Scotch eggs are not Scottish
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
"a patriotic counterpart to the usual modern British picnic fare of foccacia and Ottolenghi salads. The scotch egg, being robust, conveniently hand-sized, and utterly, ridiculously delicious, fits the bill nicely." Felicity Cloake
I have to say that 'researching' this post has been quietly smile inducing for all manner of different reasons.
The subject comes from that searching for English lunch ideas for my granddaughter. I've done pork pies - on to scotch eggs, and I'm pretty sure I have done Cornish pasties, sausage rolls and sandwiches before. So Scotch eggs. Oh and yesterday whilst shopping for birthday presents for my son I almost bought a cookbook by Colin Fassnedge. I didn't because I didn't think it had anything new to offer to me, but whilst flipping through it I found a beautiful picture of Scotch eggs, which, frustratingly I cannot find on the internet - or the recipe.
Anyway back to origins - no they are not Scottish. Besides if they were they would be Scottish eggs, not Scotch eggs. You don't call Scottish things Scotch. That's the drink. And the people are Scots. Make sure you get it right.
"Pulchritudinous, portable, and eminently patriotic, it’s the best thing never to come out of Scotland." Felicity Cloake
There are numerous origin stories for Scotch eggs and they are all covered in Catherine Balston's Guardian article Scotch eggs around the world. But let's start with Scotland.
"In the 18th and 19th Centuries there was a considerable trade in exporting eggs from Scotland, by coastal ships, to the London markets. These were preserved and toughened for the journey by dipping the whole shell-on egg in boiling water, leaving the eggs semi-hardened, and then packing them dusted with a lime-powder disinfectant, a process known as 'scotching'. This left them perfectly edible for months, but slightly discoloured. It is possible that the forcemeat covering was developed as an ideal method of serving these sound, but not-so-pretty, 'scotch eggs'." Foods of England Project
Possible, although sounding somewhat poisonous, but in a way the most convincing argument for the name - the scotching thing. Mind you various others have offered scorching as the etymology of 'scotch' eggs. This argument involves cooking the Scotch eggs over a fire - how?
Then there's Fortnum and Mason's claim that they invented it in 1738 for passengers on long-distance coaches to sustain them on their journey. But as noted - these passengers would most likely have stopped here and there at coaching inns so no need for sustenance whilst on the road. Besides there is no actual evidence of this, though Fortnum and Mason claim there was something in their now lost archives, so maybe they are right.
The first actual written recipe appears in Maria Rundell's 1807 A New System of Domestic Cookery, and this was repeated with variations in the likes of Mrs. Beeton's book. The most likely theory though is that it's actually a variation on an Indian dish - remember this is days of the Raj time. It's called Nargisi kofta and is sort of like a spicy Scotch egg cooked in a spicy sauce.
“The egg is generally wrapped inside lamb mince and fried, then served in a brown, yoghurt-based gravy.” Deep Arneja - Chef Oberoi Hotel, Agra
The Indonesians had a version too and the Dutch and Belgians. Poland too. I think Brazil was even mentioned. So wrapping a hard boiled egg in minced meat and breadcrumbs is not an original idea. Be that as it may it is now generally regarded as an English thing - a steadfast standby as picnic and pub food. Indeed of late British pubs have just received a reprieve from the government who has decreed they are a 'substantial meal' and therefore can be served with a drink - or is it the other way round? Anyway it means that pub owners do not have to serve a proper full meal in order to be able to serve drinks. You can just have a scotch egg and a packet of crisps with your pint.
"The best place to eat a scotch egg (and apologies to long-term readers for the predictability of this conclusion) is in the pub – one that makes its own scotch eggs, fried-to-order, so that as you take a bite, the outer shell is still audibly crisp and hot juices run from the meat as you cut into it. A room-temperature scotch egg can be enjoyable, but a warm egg will express itself in an altogether more elevated way. It’s like watching Barcelona play football." Tony Naylor - The Guardian
Tony Naylor's article How to Eat Scotch Eggs is an amusing read that will bring a smile to your face. One of the most contentious issues it raises is the question of whether the yolk of the egg should be runny or not. "We all know the best part of a Scotch egg is the runny yolk in the centre" claims the Ausralia's Best Recipes website, but there are plenty of others who will disagree. Such is the depth of feeling about these things. Then there's the question of whether it should be served hot or cold or warm, with, I think, the majority going for the middle way although there are plenty who go for hot - well it's deep-fried isn't it? And therefore not healthy. Not that anyone is pushing this as a healthy snack.
Felicity Cloake does her usual good job of appraising the general variations - that's her final version at the top of the page. I guess the other main modern variation is trying to make it healthier by baking them rather than deep-frying, but she noted that this not only takes ages, but the outer casing starts to slip from the egg as well.
Scotch eggs are pub food really, and are often served as a component of a Ploughman's lunch. Jamie Oliver's recipe for Proper scotch eggs is photographed in that sort of context. So here's a brief aside on how to serve them -
"Not only does a scotch egg look right perched on a wooden board – all complementary shades of brown and spurious rustic simplicity – but there is also something deeply satisfying about cutting through a scotch egg (serrated steak-knife, please) into the gently yielding surface of a wooden board. It speaks to some deep, primitive, pre-industrial urge in us. Unless, that is, you simply bite into your scotch egg like an apple. In which case, How to Eat makes no comment (because you are clearly a psychopath)." Tony Naylor - The Guardian
He would probably turn in his grave at these two modern plating options that I found. No wood to be seen here, although personally I think they are wonderful - and simple too. After all mustard and spring onions are often suggested as accompaniments..
Delia Smith definitely recommends spring onions to go with her Scotch eggs with fresh herbs - the herbs being in the meat mixture. And what about that meat mixture? Well the most traditional versions use sausage meat, but there are those who use pork mincemeat, or other mincemeat with or without additional flavourings, but mostly it's pretty plain really. As to the breadcrumb coating - well the majority seem to like panko breadcrumbs these days, although this is hardly traditional, so perhaps I should try them some time. I never have, being a conservative at heart I think. That's one of the things that writing this blog has made me realise over time I think.
I didn't really check out the versions below that thoroughly but one is from Gourmet Traveller and the other is from Will and Steve - winners of My Kitchen Rules and a highly commended recipe. Mind you, not having watched MKR I have no idea what the competition would have been like. They look good though.
On the whole though fiddling around with the original concept is frowned upon. Summed up beautifully by Tony Naylor:
"are any of these new-wave scotch eggs truly next-level? No. For instance, the smoked haddock scotch egg is a nonsense – a sad end for two individually fine foodstuffs. Similarly, you can add black pudding or chorizo to a scotch egg, use haggis, venison or chicken instead of pork, gild it with onion or apple, but while the resulting egg may rank somewhere on a sliding scale from “abomination” to “interesting alternative”, none of those eggs will constitute a marked improvement on the best examples of the original pork version."
Nigel Slater gives it a good hot go though. He is not a fan of the real thing (and I have to confess, neither am I come to that) - "It's an egg thing - let's not go there" says Nigel. For me I think they are just too stodgy. He has a go at chicken and also the blood pudding. Which brings me to the relatively recent invention, now deemed a classic by Lancastrians - the Manchester Egg. It was invented by Ben Holden and is:
"a pickled egg, wrapped in a mixture of rare breed pork meat and, that local Lancashire favourite, black pudding, coated for maximum crunch in Japanese panko breadcrumbs - to be served warm"
It sounds truly revolting to me. But then I don't like the idea of pickled eggs and I definitely don't like black pudding.
The Hairy Bikers though have embraced the pickled concept:
"in bars in Scotland, drinkers would take a pickled egg, mash it into a bag of cheese and onion crisps and wash this mess down with a pint… terrible as it sounds we have turned it into a culinary keeper."
No black pudding here.
I also have to mention Jamie Oliver's Rogan josh scotch eggs which is a completely different thing - no meat - it's grains flavoured with rogan josh spices but it is a clever acknowledgement of the fact that this may well be one of those Anglo Indian dishes that litter the British food scene these days.
Just to demonstrate how one never knows what to believe these days from searching the internet. I first found an article that maintained, that along with other things - including pork pies and haggis - scotch eggs were declining in popularity in Britain, either as a bought product from a supermarket or as pub food, and then I found a few others that said that lockdown had revived their popularity enormously. Who to believe? I guess they might be one of those things it would be fun to make with the kids. Tactile squishiness and all.
And last of all - a complete travesty - the Italian scotch egg. It's a gorgeous little video from Gennaro Contaldo, who apparently dreamt this up and decided to have a go on screen. Yes he's a bit of a caricature of what an Italian is, but he always makes me smile. A useless few moments of having fun in the kitchen. Playing around with an idea and hoping it works.
Enjoy - though I'm tempted to say, don't try this at home.