It’s Burns night, 25th January 2014. All across Scotland people will be gathering to get sloshed on whisky, celebrate a great poet, ritually disembowel Englishmen and eat haggis. Haggis, the national dish of Scotland. It is amazing to me that such a miserable bag of offal should reach such heights. Seriously, think about it. Scotland has some seriously good food produce. This is a land which, probably, produces the best salmon and venison (fresh or farmed) that there is. Then of course there is the Aberdeen Angus. Which is, undisputedly, the best beef cattle there is. Arbroath smokies are legendary. These things are only the start of what could become quite a long list. And yet in the face of all this amazing stuff it is a sheep’s stomach of yuk which has risen to the top of the list. How? My guess it is a combination of the ritual of Burns night and the ritual disembowelment of Englishmen that provides most of the answer. But also, historically, the Haggis was the food of the common man. Salmon, venison and beef being only available to those at the top of society. However, there is one Scottish dish which is drop dead fantastic and is also available to the common man and uses a fish as fine as any fresh river salmon. It is Cullen Skink. Yet the people of Scotland seem to dismiss this wonderful, wonderful thing. What is it about us, the British, that makes us do this? We seem to have a kind of deep-seated inferiority complex when it comes to our own food. We seem to have this built-in assumption that if it originates overseas it must somehow be better. Why? Honestly the French bang on about things like Bouillabaise and Bourride but they simply are not in the same class as a dish as good as Cullen Skink. To me this is the kind of food that we should be celebrating.
All you need. Potato, onion, parsley, butter, milk and undyed smoked haddock. Don’t skimp on the quality of the smoked haddock as it is crucial. Please, please, please, try to avoid dyed haddock if you can. The Talisker is for the cook and not the dish by the way.
Skin the Haddock. If that’s a bit techy for you an alternative is to poach the Haddock in some milk for a few minutes, remove, cool, and pick the fish off with a fork. Keep the milk back to use later on.
What happens next depends on how you like your Cullen Skink. I like mine quite chunky. Kind of like a stew. So I dice everything quite chunky. Others like theirs to be more like a soup or a chowder. In which case you should dice finer. Whatever your preference, the potato, haddock, onion and parsley need dicing. Then soften the onion in a good knob of butter. Soften the onion, don’t fry it.
Add in the milk and the potato. The milk needs to be as fresh as you can get it and should be full cream. Don’t use skimmed or semi-skimmed. I find it really helps to part boil the potato.
Next comes a mega important part. Mash up a few parts of the potato. Just a few. Enough to provide some thickening. I’m using a hand masher but pressing the potato with a fork works just fine. As an aside, I’m using a non-stick sauté pan so as to get some decent imagery. A regular everyday saucepan is ideal.
Finally, add in the fish and the parsley. You may want to break up the fish a little if you want. It’s done when the fish is cooked through and the potato is soft. Some people like to add in a little cream at the end.
It is very tempting to chef this up with wine, garlic, bay leaf and so on (for me it’s always a struggle to avoid lemon juice). But try to avoid temptation and keep to this simplicity. Please trust me, every additional thing you add will only take away from it. It’s the smoked haddock that really makes this work and is the star of the show. Let it do the talking.