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.
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.
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.
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.”
My copies of these books are –
The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes, F Marian McNeill, Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow and London, Second edition 1963
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)
So there is quite a tale woven around our simple dish of stovies.