Shakespeare observed that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and Alfred Korzybski, the great semanticist, coined the apothegm, “Words don’t taste, food tastes.” Something like that. So let’s not be put off by the name of cullen skink, one of the highlights of Scottish cuisine. And let’s not be put off by the term “Scottish cuisine.”
Regular readers will remember Sam Cohn from this post. Sam, again, is a history professor and leading expert on labor movements during the Italian Renaissance and the history of diseases. Naturally, he teaches at the University of Glasgow. Planning to travel to Texas, Sam emailed me to ask about prospects for good barbecue in Austin. I gave him some information, and he promised to take me on a cullen skink tour next time I’m in Edinburgh. Now that’s a friend. (An enemy would have threatened to take me on a haggis tour.)
Cullen skink is a soup based around finnan haddie, much as clam chowder is based around clams. And finnan haddie is simply smoked haddock.
Here’s a recipe from the BBC.
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes, or, since this is America, half inch cubes
300 ml water, or 1 1/4 cups
250 ml whole milk, or 1 generous cup
250g undyed smoked haddock, or almost 3/5 pound
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives. Or parsley.
In one pan, melt the butter, then add the onion and cook it gently until transparent. Do not let the onions brown. Add the potatoes and the water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
In the other pan, cover the haddock with milk and cook gently for 5 minutes until just tender. Remove it from the milk and, when cool enough to touch, flake the haddock to remove the bones, but gently enough to leave the haddock in generous pieces.
Add the haddock and the milk to the first pan with the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Sprinkle with the chives and serve with crusty bread and butter.
I hesitated to use a BBC recipe. First, I think the recipe is a little light on the butter — another bit floated on top to finish the soup would be nice — and on the haddock. I certainly would add a bay leaf to the haddock pan, and, since I have Welsh as well as Scottish heritage, I probably would add a leek as well as an onion (and use a smallish onion). Oh, and I would toss the cubed potatoes with the onion and butter to coat before adding the water. I understand, by the way, that the undyed smoked fish tastes the same as dyed. Use undyed to avoid a yellowish tinge, unless, of course, you like a yellowish tinge or don’t really care.
The main reason for my hesitation, though, is that relations between the English and the Scots have been, uh, not so great for a while. You may have seen the film Wallace. Ill feelings continue to run high. Nancy and I were in Paris once with Debby and Jeremy McMullen — actually several times. Jeremy was an English judge who was the best travel companion I have ever known, except, of course for Nancy. Jeremy was even funnier than he was smart, which is saying a lot, and full of joy. His passing was such a great loss. Anyway, Jeremy and I went to the world championship rugby match, between France and Scotland. We sat in a Scottish section. Whenever the refs made a call against Scotland, or failed to make an arguably plausible call against France, the Scots around us would growl, “They’re probably English.” Jeremy, lawyer-like, tried to explain that fans of England were hoping the Scots would win, an idea met with the sort of look that seemed to say, “That’s just the sort of think Edward I would say.” And, indeed, the English support for Scotland flowed entirely from some arcane benefit to England in the final standings. Ever helpful, I kept nodding and saying, “That’s why we broke away.”
Thanks to the likely perfidy of the probably English refs and, perhaps, the greater ability of the French players, France won.
Sports, by the way, are much more intense in Europe the in the US, or at least the fans are. For example, college football (football, not soccer) stadiums in the US avoid fights by banning alcohol inside the stadium. This not only works well, but it teaches college students the life skill of smuggling flasks into stadiums, and helps promote American flask technology.
There is no alcohol permitted in Europe as well. In Paris, where fans stood in line holding as many as four large cups of beer that they drank while they waited,* that meant that the ticket-takers stood next to huge piles of empty beer cups, piles large enough to be seen from space. But a mere “dry” stadium is not nearly enough. Stadiums there are sectioned off with, from what I could see, each section exclusively devoted to a single nation. In the US, of course, fans freely, and sometimes with malice aforethought, sit among fans of their opponent. In Europe physical barriers separate each section, so that there is no lateral access among sections. If you are in the Scottish section, you are among Scots fans and you stay among Scottish fans. If you are in the French section, you are among the French fans and stay among them. This prevents opposing fans from getting into fights, at least during the game. And after the game, the English refs are the usual focus of the losing team’s anger.
* Europeans seem to have directed their skills toward learning how to balance multiple large cups of beer rather than toward flask skills; or it may simply be a flask technology gap.