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30 Jun 2021

Edinburgh’s Pantry: Tatties, neeps, oranges and lemons

Written by Lindsay Middleton, PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen
An old, iron bean slicing tool, displayed against a plain grey background. It has a wooden handle above a slicing disc. The handle has British made printed upon it. The disc has Spong's Bean Slicer No. 632 printed on it.
Spong’s bean slicer, c.1880, Hill of Tarvit collection
This series of articles highlights the food and drink to be found in Edinburgh’s pantries of the past, written especially to mark the re-opening of Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. This time, Lindsay discusses the produce that was native to Scotland’s countryside and urban areas, as well as the fruits and vegetables being imported into Edinburgh from the 17th century onwards.

Peppers, bananas, oranges, melon, coriander … these items are a regular part of many of our weekly shops and typically travel hundreds (even thousands) of miles to arrive in our baskets. Even fruits and vegetables that are easily grown in the British soil and climate – tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, leeks and carrots – often have ‘grown in Spain/Brazil/Kenya’ inscribed on the packaging.

The ability to freeze or control the environment produce is transported in, even down to the type of air that is put into bags of salad leaves, means that our modern pantry is inherently globalised. We no longer rely on seasons. A tomato or strawberry bought in the middle of winter may be devoid of flavour because they’re so out of season, but they still sit on the shop shelves if we want them. While global food trade is now under scrutiny for environmental reasons, fruit and vegetables have a long history of being imported into Scotland to supplement produce that can be grown domestically.

An oil painting of a young woman using a hoe to harvest potatoes from a field with rows of vegetable crops in. In the distance, the spires and rooftops of a small town can be seen.
Painting of a young girl using a hoe to harvest potatoes; cabbage and kail can also be seen in the field. | Harvesting, Kirkcudbright, E A Hornel, oil on canvas, 1885, Broughton House collection

We explored in previous Edinburgh’s Pantry articles the kinds of meat, fish, porridge and bread that people would have eaten in historical Edinburgh. But what about the fruits and vegetables that accompanied them?

Of the vegetable crops that were grown successfully in Scotland, some of the most longstanding were peas, beans, kail (or kale) and cabbages. Peas and beans had both Scottish and foreign origins – trade ledgers from the 17th century list barrels of peas being imported from places like Germany, France and the Netherlands. However, they were also grown locally; most rural farmers planted peas and beans as part of their crops.

Nine small tin moulds, shaped like pea pods, are arranged in a 3x3 format against a plain grey background.
Set of nine tin moulds shaped like peas in a pod, 19th century, Drum Castle collection

As mentioned in the article on grains and pulses, beans and peas were often used as a grain between the 17th and mid-19th century. While they may have been eaten fresh in summer, they were more useful throughout the year if they were turned into grain – that was easier to preserve. Peas and beans were dried or roasted and then milled into a coarse type of flour that was often combined with oats or barley to make bread, bannocks or brose. Peas and beans were also linked to times of poverty or famine. They were a common source of animal food, and only consumed by people if other crops had failed. To fully depend on pease-bread was a sign of hard times.

Cabbage and kail were also common hardy crops. Like beans and peas, these could be grown rurally or in kitchen gardens called kailyards. In Edinburgh, these were referred to as burgage gardens, squeezed into the spaces between buildings and tenements and used to grow vegetables or keep livestock. Indeed, the kailyard garden was so prolific that it inspired the 19th-century ‘Kailyard School’, a genre of Scottish literature that sentimentalised rural life in Scotland.

A black and white photo of a woman holding a very large cabbage, standing outside a thatched cottage. She is wearing a printed floral dress.
A woman holding a cabbage, standing outside a thatched cottage on Uibhist a Deas (South Uist). | Black and white photographic print attributed to Margaret Fay Shaw, c.1931, Canna House collection

As this literary movement suggests, these vegetables would have been a large part of the daily diet for people across the social spectrum and a key source of greens. Cooked into oatmeal or broths for a ‘kail brose’, added to mashed potatoes or eaten alongside meat, brassicas like cabbage and kale were a staple resource thanks to their availability and adaptability. Most Scottish people would have eaten them nearly every day.

Although kail and cabbage reigned supreme, the turnip or ‘neep’ was another staple Scottish vegetable. Eaten in Britain since at least the 15th century, turnips were cooked and prepared in a multitude of ways, rather than just relegated to accompanying a Burns Supper as is largely the case today. They were fed to animals, but were also recorded in high-status meals, where small, young and sweet turnips were sometimes eaten raw or even as part of a dessert. [1]

Then in the 18th century came the introduction of the Swedish turnip or ‘swede’. Swedes were typically mashed and buttered as an accompaniment to a main dish, or as a meal themselves. For the poor and working classes, root vegetables would have provided much-needed bulk to a plain, carbohydrate-heavy diet.

Chips, mashed potatoes, crisps, roasties and baked potatoes are a key feature in modern Scottish diets, but this was not always the case. The earliest reference to potatoes around Edinburgh was in 1698, and they were linked to the diets of the wealthy. [2] It was a long time before potatoes were commonly used, and reliance on them depended on the geographic region.

An oil painting of two young boys sitting in a wheelbarrow filled with potatoes. They are smartly dressed in velvet jackets and smart shoes. The background is a romantic Highland setting.
These boys were the sons of the 2nd Marquess of Aberdeen and are sitting on a barrow full of potatoes. | Two Little Home Rulers by Louisa Starr Canziani, oil on canvas, 1890, Haddo House collection

In areas like the Highlands, where many people lived in harsh conditions and often had little food to spare, the potato was quickly taken up as a welcome addition to the crops. It became a key part of everyday diets there. But, like peasemeal, potatoes evoked negative connotations and were considered an animal food, or even a sign of lazy farming. English writers in the 18th and 19th centuries often equated potatoes with poor standards of living, slovenliness and poverty, especially given their links to famine in Ireland.

However, Scotland does not seem to have shown the same prejudice. From the late 18th century onwards, the potato was increasingly grown and consumed – especially by poorer people in both the cities and countryside. Added to stews, mashed and mixed with cabbage or kail, or simply boiled and eaten plain, buttered or with a sprinkling of salt, potatoes became an important part of the working-class diet.

An old-fashioned metal vegetable masher, which looks a little like a garlic press, is displayed against a plain grey background.
Handheld metal vegetable masher, early 19th century, Culzean Castle collection

The fruits eaten in Edinburgh between the 17th and 20th centuries were largely those grown in the countryside, city rigs or burgage plots, or they were types that could be foraged: raspberries, currants, brambles, apples, strawberries and gooseberries, for example. The fruit was gathered and eaten fresh, or preserved at home if one had the ingredients, time and space to do so.

An oil still life painting of a large silver platter, filled with an abundance of fruit. Grapes, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, peaches and plums can all be seen.
Fruit in this painting includes grapes, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, peaches and plums. | Oil on paper, signed GDC, late 17th century, Brodie Castle collection

The use of honey or sugar to preserve fruit was common for those who could afford it. This was either done by turning the fruit into preserves (using sugar to suspend it in syrup) or making fruit into ‘cakes’, like an oven-baked patty of candied fruit, which lasted because of the high quantities of sugar. Fruits were also turned into baked goods and desserts like fools, which could be made from things like gooseberries with eggs and rosewater. Fools were common desserts in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as simpler offerings such as biscuits, fruit and nuts.

A blue metal cannister tin is displayed against a plain grey background. It has a slightly damaged label, from which can still be read Candied Peel.
A cylindrical metal canister for candied peel, c. 1900–10, Hill House collection

And of course, fruits were also imported, along with sugars and spices. It is in these imported foodstuffs that the wide reach of Edinburgh’s trading links were visible. John Riddoch, a merchant who lived in Gladstone’s Land in the early 17th century, left an inventory when he died, which listed numerous foreign fruits. Raisins, figs, currants and lemon peel marmalade were named, alongside fruit-based items like wine.

Oranges and lemons were brought to Scotland on trees that were then bought by wealthy households to grow in glasshouses and orangeries. These fruits, alongside pears and almonds, were also sold individually in Edinburgh’s markets after they had come into the city via the port at Leith. They would have been far more expensive than locally grown fruits, beyond the reach of the poor and working classes.

An oil portrait of a young Georgian woman holding a basket filled with peaches, grapes and citrus fruits. She wears a wide brimmed hat, a yellow dress and a blue shawl.
Elizabeth Graham’s gardens at Castle Semple contained vineries, peach & citrus houses, a conservatory and hot house. | Elizabeth Graham of Airth, by William Mosman, c.1748, Gladstone’s Land collection

For those with money to spend, as with meats and other foodstuffs, Edinburgh’s markets and merchant culture meant there would have been plenty of choice when it came to imported fruits. 18th-century cookbooks published in Edinburgh were typically written for the upper-classes; the recipes in them show that ‘exotic’ foreign fruits were in regular use. Susanna MacIver’s Cookery and Pastry from 1773, for example, has recipes including ‘a lemon pudding’, ‘a citron pudding’, ‘to make lemon cheese-cakes’ and ‘to make sweet almond cream’.

Other 18th-century recipes show that it wasn’t just the imported foods themselves that had an influence on Scottish cuisine, but also cooking techniques. In Elizabeth Cleland’s A New and Easy Method of Cookery (1755) there is a recipe for ‘Mangoes’. It instructs the reader how to make a heavily spiced pickle from either apples or cucumbers – not a mango in sight! There’s also a long recipe in MacIver’s cookbook called ‘to mango cucumbers’, which again uses spices to pickle cucumbers. During this period, the word ‘Mangoes’ became synonymous with spiced pickles and chutneys, as the original recipes would have come from countries like India, where mangoes were readily available. In Scotland of course, mangoes did not grow in people’s back courts, nor were they likely to be found on a local foraging route.

A very old glass jar, with a metal screw lid, is displayed against a plain grey background. Chutney can be seen smeared inside. A bright yellow label on the front says: Sweet sliced Barber's Mango chutnee. Manufactured by T W Barber & Co. Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Belattee Works, Limes Road, Croydon.
By the 20th century, mango chutneys were imported. | Square glass preserving jar containing ‘Barber’s Sweet Sliced Mango Chutnee’ c.1900–20, Tenement House collection

Further down in MacIver’s cookbook is a recipe called ‘To make Pickle-lillo, or Indian Pickle’. This is a forerunner to that bright yellow piccalilli we know today, comprising salted ginger, garlic, pepper, mustard, turmeric, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables. Scotland’s participation in international trade (and colonisation) meant that a wide array of ingredients and techniques were appropriated and adapted into Scottish diets, so much so that the name of a fruit most Scottish people would never have eaten was changed to mean something completely different.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that foreign fruits and vegetables became affordable to more people, thanks to tinned foods and refrigeration. Until then, imported fruits and vegetables were reserved for the wealthy. It is safe to assume that while Edinburgh’s markets boasted a wide variety of goods from all corners of the globe, it would be a long time until buying fruit and herbs from Europe and beyond became a cheap, everyday practice. Spices were so expensive in the 16th and 17th century in Scotland that they were often kept in locked cabinets. By the 20th century, spices like cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg were more readily available.

Give this traditional recipe a try:

“To make Lemon Cheese-cakes

Boil the skins of three lemons until they are as tender as they will be; but take off the grate [grated rind] before you boil them: beat them very fine with half a pound of fine sugar; beat six eggs, but keep out half of the whites; cast [whisk] them until they are very light and white; mix them very well; season them with lemon grate and cinnamon; put in a little brandy, and six ounces of boil’d [melted] butter. After mixing all well together, put them in the petty pans, but don’t fill them near full, and fire them in the oven [until set].”
Susanna MacIver, Cookery and Pastry
Edinburgh, Printed for the Author, 1773, p. 133

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About the author: Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her work with the National Trust for Scotland is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Lindsay has written a research report on historical recipes, food and drink as part of an internship with the Trust. She has also been instrumental in creating a new Food Tour for Gladstone’s Land.

[1] Alexander Fenton, Scottish Life and Society: Food of the Scots, vol. 5 (John Donald: Edinburgh, 2007), p. 200
[2] Ibid, p. 208

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