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Scottish recipes like macaroni pie and crappit heid make it into The British Cookbook

This book features over 500 recipes

Published: October 3, 2022

Whenever a ‘British’ cookbook comes out, we’re usually braced for a couple of haggis and shortbread recipes to represent Scotland.

Not so when it comes to The British Cookbook, published by Phaidon and written by Glasgow-based author, food historian and researcher Ben Mervis. This is an epic, meticulous and (literally) weighty read, in the style of tomes such as classic Italian cookbook The Silver Spoon.

There are 550 recipes in total, and a huge proportion are from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Indeed, there has to be the prerequisite veggie haggis and tattie scone recipes, but, among many other things, there are also Aberdeen crullas (plaited pastries), pease brose, puddeen from Shetland, griddle cakes, Scotch and macaroni pies, crappit heids and a recipe for spoots with cider or wine, lemon juice, garlic and butter.

This book definitely wasn’t knocked together in a month, to hit the Christmas market. It must have been some undertaking.

“It took four years to put together from start to finish, doing research, compiling recipes, and then writing and editing, but I have to say I enjoyed the whole process,” says Mervis, who’s originally from the US.

“The first two years were dedicated solely to research and recipe collection – reading as many British food histories and cookery books, local recipe pamphlets – and even some historic menus – as I could get my hands on. Each time I finished a book, I’d leaf through to the bibliography and see what works had inspired that author, and so on.

"All the while, I’d keep notes, jot down recipes, tips and techniques, so I could come back to them later. It was a deep, deep rabbit hole to go down, but I genuinely loved it. I’d be happy to start on a second round if you asked me”.

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The recipes were contributed by chefs, bakers, home cooks, food writers and experts from different regions, with nearly 100 people involved.

They include Glasgow-based contributors such as Sam and Anna Luntley from bakery Two Eight Seven, restaurateur and broadcaster Julie Lin from Julie’s Kopitiam and GaGa, The Gannet’s chef and director Peter McKenna and food writer Sumayya Usmani.

“We were all making, testing, and tasting – there was good eating for quite some time”, says the author, whose favourite Glasgow restaurants include Two Eight Seven bakery, Errol’s Pizza, Ranjit’s Kitchen, Kurdish and Big Counter.

The fact that Mervis has been using his own cookbook since publication is probably one of its greatest endorsements.

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“There are honestly so many recipes that I absolutely love,” he said. “The mince and tatties recipe is one dear to my heart, and I make it on a regular basis.

"The hot cross buns [made by Glasgow baker Anna Luntley] are honestly the best I’ve ever tried, and the steamed syrup sponge was such a hit with our team that the food stylist made it for her family’s Christmas pud.”

While editing the book, there were only a few recipes that had to be removed from the final cut, as they too closely resembled others.

Mervis also decided to ditch the guga (salted gannet) that he’d planned to include. Since the 15th century, these young gannets are traditionally collected once a year by intrepid sailors from Ness, North Lewis. They’re harvested from cliffs on the tiny island of Sula Sgeir in the North Atlantic.

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“We struggled to find a dependable recipe for it in time, despite having tried it a couple of times,” he says. 

"It’s a greasy bird, the cleaning process is quite full-on, and it’s not something you’d want to mess up. It was a shame to not include it, but maybe if there’s enough demand I can do a follow-up book on a history of eating seabirds. I’m kidding by the way.”

This option certainly wasn’t excluded because it features an ingredient that’s almost impossible to procure. After all, there are other additions that might make it tricky to compile a shopping list. Just try asking for young eels in your local supermarket.

“There are a few recipes, like the one for elvers and bacon, sheep’s head broth and goose blood tart, which readers won’t reasonably be able to source within the UK anymore,” says Mervis.

“These recipes were included more for historical relevance and reference than an expectation that you’ll go out and cook it. That being said, in the instance of the goose blood tart, I’ve been told that rehydrated pig’s blood should work just as well."

However, the book isn’t just about the archaic and unusual. There are plenty of familiar recipes for everyday use, and happily huge sections on Cakes, Buns and Biscuits, and Puddings and Pies, which are full of iced treats and stodgy desserts for autumn and winter.

Many of them are likely to provide the reader with Proustian feelings, especially for those of us who grew up on snowballs and tiffin, both of which feature. Does Mervis think this book will similarly appeal to those outside of the UK?  After all, our food is said to be an object of derision in some countries.

“Oh, absolutely – I honestly think that British food sells itself. It’s all about simple, delicious dishes cooked without much fuss or pretension”, he says. “In today’s world, I think it counts for so much. We’re more concerned with deliciousness and flavour than elaborate presentation or brightly composed dishes.”

Although The British Cookbook seems encyclopedic, Mervis thinks there’s still more to say.

“This isn’t the final chapter,” he says. “This book is a tribute to traditional foods, but there’s still so much food knowledge, so many techniques, and stories that are at risk of dying out across the country, and I’d love to document them”.

The British Cookbook by Ben Mervis with photography by Sam A. Harris is published by Phaidon, out now, £39.95

Cock-a-leekie Pic: Sam A Harris

Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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