History Bites – Trying to Eat as my Scottish Ancestors did

The Scottish diet is consider one of the worst in Europe. I mean, deep-fried Mars bars, come on! But, I just read a fantastic book: 100 Million Years of Food: What our Ancestors ate and Why it Matters Today by professor Stephen Le (Harper Collins Publishers) and if I were to follow the author’s advice, […]

The Scottish diet is consider one of the worst in Europe. I mean, deep-fried Mars bars, come on! But, I just read a fantastic book: 100 Million Years of Food: What our Ancestors ate and Why it Matters Today by professor Stephen Le (Harper Collins Publishers) and if I were to follow the author’s advice, for optimal health, I should be eating what my kilted forefathers ate.

A fascinating read, even if you’re not looking for a new way of eating.

No, it would not have been deep-fried Mars bars, or fish and chips for that matter, but rather a somewhat meager and very climate- and location-dependant menu of fish, meat – mutton would have been in good supply – grains, greens, roots, and berries. Actually, it sounds pretty good to me, and not at all difficult to replicate today. In fact, when I was a kid and being raised on a steady diet of canned soup and sandwiches, one of my favourites was Campbell’s Scotch Broth, made with “lamb” and barley. I loved the slightly slimy quality of the barley and the flavour of the so-called lamb, most likely mutton; the big, perfect cubes of carrot – I kept a close eye on those to make sure I got my share from the pot. What’s cool to me, is how my little body was on to something; it knew what was good for it. I truly believe this, as I was also a wee fish hound. I loved kippers – Scottish smoked herring – navigating the tiny bones like a pro while I was still in diapers. In deference to my pronunciation, Father also called them “kiffers”, and Mother made him run an extension cord out to an electric frying pan in the backyard, so as to not “stink up her house!” At breakfast, I was that strange child with an insatiable appetite for blood pudding, fried crispy on the outside, blackish-red, redolent of allspice and cloves, and thickened with oatmeal.

My Scottish grandmother, Sadie in the fur stole, with my mother as a wee lass in the floppy hat, 1920 something

Grandma Sadie sailed from Glasgow to the port of Montreal in the 1920s, where my mother was born and raised, but Scotland was never too far away. I heard it in the voices of old relations, and on the Hi-Fi when Mother dusted off the Kenneth McKellar records. We wore kilts and itchy, too-tight hunter green woolen blazers and tams, and on special occasions, Mother donned her stunning silver and amethyst thistle brooch…where is that now, I wonder?

In the kitchen, there were tatties and neeps (boiled potatoes and turnips), Scotch mince (boiled ground meat), Empire biscuits, Bakewell tarts, scones crusted with sugar, and on Christmas, Mother’s shortbread. On Robbie Burns’ Day, January 25th, there was haggis – “warm, reekin, rich!” – and on the kitchen wall, too high to dust, hung a cobwebbed decorative plate depicting the cottage in Ayr, where Scotland’s most beloved poet was born; upstairs in the hall, a portrait of the man himself along with framed fashion plates depicting the various tartans of our clan – Davidson – the warrior clan.

Haggis, a culinary punching bag – everyone makes fun of or is grossed out by haggis! – but really, it’s a delicious example of nose-to-tail eating.

On top of what I already knew about my origins, I was convinced by a cousin in the US to do one of those DNA spit-in-a-tube mail-in kits. I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering. Sir Richard Branson is not a long lost cousin – more’s the shame! – I’m not related to the Queen, and there are no untold riches waiting in a vault somewhere for me, nor is there some link to something fascinating, surprising, or even slightly exotic. I’m working class British Isles through and through, generation after generation.

I gave “The Man” my DNA and all I got was this stupid map!

But back to Dr. Le; according to his research I should be adhering as best I can to an ancient Scottish or British Isles diet, but, just when you think you’ve heard the last word in eating for good health, along comes the latest proclamation from another corner of the nutrition world. Two of the latest news bites: the lectins in nightshades and legumes are wreaking havoc in our bodies, and the healthiest diet is Nordic. Yes indeed, the Mediterranean diet of olive oil, tomatoes, wine, fish, and veggies has been dethroned by one based on berries, veggies, beans, whole grains, and oily fish, with meats and sweets enjoyed only as treats.

This graphic is courtesy of: https://www.meconferences.com/blog/nordic-diet-type-2-diabetes

I discovered this while I was researching recipes for the Winter 2018 issue of Harrowsmith all about enjoying the Nordic concept of hygge for the holidays. (I hope you all have a copy!) We all understand that Canada is part of the North American continent, but – stay with me on this – that’s a more political and vertical way of thinking. If we look at the world in horizontals, much of Canada is really part of the Nordic landscape and climate, sharing flora and fauna, too. Lucky for me and for many of you, the ancient Scottish and British Isles diet has plenty in common with nutrition’s newest darling.

Fret not, while both the ancient British Isle and Nordic diets seem basic and simple, eating doesn’t have to be boring or lacking in flavour or spice. Think: fish curry over barley, or this tasty number from Chef Tonia Wilson’s new book, Beer at my Table, which dishes the best of both diets.

maple-mustard salmon from Tonia Wilson

Maple-Mustard Salmon with Chestnuts, Apple and Brussels Sprouts paired withn Scottish Ale

Scottish ales are the malty pale ales of Scotland and shouldn’t be confused with Scotch ales which are altogether heavier, stronger beers. You can expect Scottish ales to have a warm malty nose delivering aromas of rich caramel and occasional nuttiness. They are dry with moderate carbonation and are hopped using a lighter hand compared to English ales. In some of the New World versions of this style, you may find a very light note of smoke similar to that of the smoky peatiness of some scotch. Their alcohol level is relatively low, not venturing much past 5% ABV, and they finish with a pleasing dried herb bitterness which makes them a great choice for food pairing.

Pairing: Scottish Ale, Highlander Brew Co. (Canada)

One of the most important aspects of this pairing is its bang-on balance between the flavour intensity and weight of both beer and food. The sauce’s maple syrup sweetness and mustard acidity and the beer’s sweet caramel malt flavour balanced by hops give them similar and complementary personalities. To put it another way: the same but different. Also, the caramelization on the salmon and Brussels sprouts works wonderfully with the rich, toasty caramel flavour of the beer, while the chestnuts echo the beer’s delicate nuttiness. The smoky addition of bacon to the dish is a nod to the smoky peat quality that some contemporary Scottish ales share, and adds some richness and great flavour. When looking for cutting properties in the beer we can turn to the moderate carbonation and pleasant astringency of earthy English hops to do the job well. Lastly, aside from flavour and aroma, this is an example of a pairing that makes sense geographically. Salmon is one of Scotland’s most revered food items, which makes it a great option for pairing with a Scottish-style beer.

Others to try
Piper Down Scottish Ale, Ballast Point (USA)
Belhaven Scottish Ale (Scotland)
Farm Table: 80 Shilling, Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company (Canada)

Maple-Mustard Salmon with Chestnuts, Apple and Brussels Sprouts


  • 4 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 12 oz (375 g) Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved lengthwise
  • 1 cup cored and finely diced firm red apple, peel left on (not McIntosh)
  • 1/2 cup peeled, roasted chestnuts, halved (roasted chestnuts can be found at most grocery stores)
  • 1 tsp finely chopped thyme
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 4 salmon steaks (7 oz/200 g each)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp grainy mustard
  • 2 tbsp maple syrup


  1. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400°F. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Place the bacon pieces on a large rimmed baking sheet, trying not to overlap them. Cook on the middle rack for 5 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, add the Brussels sprouts to the pot of boiling water and blanch them for 2 minutes. Remove the Brussels sprouts with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  4. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and add the Brussels sprouts, apple, chestnuts, thyme and 2 tbsp olive oil to the bacon. Toss the ingredients together and return the baking sheet to the oven for 20 minutes more.
  5. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Season the salmon steaks with salt and pepper to taste and carefully place in the skillet. Cook until golden on the underside, about 8 minutes. Turn the steaks over and continue cooking until cooked through, about 7 minutes more.
  6. While the salmon is cooking, stir together the mustard and maple syrup in a small bowl.
  7. When the salmon is ready, pour the maple syrup mixture over the steaks in the skillet. Cook until the maple mixture thickens slightly, about 1 minute.
  8. Divide the Brussels sprout mixture among four plates and top each portion with a salmon steak.

Serves 4

Signe Langford
Signe Langford

From Hudson, Quebec, now living in Port Hope, Ontario, Signe is a restaurant chef-turned-writer who tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes for LCBO’s Food & Drink, Manna Pro Hearty Homestead, The Harvest Commission, and Today’s Parent; she published her first book – Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden with 100 Recipes – in 2015.


By The Same Author:

Posted on Monday, February 4th, 2019
Filed under Food | Recipes
Tagged: haggis | kiffers | mutton

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