Earlier last month, Dan and I attended the International Women’s Day lunch at The Ramsgate Tandoori, in aid of local MENCAP services. We were all invited to dress up in our national costume (I don’t have one) and bring along a dish to share.
The dish I chose to prepare was Cullen Skink, because my paternal grandmother was Scottish, and fish and vegetables in their many forms are also my favourite things to eat. Okay, it might have been more convenient to pop down to my local Waitrose and buy a tin of Baxters’ Cullen Skink but although it has a wonderful flavour, it is never quite the same as homemade.
Cullen Skink is a thick Scottish soup similar in look and consistency to a chowder but with a gutsier flavour. It usually comprises smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. Traditionally, a Cullen Skink uses finnan haddie, but one may use any other undyed smoked haddock – and let’s face it, if you live south of the border, undyed smoked haddock is probably the best and closest you are likely to get to the real thing. On no account should you used the bright orange-yellow dyed fish often found in the supermarket, as the ‘smoke’ and the flavour are artificial and bear no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.
Finnan haddie is also known as Finnan haddock, Finnan, Finny Haddock or even Findrum speldings. It is cold-smoked haddock in accordance to a regional method of smoking in the north-east of Scotland, using green wood and peat. Its origin is not entirely certain. Some believe that the delicacy comes from the hamlet of Findon, or Finnan, near Aberdeen, whilst others insist that the name represents a distortion of the name of a village, Findhorn, which lies at the mouth of the River Findhorn in Moray (which today encompasses the Highlands and Aberdeenshire). This dispute is rooted in the 18th century but with little trace, as adherents refuse to acknowledge even a grain of possibility of the alternative view. An early 20th century cookbook gives testimony to a fire in a fish-curing house in Portlethen, very close to Findon. Whatever the truth, Finnan haddie may have been a popular Aberdeenshire dish since the 1640s.
However, despite its popularity in Scotland, the dish took much longer to catch on south of the border and only caught on in London during the 1830s. In the old days, due to the light smoking of the fish, it only had a short shelf life of between one and three days. Therefore, although the fish might travel from boat to the Aberdeen table within 12 hours of being caught, the distance to London made it almost impossible to avoid the fish spoiling and so began its debut in London only once it could be shipped by mail coach and then more widely available once the railway link between Aberdeen and London was constructed in the 1840s.
The authentic preparation of Finnan haddie is to roast or grill whole pieces of fish over high heat, but it is often served for breakfast lightly poached in milk until just opaque. It is also an important ingredient of kedgeree and omelette Arnold Bennett, as served at the Wolesley in Piccadilly.
Cullen Skink is a popular starter at formal Scottish dinners – which perhaps might be complete with tartan, bagpipes and haggis and more than a few ‘wee drams’. The dish is a popular everyday meal across the northeast of Scotland but can also easily be found in some of the Edinburgh eating houses and pub restaurants. A few years ago, my friend Lorraine and I travelled to Edinburgh on a family history research expedition, and on our last evening we dined on a wonderful Cullen Skink followed by a calorie-busting Cranachan.
Like many local recipes, there can be several slight variations. Some cooks use milk instead of water and others add single cream. Traditionally, Cullen Skink is served with a good bread, but it can be eaten just as it is; at the March event we ate ours with curry!
Curiously, the word ‘skink’ derives from the Middle Dutch ‘schenke’ meaning ‘shin, hough, knuckle’ Over time, of course, the word has developed the secondary meaning of a soup, especially one containing meat – although there is no meat in a Cullen Skink, only fish!
I locally sourced my undyed smoked haddock from Cannons fishmongers on Ramsgate Harbour. The family have two boats and have been in the fishing trade since 1887 and their produce is always fresh, of high quality and very reasonably priced. Their cod and haddock cut through like butter and are easy to skin. The piece of haddock I used in my recipe cost around £9 for well over a pound in weight. If you don’t like skinning and boning haddock then ask your fishmonger to do it, but I undertook all preparation myself. Mine is a lower fat version of the original.
- 500g fillet natural smoked haddock, skinned and boned
- 500ml semi-skimmed milk
- A few peppercorns
- Small knob of butter
- 2 leeks, finely chopped
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 700ml vegetable or fish stock
- 3 large white potatoes, cubed
- Splash of dry white wine (optional)
- Bay leaf
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Squeeze of lemon
- Good handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 2 spring onions (scallions) or chives, finely chopped
- Place the smoked haddock in a large pan with the milk and the peppercorns and lightly poach over a low heat until just opaque. Carefully remove haddock and set aside, also retaining the poaching juices.
- In a separate large pan, heat the knob of butter taking care not to burn it and add the diced potatoes and the onions and leeks and cook until softened. This is best done over a low heat and a piece of tin foil placed directly on top of the vegetables, allowing them to sweat rather than colour and prevent any charred bits.
- Add the garlic right at the end and stir for a moment or two and then add the stock, the reserved milk, bay leaf, wine (if using) and chicken stock, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Remove the bay leaf and then season the soup with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Stir through and set aside. You may, if you wish, put the soup through a blender and then through a sieve to thicken before returning to the pan but I keep mine rustic! Some of the liquids will have reduced down in the cooking process so the soup shouldn’t be very runny. If the soup is a little runny and you don’t have a blender, simply mix a tablespoon of cornflour with a drop of milk and stir it through the soup over a low heat, to thicken. Add the cornflour mixture little by little until the soup has the consistency you require.
- Meanwhile, carefully skin and flake the fish, removing any bones, and season with lemon juice. Finely chop the parsley and the spring onions or chives.
- Add the fish to the soup pan, return to the heat and reheat for a few minutes until piping hot. Sprinkle over the parsley and spring onions or chives and serve immediately with some good soda bread or sourdough.
You could if you wish lightly poach a few free-range eggs or quails’ eggs and lay one atop each bowlful of soup, to serve.
If poaching and skinning haddock feels like too much of a chore, try using ready-cooked kipper or smoked mackerel fillets but do try to remove the skin and any visible bones before flaking. It’s not authentic but will still be delicious.
As for the fundraising event, it was a great success and we raised £500 for local MENCAP services!