AS Burns's Night once again approaches - that's the annual celebration of the Jan. 25 birth-date of Scotland's National Poet, Robert Burns - the minds of all true Scots, wherever they may be, naturally turn to thoughts of haggis, with tatties and neeps. And cloutie dumpling. And skirlie. And maybe cullen skink. And, who knows, even ... rumbledethumps? Any self-respecting compilation of Scottish food includes such dishes. And their names are far from being the only good thing about them.
Catherine Brown has written three books about Scottish cookery - ``Scottish Regional Recipes,'' 1981 (sadly out of print), ``Scottish Cookery,'' 1989 (in a new edition), and what she hopes will be called ``The Pot on the Fire,'' due to be published this summer. If this sounds rather like the French ``pot-au-feu'' - boiled beef and broth - then the similarity is deliberate. She says her new book, ``investigates the cooking methods of the Scots,'' and their old methods revolve mainly around ``the broth tradition.'' Ms. Brown was fortunate to have access to a 17th-century household book during her research.
``Soup,'' she says, ``is very central to the whole of Scottish food.'' And Scottish food has links with French food. It's all part of what's known as the ``auld alliance'' between the two countries - against the English, of course.
In her Glasgow workplace I asked her if Scottish cookery really is distinctive from all other forms of food preparation. Or is it just a touristy gimmick?
If anyone knows the answer, Brown surely does. This trained professional cook has traveled all over Scotland collecting recipes for her books - recipes that she always tastes first and then makes before ``getting them down in black and white'' for posterity.
Brown says she is extremely keen on ``the preservation of the skills and knowledge'' of the many ``wonderful cooks'' she has met in Scotland ``who have a lot to give to the next generation.'' In the late '60s she also wrote a ``massive tome'' called ``British Cookery.'' This enormous project gave her plenty of opportunity to compare regional variations in Britain.
Brown agrees, of course, that the broth tradition is really a peasant tradition, and that plenty of other countries prepare food in that manner. But she argues that its specific Scottish ingredients - from oats and shellfish and seaweed dulse to salmon, pheasant, and venison - make for unique flavors in Scotland. Oats are featured significantly in Scottish dishes - porridge, haggis, brose, and of course oatcakes. ``We eat thousands of those!'' she says. They can be bought, but she makes her own. The texture and taste of homemade oatcakes cannot be mass-produced, she says.
As for broth, she likes to clear up a particularly English misunderstanding. She makes a broth every week: a large pot with a sizable piece of meat - ``well-matured'' beef, lamb, chicken, or game - with ``a lot of vegetables'' in big pieces. Scottish broth should also have ``a lot of herbs'' (the Scots traditionally use herbs liberally) and seaweed, especially in West Coast mutton-broths. Brown lifts the meat out of the broth once it is cooked, and it serves for several meals thereafter, sliced, re-heated, or cold. ``The old-fashioned way of serving broth,'' she says, ``was to have a large plate with a mound of meat and vegetables in the middle, like an island, and the liquid poured over it.''
The English believe that the broth method is a watery way of boiling meat and vegetables, and the flavor is lost into the water.
But in Scotland ``the tradition was to cook on slow-burning peat. The meat wasn't actually boiled,'' she says. ``You don't boil the flavor out, or overcook it. The point is that it is not boiled, it's actually poached, simmered very, very slowly.
Brown reckons that it takes much more ``skill to make broths'' than it does to ``throw a roast into the oven. It's about blending delicate flavors - vegetables and herbs, balancing them with meat or fish,'' she says.
Sometimes a generation will rebel against the dishes of the generation before them, Brown says. Her mother, she says, absolutely ``won't'' make some things her own mother used to make.
``So I have to make them!'' she says with a laugh. ``She will make cloutie dumpling,'' but there is one family favorite she refuses to do. Brown has never seen it in any recipe book, but she has included in her own ``Regional Recipes.''
``We call it `Sweet Haggis,''' she says. ``It's a cloth-filled pudding, made with medium oatmeal, a good beefy suet, a very little flour, sultanas and raisins, a little soft brown sugar, and that's it - a bit of salt - then mixed with water. It's a meatless haggis. We eat it for high tea on Saturdays, or sliced with bacon and eggs for breakfast.''
Perhaps this Englishman looked slightly unconvinced, so she added: ``It's fabulous! But you can't make it sound good. It's amazing, eaten hot - and then it can be sliced cold, fried, baked, or grilled.''