Stovies — and when is a cookbook more than a collection of recipes?

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Two classic Scottish cookery books

I mentioned recently that our village hall was having a stovies evening and some of you asked what stovies were. Nowadays I suppose the traditional dish of stovies gets adapted to whatever is left at the end of a winter week in fridge and store cupboard. Stovies lends itself to adaptations and is a wonderfully warming meal for a dreich winter evening.

To give the correct recipe for stovies, or stoved potatoes (from the French étuvée meaning braised) I consulted my copy of The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill, journalist, traveller and authority on Scottish folklore and cooking who was also involved with the women’s suffrage movement. Since its publication in 1929 her book has become a classic, still bought and cherished, providing an account of eating and drinking in Scotland throughout the ages, along with recipes for national dishes.

Scots Kitchen Stovies

Stovies in the Scots Kitchen – two recipes for a warming winter dish.

Two recipes are given for stovies. The first attributed to Lady Clark of Tillypronie (an estate near Tarland in Aberdeenshire). As a child and then a diplomat’s wife, Lady Clark travelled extensively, collecting recipes between 1841 and her death in 1897. The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie was published by her husband in 1909 and has since been republished. In this recipe, potatoes are placed in a pot with a little water, salt and slivers of butter and simmered slowly and gently until soft.

But the recipe everyone knows as stovies is what Marian McNeill refers to as A Cottage Recipe. Here sliced onions are sautéed in beef dripping (I use oil with a little butter added and often add some chopped bacon or salami). When the onions are coloured add sliced potatoes and stir around. In some recipes lamb or other leftover meat is also added. Add water to almost cover (I also crumble in a stock cube, perhaps a squirt of tomato puree and often sliced carrots and whatever other vegetables are to hand), then simmer until soft. My family likes it served with a sprinkling of nutty oatmeal. Warming food for a Scottish winter.

Scottish cookery

My copy of F Marian McNeill’s classic cookery book The Scots Kitchen

Many of the recipes in The Scots Kitchen are attributed to Meg Dods and her Cook and Housewife’s Manual. This is where a collection of recipes becomes more than a cookbook, for Mistress Margaret Dods of the Cleikum Inn, St Ronan’s (in Peeblesshire in the Scottish Borders) was a literary character — landlady of the Cleikum Inn in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well, published in 1823. The Meg Dods character is thought to have been based on Miss Marian Ritchie, the landlady of the Howgate Inn, near Edinburgh, where Scott often stayed during fishing trips when a student.

Meg Dods - who is she?

Meg Dods’ Cookery – a book much referred to by Marian McNeill and other Scottish cookery writers.

Such was the success of the Meg Dods character that three years later one of the earliest Scottish cookery books was published under the name Meg Dods’ Cookbook: The Cook and Housewife’s Manual. The author may be fictitious but the recipes are real. The actual author was Mrs Isobel Christian Johnstone, wife of Scott’s publisher. And the opening chapter is said to have been written by Scott himself.

Mrs Johnstone was an author who became the editor of a well known magazine, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, a monthly periodical founded in 1832 and an important venue for liberal political views, as well as contemporary cultural and literary developments. Isobel Johnstone was an early feminist and is reputedly the first paid woman editor of a major Victorian periodical. By all accounts she was a feisty woman with a great sense of humour. She obviously liked good food, too!

The Cook and Housewife’s Manual became extremely popular, indeed it is still sought after, and its popularity no doubt increased when Marion McNeill wrote it was “a work not unworthy to be placed alongside its French contemporary, Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût.”

title page

Meg Dods’ Cookery title page

My copies of these books are –

The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes, F Marian McNeill, Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London, Second edition 1963

Cleikum Club

The beginning of the chapter on the Cleikum Club from The Scots Kitchen

The Cook and Housewife’s Manual: A practical system of modern domestic cookery and family management, By Mistress Margaret Dods of the Cleikum Inn, St Ronan’s, Eleventh Edition Revised, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, Tweeddale Court, London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co., 1864 (first pub. 1826)

St Ronan's Culinary Club

Institution of the St Ronan’s Culinary Club from Meg Dods’ Cookery

So there is quite a tale woven around our simple dish of stovies.


About jingsandthings

I am me. What do I like? Colour Shapes Textures Paintings, photographs, sculptures, woven tapestries, wonderful materials. The love of materials probably comes from my father who was a textile buyer, and I grew up hearing the names of mills and manufacturers which sounded magical and enticing. Glass in all its soft and vibrant colours and flowing shapes, even sixties glass which makes its own proud statement. A book I can immerse myself in. Meals with family or friends with lots of chat and laughter (and probably a bottle or two of wine). The occasional trip abroad to experience the sights, sounds, food, conversation, quality of light and warmth of other countries. To revel in differences and be amazed by similarities. I like to create and to experience, to try and to achieve. And then there are words – read, heard, written at my keyboard, or scrawled on sticky notes, or along the edges of dog-eared supermarket receipts excavated from the unexplored nooks of my handbag. What do I dislike? Cold Snow Bad design Fast food Condescension
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12 Responses to Stovies — and when is a cookbook more than a collection of recipes?

  1. Thanks for the history and cooking lesson – stovies is a great word and makes me think immediately of comfort food. 🙂

    • Potatoes grow well in Scotland so we have lots of dishes with them and with a climate that’s often cold and damp in the winter, potato dishes are warming and comforting. They also used to be cheap but in recent years the price of potatoes has rocketed.

  2. thaygoulart says:

    Wow that potato recipe sounds like something I could try — yes I am a horrible cook! Haha.
    It’s been a long time since I commented, sorry for that, been busy. Your Brazilian friend/follower is back now 😀 keep up the good work!

    • Good to hear from you again. Everyone is busy during the summer enjoying the weather instead of sitting in front of a computer. Stovies are not the sort of dish that you can really make a mess of. You just bung the stuff in the pot and it does the rest. Meant to say sweet potato is a good addition.

  3. Sheila says:

    I had never heard of stovies but it’s already getting to be the right kind of weather for them! Looking forward to more heartwarming food like that. Hope you had a fun summer!

    • Yes, the trees have started to turn here, and the nights are chillier. Autumn is on its way. Glad you have had a productive summer. Like you I’ve been working head down on a book. We have a different system here and as it’s almost impossible to find an agent or publisher I decided to self-publish. A lot of work, but it feels quite an achievement. Hope your book goes well.

  4. I love the cover of Meg Dod´s. That might be as far as I’ll go as I’m an not exactly adventurous in the kitchen.

    Ordered your book from Amazon. My Christmas read is set for when I get back.

    • Yes, the cover is very much of its period. I don’t spend much time in the kitchen these days — stir-fries and salads are quick and easy. How lovely that you have bought my book. Rather quirky but hope you enjoy your Christmas read.

  5. Chris says:

    I love poring through old cookbooks. Such treasure troves of old-fashioned recipes and lore. And the language alone makes it worthwhile. As for the stovies, I grew up with something very similar to that. We ate it whenever we needed a change from mashed potatoes.

    • Yes, lots of social history can be unearthed too. Scottish history has French influences and this can be seen in old cookery books where lots of French names are used in Scottish dishes. Really fascinating to see what was eaten by the upper classes. We tend to think many of the foods we eat now are recent introductions, but not so. And in days before refrigeration, cooks could be extremely adventurous with herbs and spices in order to hide the taste of meat that had been around too long.

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