Today, in Britain, we have a wealth of different foods we can eat from all over the world, so to a modern city dweller a traditional Scottish dish like crappit heids (stuffed fish heads) can sound even more obscure and exotic than, say, Malaysian fish head curry.
In The Scots Kitchen (1929) F. Marian McNeill, the brilliant chronicler of Scottish food and its history, described crappit heids as ‘formerly a favourite supper dish all over Scotland.’ Was this just a roundabout way of saying no one eats crappit heids any more?
Should we be mourning the disappearance of this traditional Scottish dish, or should we just be celebrating how good we have it now?
The Scottish geologist Sir Archibald Geikie wrote in his book Scottish Reminisces (1904) crappit heids was among a host of dishes ‘which have long been banished from the tables of polite society’.
Over one hundred years later we can safely say crappit heids has been banished from the tables of society. And no wonder. After all, crappit heids is subsistence food, borne out of poverty. Families with little money to spare would mix oatmeal or barley-meal with the cheaper parts of the fish like the head and the offal (all the bits that now get thrown away) to make an inexpensive but filling and nutritious meal.
There are numerous Scottish recipes, words, and even cooking utensils associated with the cooking of fish offal. For example, Haggamuggi is the stomach of a fish stuffed with its liver and sunds (air-dried bladders). Stap is a stuffing made of the liver and the meat from the head. A recipe from Barra uses a cod’s liver to make a variety of bannock. The recipe also suggests stuffing the bannock mixture into the cod’s gullet!
The number of different guises in which the fish head, liver, roes and other bits of fish offal are incorporated with oatmeal or barley-meal reveals a rich food heritage and is impressive. On the other hand, the number of variations on a theme reveals the potentially grim reality of what it was like to eat only local food, made in remote places where the range of ingredients was few and limited. Crappit heids was just one of many ways in which these ingredients could be combined.
Incidentally, to crap is an old Scottish term that means to stuff or to fill and is completely unrelated to the more popular sense of the word.
These recipes show us how our ancestors lived, and what they sometimes had to endure, so they are an important aspect of Scottish history. However, these archaic dishes don’t really belong in today’s quick and convenient world. Crappit heid may still be enjoyed by a few people of an older generation in more remote areas of Scotland, like the outer hebrides and Shetland, but as soon as it becomes unnecessary this way of eating begins to die out.
Today, a lot of our fish heads are sold to Africa, where there is an enormous market for them. Dried fish heads provide a cheap source of valuable protein, and flavour.
Fish was, and still is, a very precious resource. If we are going to eat fish we should try to use every part of it. The idea of nose to tail eating is familiar to us when it comes to animals, but we don’t often treat fish with the same due respect. Getting some fish bones from the fishmonger to make a good stock costs nothing, and takes little time to prepare. As for the offal, things that are worth trying are the liver.
In Spain and Japan monkfish liver is considered a delicacy. I have eaten haddock liver in Amsterdam and was more than pleasantly surprised. Think of a soft and gentle fish pate. And there is the roe. Haddock roe fried in butter and spread on to hot toast is delicious.
After reading about crappit heids I thought I had better try making this dish myself. I had read crappit heids is deeply unpleasant to prepare, and to eat, so my curiosity wasn’t exactly aroused. It was easy to get ahold of the haddock heads but I wasn’t able to get my hands on the livers. The fishmonger told me it is difficult to get haddock liver as the fishermen get a better price if they sell them gutted. This they do at sea, presumably throwing the waste overboard.
The taste of the stuffing wasn’t actually that bad, and there is a surprising amount of flesh left on a haddock head. The flesh behind the ‘ear’ is known as a ‘haddock lug’, a favoured tit-bit. The worst part was the smell of the whole thing cooking. Seeing the fish heads with their mouths pointing to the sky made me feel just a little bit queasy. Just in case I have aroused your curiosity the recipe is below. It has been adapted from The Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1826), by Christian Isobel Johnstone.
Crappit Heids recipe:
• 100g fine ground oatmeal
• 1/2 small brown onion, very finely chopped
• 25g unsalted butter
• 1 tbsp milk
• 1 tsp sea salt
• black pepepr
• 8 haddock heads
• butter for greasing
Liberally grease a stew pan with butter.
In a mixing bowl rub the butter into the oatmeal and the onion. Season with salt and pepper, and bind with milk.
Take a walnut sized piece of stuffing and wedge it into the cavity underneath the eyes. Place the fish heads in the stew pan so the mouths are facing up.
Pour over enough water to just cover the base of the pot. Put the lid on and simmer gently over a medium heat for 30 minutes. Serve hot.
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