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A Substantial Meal: The Scotch Egg

Scotch eggs may not be the most refined of foods and their pedigree is somewhat disputed, but nonetheless they are considered a British culinary treasure. Like many dishes over the year’s recipes have changed and mass production has sometimes seen a drop in quality, the scotch egg at its finest is a morsel of joy, but at its worst it is the butt of jokes, a hideous and unappetizing dish coated in orange breadcrumbs.

However, there is little disputing that the Scotch egg is iconic and it is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity, after ministers said they classed it as a “substantial meal”, thereby allowing people to order alcohol alongside them in pubs.

The Scotch egg hit the headlines at the start of the month when it became the centre of national debate as two ministers disagreed over when it could be considered a “substantial meal” in tier 2 areas of the country.

Micheal Gove had initially stated that Scotch Eggs were only a starter (he later backtracked), with cabinet colleague George Eustice causing further confusion by telling LBC it “would count as a substantial meal if there were table service”. Of course, the debate could have become more complicated if the different sizes and styles of Scotch Egg had been considered. Indeed if a Scotch Egg was made with a quails egg then it could hardly be considered substantial but then the largest scotch egg weighed 6.2 kg (13 lb 10 oz) . It was made by Clarence Court and Chef Lee Streeton at the Albemarle of Rocco Forte’s Brown’s Hotel, London, UK, on 30 July 2008. This Scotch egg could hardly have been considered portable or a starter for it used a 1.7 kg ostrich egg, 4 kg of sausage meat, 940 g of haggis and 800 g of breadcrumbs, the result was Scotch Egg of monumental scale. The entire cooking process took more than eight hours and saw it take its place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Ministers have since confirmed that Scotch Eggs do qualify as an appropriately sized meal, meaning the 30 million people living under tier 2 rules can buy alcohol in pubs if they order one and perhaps it is not surprising that there is now an increased demand for the humble Scotch Egg, and it is once again a pub staple.

Under the current rules in England, pubs in tier 3 are shut apart from takeaways and deliveries, while the “substantial food” rule does not apply in tier 1 areas. Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, meanwhile, have differing rules regarding hospitality, but it seems certain that the Scotch Egg is brushing off its image as the source of Alan Partridge’s comedy and has re-invented itself as the ultimate drinking companion.

It is a simple enough dish: well seasoned meat (originally forcemeat) wrapped around an egg and coated in breadcrumbs.  There is no denying that this is a snack of convenience, it is portable and is the ultimate on-go snack and it is also versatile lending itself to being made with different types of egg, meat, or indeed vegetarian fillings.  Indeed, its versatility and portability go some way to explaining why the Scotch egg is still popular today and has survived through culinary history, although it has suffered a few dips in its popularity.

Like so many of our Great British foods the true origin of the name and recipe is lost to history. There are plenty of stories about the origin and those that wish to stake their claim as the inventor of the beloved egg, but none of them confirmed by hard evidence.

One popular story is that the Scotch egg was invented by the London department store, Fortnum and Masons in the eighteenth century, however, whilst they undoubtedly have a long history of creating Scotch eggs there is no substantial evidence to back up the claim that they fathered the dish.

Another explanation of the origin of the Scotch egg is that of it being an export from the British Raj and it is certain that the recipe for Scotch Egg bears an uncanny resemblance to the Mughlai dish nargisi kofta, which consists of hard-boiled eggs coated with cooked, spiced mutton that is then fried.  This would certainly fit in wish the British tradition of culinary borrowing and our habit of adapting recipes to suit the British palette and indeed our store cupboard of spices and seasonings.

It’s perhaps important to remember that whilst the Scotch Egg of today may have been termed ‘substantial’ the Scotch egg of the eighteenth and nineteenth century would have been a much smaller meal.  The first printed reference to the dish is in 1808 when Maria Rundell included the recipe that was first published in her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery. This recipe calls for “pullet” or young hen’s eggs, meaning that the Scotch egg of this era was likely to have been half the size of our modern creation.

Another change that the Scotch egg has experienced relates to the meat used, today it is common to see the Scotch egg consisting of sausage meat wrapped around an egg, however, the original meat used would have been “forcemeat” – which is essentially leftover pieces of meat and offal pounded together to make paste. This meat could have been any combination of meat and there are many historic recipes that include anchovies and more spices than today’s ‘standard’ Scotch egg recipe.

Today, we consider the Scotch egg as a cold snack, but historically they were also enjoyed hot with a sauce – Mrs Beeton suggests they be served in a pool of “good brown gravy”, perhaps with the rules surrounding table service we will see a resurgence in Scotch eggs served hot with gravy, but I think it unlikely.

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