ‘substantial meal’ allow an alcoholic drink. And there it was, ‘Scotch Egg’.

A substantial meal.

The Scotch Egg has had something of a rough culinary ride over the past few decades as a dry and unappetizing dish best left as the choice of last resort. This mean reputation, largely owed to stodgy motorway service station versions, is far removed from how the story began, when it was as a high- end exotic treat. Fortnum and Masons, the luxury Piccadilly department store in central London, proudly lay claim to having invented the Scotch Egg in 1738. It was popular among their wealthy clientele as a delicious and practical snack to enjoy within the confines of a horse-drawn carriage wending along over rough country roads.

However, Fortum and Mason’s boast cannot be taken at face value. It was not until 1809, when Maria Rundell published ‘A New System of Domestic Cookery’, that we find the first official mention of Scotch Eggs. Her recommendation was for serving them as a dinner dish, with hot gravy. On closer inspection Rondell’s version lacked the breadcrumb surface, so was it really a Scotch Egg? It was Isabella Mary Beeton, a working journalist in her day, who advocated using breadcrumbs in the Scotch Egg recipe included in her classic 1861 bestseller, ‘Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management’.

Some argue Scotch Eggs are no more than a variant of the Indian Nargisi Kofta (which uses spicy mince to encase the egg), a taste for which was brought back to the UK by British soldiers stationed there. That version is disputed by scions of Whitby, who proclaim it was invented there in the 19 th century. The ‘Scotch’ part of the name derived from their original name as ‘Scotties’, having been produced by William J. Scott & Sons of Whitby. In their original form these ‘Scotties’, rather than the sausage meat used today, used a creamy fish paste covered in breadcrumbs. If you live in East Yorkshire the fish-paste version is still available.

No matter how credible this may seem, have a care not to advance it in Algeria, where a similar dish, Narcissus Meatballs, is a well-known part of local cuisine. It is even credited as the original source, with the term ‘Scotch’ no more than a corruption of the word ‘scorched’. The Algerian method of cooking involves the egg being wrapped in pork meat and cooked over an open flame. The scorched appearance then morphing into Scotch. That seems to settle things, or does it? The Algerian version may be an interloper as it has a hardboiled egg at the centre, Scotch Eggs should have a slightly runny centre.

To complicate matters there is a Manchester Egg, which uses a pickled egg at the heart wrapped in pork meat and Lancashire black pudding (made with oatmeal or barley groats mixed with pork blood and fat or beef suet spiced with herbs). That is not all, there is a Worcester Egg, which spices things up. Another pickled egg variant but the egg in question is pickled in Worcester sauce and wrapped in a mixture of sausage meat and white pudding (broadly like Black Pudding without the gory blood ingredient).

In the Netherlands and Belgium, they have a Scotch Egg doppelganger called vogelnestie (‘little bird nest’) or eierbal (‘eggball’). Across the Atlantic it is not uncommon in ‘British Style’ pubs to find Scotch Eggs on the menu, most often served with hot dipping sauces like ranch dressing or similar. If you attend the Minnesota State fair, you will encounter Scotch Eggs served up on sticks like a savoury toffee apple. So symbolic of the ‘old world’ are they thought to be that in almost any Renaissance Festival in the US you will find a vendor serving ‘olde worlde’ Scotch Eggs.

Is the Scotch Egg Scottish? There was a large trade in Scottish eggs during the 18th and 19th -century, when they were dipped in boiling water to semi harden and then dusted with lime powder to preserve them, a process known as ‘Scotching’. The downside was discolouration, the eggs turning an unappetising brown colour. Wrapping them in a savoury outer coating would make sense but there is no evidence for this being how Scotch Eggs came to be as Scotch as whisky, also known for its brown discolouration (due to peat filtered water).

One last thought, Scotch Eggs have a long tradition in Purbeck. No less an authority than Enid Blyton (a past owner of Purbeck Golf course and author of the Famous Five series of books) described it as a ‘wholesome snack’. I certainly enjoyed mine, cooked to perfection at the Quay Inn in Wareham.

By Ken Guest

 
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