Finnan Haddie

SCOTLAND'S greatest gift to international cuisine is not, I submit, salmon, beef, mutton broth, haggis or oatcakes, or even the simple bacon roll, that blessed balm for over-indulgence. It is the finnan haddock, served with a poached egg on top.

The other night friends brought it to table for a late supper. I can think of nothing more delicious at the end of a long day, or anything as satisfying that sits as lightly on the stomach.

The fish that we know today differs greatly from the dish our ancestors ate. In the days before the railway the smokers in Findon, a fishing village south of Aberdeen, had to salt the fish well before consigning it south by stage-coach.

According to Sir Walter Scott, they dried it over the smoke of seaweed, sprinkling it with salt water. This gave it a peculiar, and indeed unique, flavour. My colleague in Aberdeen, George MacDonald, tells me that according to local lore a woman in the village had hung out her haddock to dry in the sun, when a fire started underneath; she found she had created a new delicacy.

F. Marian McNeill, in her classic work of culinary scholarship, The Scots Kitchen (1926), gives a method that smokes it over peat or hardwood. But all imitations produced elsewhere were found inferior — Sir Walter attended a blind tasting in Edinburgh from which the Aberdeenshire fish emerged triumphant.

Finnan haddie travelled so well that it wound up in a Cole Porter song (My Heart Belongs to Daddy) and it still appears in the pages of Larousse Gastronomique, that international bible of cuisine. Larousse, I think, is living in the past, for it recommends soaking the fish for a couple of hours in water before it is cooked (poached but not boiled, otherwise it becomes stringy).

That is a throwback to older days. Even when the railway supplanted the stage-coach and the smoked fish became less leathery, they still had to be heavily salted to prolong their shelf life. Now, in this age of refrigerated transport, they are more lightly cured, and have lost their geographical particularity. Finnan haddies are produced by most fish-houses which smoke fish and differ from ordinary smoked haddock in that they are smoked on the bone.

It is a general truth that fish is best left on the bone. If it is to be filleted, the skin is best left on one side (as it is sold in Ireland). In the case of finnan haddock, various writers also warn us to beware of inferior versions where dye has been added to the brine. Like kippers of lesser quality, these golden cutlets have a bright and unnatural yellow glow.

Jane Grigson, who suggested that a statue should be erected in Findon to the inventor of the finnan haddie, gave particularly strict advice, in her book Fish Cookery (Penguin 1973), that if it wasn’t finnan haddock it wasn’t worth buying at all: ”so much ‘smoked fillet’ on sale is neither haddock nor smoked.” As she rightly pointed out, dyed fish can give you indigestion and have a coarser taste. She also found a place of honour for the Glasgow pale, the Abroath smokie and the Eyemouth cured.

Unsmoked haddock is a fish that must be eaten straight out of the sea, for its flavour deteriorates rapidly. (In a fish-and-chip shop it also is better to have it freshly fried rather than taken from the hot compartment.)

In this haddock may be contrasted with sole, which Grigson named, along with turbot, as king of the sea fish. Sole’s exceptional palatability is apparently because about three days after its death its flesh develops a chemical substance which improves its flavour. It is therefore a fish that can travel long distances. This explains not only its popularity but, I imagine, why we do not have smoked sole.

But back to our haddock: the amiable Keith Floyd, in his book Floyd on Fish (BBC 1985), is dismissive of it, describing it as merely useful; but for my money, taken fresh or smoked, it can rival the sole in any contest. It must be lightly cooked; in Mrs Beeton’s age they overdid it and turned it into a grey travesty.

But deep-fried in batter, it was the national dish of our working class. Smoked with a poached egg on top, it was the favourite meal of the Duke of Windsor; it was the last dish brought to him before his death in Paris in 1972, an oddly homely finale to an exotic life.

Not the least of its virtues is that its derivatives are also great adornments of our national cuisine. There is, of course, Cullen skink, that cottage recipe from the shores of the Moray Firth. Marian McNeill advises that the milk should be heated separately and added to the stock and flaked fish; the final touches are enough mashed potato to thicken it and a knob of butter.

Finnan haddie can form the base of a delicious starter served in ramekins, as in our own Catherine Brown’s recipe in her book Scottish Cookery (Richard Drew, 1985): the finnan haddock, flaked, is added to a sauce made from Cheddar, cornflour and egg yolks.

A cholesterol bomb? Yes, but no matter: keep taking that medicinal glass of red wine (my dentist, incidentally, is now my hero, having told me that whisky is good for my teeth). For my last meal on earth I might too choose a finnan haddock.

Then again . . . A youthful recollection, of coming home from university for lunch just in time to see my father remove an Abroath smokie from the pot and serve it with a dod of butter and a floury Ayrshire potato, still has the power to make my mouth water. And then again . . . Herring in oatmeal with new potatoes and a glass of white wine . . . I am at one with Burns and his haggis: you can keep your fancy French ragout.OBJECT_ID:=CATEGORY:=HEADLINE:=The enigma of Scotland’s attitude