In a surprise move, our quest plays out through London rather than Scotland, ranging from the capital’s fanciest food emporium to a prize-winning backstreet pub
WORDS: PETER GRUNERT
PHOTOGRAPHS: STEVE RYAN
LATE AT NIGHT, DRIVING along a motorway, I have the munchies. A Scotch egg calls to me from the fridge of a nearby service station, beckoning a purchase. As I bite at its unyielding shell of parched crumbs and processed meat, a rubberised egg bounces about within. This controversial snack object – both friend and foe – will repeat on me for the rest of the journey, imprinting a lesson sure to last until… the next time.
On the flip side of the Scotch egg’s reputation for mass-produced salty blandness, it has become a favourite in gastropubs, street food stalls, and creative restaurants inclined to put the word ‘playful’ on their menu. My hunt is now on for the very best, departing on a stomach-rubbing, chin-wiping tour of discovery through central London.
For context, I begin in the literary haven of Bloomsbury, the home of Persephone Books – a specialist in reprinting and selling long-forgotten novels, diaries and cookery books, mostly by female writers. Among the eclectic treasures on their shelves is A New System of Domestic Cookery, written by Maria Eliza Rundell and first published in 1806. Its pages are home to such historic treats as giblet pie, mock turtle (four ways!), and the first published recipe for a Scotch egg: ‘‘Boil hard five pullets’ eggs [a pullet is a young hen], and, without removing the white, cover completely with fine relishing forcemeat, in which let scraped ham, or chopped anchovy, bear a due proportion. Fry of a beautiful yellow brown, and serve with a good gravy in the dish.’’
Forcemeat is, in this case,a minced meat combined with spices and breadcrumbs before being bound with beaten eggs. Mrs Rundell describes it as being ‘‘a considerable part of good cooking, by the flavour it imparts to whatsoever dish it is added to, if properly made.’’
Before even Mrs Rundell’s recipe came to public attention, London’s grandest food store – Fortnum & Mason – is claimed to have invented the Scotch egg. I pass between the hubbub of black cabs and Routemaster buses shunting through Piccadilly, before giving a nod to the statues of Mr Fortnum and Mr Mason – stood, in their Georgian finery, either side of the entrance to the business they founded 311 years ago. At the base of an immense spiral staircase is the delicatessen, its cabinets crammed with boiled lobsters, many things en croûte, and Scotch eggs in a variety of flavours – including jalapeño, smoked streaky bacon, caramelised onion and, simply, ‘‘traditional’’.
Traditional, that is, to a point acceptable to contemporary tastes.‘‘The story is that they were invented circa 1738, and originally known as scotched eggs,’’ says Fortnum & Mason’s archivist, Dr Andrea Tanner. ‘‘Scotched implies that the eggs were added to in some form. At that time, the egg would have been a pullet’s egg, and the sausage meat we know today would have been more like forcemeat – so much stronger in flavour. ‘‘Scotched’’ also tends to mean that anchovy – or anchovy essence – would have been added to this mixture, so the snack would have packed a punch.’’
The delicacy would have originally been prepared in the store for travellers: ‘‘Piccadilly had several coaching inns on it in the early 18th century, and Fortnum’s supplied baskets full of good things to eat and drink for people setting off south and west from near their premises,’’ says Dr Tanner.
There’s no trace of fishiness in the mixture for the traditional Scotch eggs sold in Fortnum & Mason today. Deli assistant Annie Dago hands me a choice of cold and warm versions, and it becomes clear why warm is the serving recommendation made here: the melted fat of high-quality pork sausage meat blends sensationally with thyme, parsley and just-cooked egg, the yolk more inclined to ooze than dribble. My taste buds have been carried to an alternative universe to the services at Watford Gap, but have we hit Scotch egg perfection already? Time to take this quest in a radically different direction, to Marylebone via India and Kenya.
Cook and patron Ravinder Bhogal describes her restaurant Jikoni (which means kitchen in Swahili) as ‘‘very un-restaurant, like an extension of our home. There’s a lot of cross-table chatter here in the evenings.’’ Ravinder was born in Nairobi to Indian parents: ‘‘I grew up in the chaos of a Sikh family where mass catering was the norm. My cousins would be climbing mango trees in the garden while, at first, I would have to be dragged into the kitchen. But my uncle said you must do service in life, and to feed people is one way you can. The thought captured me.’’
Ravinder brings the culinary influences she grew up with to her cooking: ‘‘The food at Jikoni is multicultural, just like London.’’ The prawn toast Scotch egg served here – a signature dish – pushes the boundaries of what a Scotch egg really can be. ‘‘Who doesn’t love a Scotch egg, and who doesn’t love a Chinese prawn toast?’’ she suggests.
These are two-chomps-and-they’re-gone treats. The outer coating is so light and crisp to bite through, made with a mix of Japanese panko breadcrumbs and Thai prawn crackers. Chopped king prawns surround a soft-boiled quail’s egg, with each mouthful delivering a fantastically intense hit of chilli, garlic, ginger, the sweetness of the prawns and the richness of the egg. Balance comes from the tang of thin slices of pickled cucumber and a banana ketchup made with a blend of Indian spices – a recipe Ravinder keeps a secret. ‘‘You know, some suggest the origin of the Scotch egg is actually the nargisi kofta,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a Mughal-era dish made with minced meat wrapped around an egg, served in a curry sauce. I’m not so keen on the idea of gravy with my Scotch egg though.’’ I want to lounge among Jikoni’s brilliantly coloured block-printed fabrics and tuck into some more, but I have an appointment to keep on the other side of town.