Haggis is well known as the national dish of Scotland, thanks to a certain Robert Burns, but for me it is the stew in the pot which defines the cuisine of our nation
Scottish food is defined by the quality of the natural larder rather than a particular flavour or style, and throughout history many dishes have been traditionally cooked in one pot over an open fire.
The ingredients and flavours within this pot depend on the wealth of the individual, the season, and on the area of the country rather than being of a typically ‘Scottish’ flavour. And while the method of cooking has moved from fire to stove-top and oven, the stew has remained ubiquitous within Scottish cooking.
Looking through the history of Scotland, one pot cooking is a constant. In Iron Age times many native Scots lived in crannogs over lochs, and through those that survive (the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay makes for a great visit) we can see evidence of a large hearth and open fire at the centre of these unique structures.
The aroma of a simmering stew brings warmth to the soul
Vegetables and meat were stewed for the whole family over the open fire, with the smoke and cooking smells reaching high into the thatched roof as the simple crannog folk kept warm by the fire, their livestock tethered in the outer reaches.
Moving forward to the reign of Mary Queen of Scots in the great kitchens of Stirling Castle salt and spice have been added into the mix through the opening of trade routes with the east. The traditional method of cooking was still meat and vegetables in a pot over fire, however, with those who worked in the court would maintain their own pot at home. It was the method of cooking for both rich and poor.
Stew to a Scot is akin to apple pie to an American, biryani to a Pakistani or paella to a Valencian. It speaks of festivity, of comfort, of home.
Stew can be as simple as minced beef and onions with gravy salt or as rich as wild venison with hand-picked herbs and juniper.
It can be cooked in water, in beer or in the finest of red wines, and it really is a dish with no recipe beyond the contents of the larder and your imagination.
My only stipulation is good quality meat, if the meat is good then it’s hard to go wrong in terms of flavour, add in whatever is seasonal and bring the ingredients to life.
In early summer I like to stew chicken with the young onions, carrots, fennel, new potatoes and white wine. This is a quick one pot meal that’s ready in about in an hour.
However as my favourite Scottish season, Autumn, appears and the days get shorter and leaves start turning to red then brown, there’s something satisfying about taking your time in cooking red meat one Sunday. Investing in the same patience of our forefathers and garnering heat from the roasting oven as the beef, mutton or venison slowly becomes meltingly tender.
There’s nothing quite like that feeling of uncovering the casserole dish and releasing that aroma throughout the house. This is when stew comes into its own and brings warmth to the soul.
The stew recipe I’m sharing with you is one of my favourites: good quality beef along with autumn mushrooms and fresh, earthy herbs.
It’s a celebration of the season and one to forget the pangs for long summer nights and to rejoice in the season when the Scottish soil gives us so much.
For this recipe I use dried porcini and portobellini mushrooms, but you can use fresh, wild mushrooms if you can get them (do NOT pick your own mushrooms without expert advice and supervision!) or swap for chestnut mushrooms if more readily available.
Beef and mushroom stew
15g dried porcini mushrooms
1.5kg braising steak (diced)
12 echallion shallots (halved)
4 cloves garlic (chopped)
250g mini portobello mushrooms (quartered)
1 glass red wine
2 sprigs thyme (large ones)
Salt and pepper to season
1. Rehydrate the porcini mushrooms in 250ml boiling water for 20 minutes then drain, retaining the liquor. Chop the mushrooms.
2. In a heavy bottomed pot or casserole brown the beef in a good glug of olive oil. Do this in 2-3 lots being careful not to crowd the pot. When all the beef is browned add it all back into the pot with the shallots and garlic. Stir through for a minute.
3. Add all the mushrooms, stir again and then pour in the porcini liquor, wine and one teaspoon of salt. Place the thyme branches in the mixture, bring to the boil then cover and reduce to a simmer.
4. Simmer for 2hrs 30 minutes until the beef is meltingly tender, correct for seasoning. Serve with crusty bread or mashed potatoes.
- Add in chopped or diced root vegetables (such as carrot or turnip) in the third stage for a heartier stew that will go further if you have a few unexpected guests!
- Turn your stew into a delicious steak and mushroom pie with the addition of a puff pastry topping at the end
- The red wine can be substituted for beer or stout to give a darker, slightly richer stew
- Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous – I would advise against using mushrooms you find growing wild without expert advice