Last Friday I published a blog on Picnic History. One of the essential features of a good picnic was food that could withstand packing and travel, and that was easy to pick up and eat. This instantly brought to mind a blog I wrote a very long time ago for Austen Authors on strange foods, one of which is Scotch Eggs.
In 1738, Piccadilly in London was scattered with coaching inns and served as a gathering place for landowners traveling to their country estates. To meet the ever-increasing demand of portable snacks, the famed and very exclusive department store Fortnum & Mason created a portable, nourishing delicacy for its most affluent customers: SCOTCH EGGS, a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, coated with bread crumbs, and then deep-fried.
According to Dr. Andrea Turner, archivist of London’s Fortnum & Mason: “The eggs would have been smaller in those days. They would have been pullet’s eggs rather than hen’s eggs, and the meat would have been gamier, like a strong Victorian pâté.’’ Dr. Turner believes the eggs then filtered down the social ranks, first becoming a Victorian savory using cheaper meats, and finally arriving at the mass-produced egg served in the pubs, cafés and at picnics in the second half of the last century.
To be fair, a competing origin story argues that scotch eggs are heavily inspired by a Mughlai dish called nargisi kofta, an Indian dish that is made from minced meat (usually lamb) wrapping a boiled egg, fried, and served covered with a yogurt gravy. This dish was discovered by British soldiers during their time in India and brought back to Britain. Another theory is that scotch eggs are, “a Northern variant of Cornish pasty produced by Scottish smallholders who would have kept chickens and pigs”. They were, in essence, a poor man’s lunch, made from left-over meat and eggs, quite handy because they were so easily transported.
While the precise origins of Scotch Eggs may not be crystal clear, one fact is absolutely certain: They have nothing to do with Scotland!
The term “scotched egg” means, simply, “an egg that has something done to it.” Most often this referred to means of preserving food, typically by dusting with a lime-powder concoction (a process known as “scotching”) or by the use of salt. The latter is seen in many 19th century recipes that included anchovies in the meat and the word “Scotch” was often applied to the title if these salty fishes were added. Examples: “Scotch woodcock” (scrambled eggs on toast with anchovies) and “Scotch collops” (a meat dish which included anchovies in the sauce). Eggs, if transported from afar to the London markets, were usually boiled with the shell on to a hard or semi-hard state, and then dusted with lime-powder, making them edible for months.
As mentioned by Dr. Turner above, eggs were smaller in the days before hormones caused hens to grow larger. Additionally, treats meant to be portable were best if not too large. For this reason, the eggs of young hens (a pullet) were commonly used, or to really provide a unique taste and exotic quality, quail eggs. Scotch eggs, then and today, are delicious but also very rich. One does not need to eat more than one or two, which is why they are usually served today in Irish and English pubs as an appetizer.
Giving the credit to Fortnum & Mason as the creators of the specific food called SCOTCH EGGS seems fair enough because, even if some clever employee/chef at the store did not invent them totally, they definitely launched them as a highly popular treat. Tragically, Fortnum & Mason archives from that period have been lost, so their specific recipe is unknown. The first written and printed recipe for scotch eggs appeared in Mrs. Maria Eliza Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery published in London in 1807 —
Scotch Eggs – Boil hard five pullet’s eggs and without removing the white, cover completely with a fine relishing forcemeat in which let scraped ham bear a due proportion. Fry of a beautiful yellow brown and serve with a good gravy in the dish.
In Isabella Beeton’s 1861 The Book of Household Management, she was much more detailed —
INGREDIENTS. – 6 eggs, 6 tablespoonfuls of forcemeat, hot lard, ½ pint of good brown gravy.
Mode. – Boil the eggs for 10 minutes; strip them from the shells, and cover them with forcemeat made by recipe No. 417; or substitute pounded anchovies for the ham. Fry the eggs a nice brown in boiling lard, drain them before the fire from their greasy moisture, dish them, and pour round from ¼ to½ pint of good brown gravy. To enhance the appearance of the eggs, they may be rolled in beaten egg and sprinkled with bread crumbs; but this is scarcely necessary if they are carefully fried. The flavour of the ham or anchovy in the forcemeat must preponderate, as it should be very relishing.
Time. – 10 minutes to boil the eggs, 5 to 7 minutes to fry them.
Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons. Seasonable at any time.