There met last week in a north London pub a group of people who like sausage and egg. They were quite an august group as groups meeting on a Tuesday night in Islington pubs go. Their number included Bob Granleese, Mr Food at The Guardian, ace French chef Henry Harris, foodie scenester Hugh Wright and Fay Maschler, the higher divinity of food reviewers who has been making restaurateurs wince in the pages of the London Evening Standard since Moses was a lad (well, since 1972, anyway).
The sausage they were particularly interested in is the sort that is wrapped in a lover’s embrace with an egg, bread-crumbed and served as a fist-sized meal. The Canonbury Tavern was hosting the 2015 Scotch egg challenge. Along with the judges, who I already mentioned, 20 chefs, split across two categories – traditional and unconventional – had assembled to kick at the boundaries of egg-based creativity.
Now, for some people the presence of an assemblage of people in your local pub eating dozens of Scotch eggs is about as welcome a thing to find as, say, accidentally wandering into a convocation of methylated spirit and turpentine drinkers, to slightly misquote PG Wodehouse. Scotch eggs divide people. When you mention them to some they pull a face as if chewing a bee. And, if I am honest, I can see why. The reason is simple: supermarkets.
For years, if you were buying Scotch eggs, you were buying them from Morrisons and Tesco or, God help you, the Co-op. They were a byword for smelly lunchboxes, eggs like golf balls and sausage meat that probably had never even seen a pig – or so it seemed when you had to eat one or else feel the inside of your tummy chew on itself until home time.
They were always a humble food. Fortnum & Mason, the supremely fancy royal grocer, may have claimed to have invented them in the third decade of the 18th century – though the first recipe appeared much later in Mrs Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery of 1809 – but they weren’t meant to be some particularly meaty hors d’oeuvres. They were, in fact, a travel snack that you could keep in your hanky and then eat while flying across the country in your coach and eight.
It is perhaps the marriage of that lineage – the hanky and the lunchbox – that has contrived to make the Scotch egg as unpopular as a bad cold to lots of people. But it shouldn’t be, because it is an upwardly mobile food. And if proof was needed as to how high it has climbed, one need only look at the line-up of people judging the quality, and the hunger-inducing list of eggs created by the winners. There was a shoulder and fennel number created by The Gypsy Queen in Kentish Town, a best Somerset pork version from The Notley Arms, Taunton, and the winner of the traditional category, a luscious confection from Chef Calum Franklin from Holborn Dining Room, involving a judicious quantity of white pudding. Not convinced yet? Well how about the winner of the “unconventional” category, Nick Moloney, of the Princess Victoria in Shepherd’s Bush, with his Thai Scotch egg.
To quote the 1970s Scottish rockers, AWB, let’s go round again.
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