There are lots of things I like about waking up in Scotland. The inevitable half-empty whisky glass by the bed is one. The probability that a good part of my family will already be squabbling downstairs is always a cheering prospect too. But, perhaps best of all, there’s the Scottish breakfast in all its superiority – the upstanding porridge of unimpeachable rectitude, the oat-studded black pudding, and, best of all, the hot, buttery tattie scones, which render the English fried slice as dull and workaday as toast. (Perhaps fortunately for both my waistline and my liver, I don’t visit as often as I’d like.)
For those south of the border unfamiliar with this delicacy, known as fadge or farls in Ireland, it is more like a flat bread than a fluffy teatime scone, traditionally made with leftover potatoes (“usually just after the midday meal, when [they're] still warm”, according to F Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen) and cooked fast on a hot griddle.
As well as being a peerless accompaniment to a fry-up, they are delicious hot with melted butter, or cold and blini-style with smoked fish and cream cheese. Proper Scots even like them scone-style with jam and a cup of strong tea. They’re readily available in their homeland, but I’ve found them sadly difficult to source elsewhere – happily, they’re pretty easy to make at home, even with a hangover.
No argument about the variety: “as mealy as possible”, as painter Victor MacClure writes in his memoir Good Appetite My Companion, quoted by Elizabeth David in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery, a book with a wider scope than its name suggests.
Traditionally these floury potatoes would have been leftovers, as McNeill suggests, but assuming we’re making these from scratch, I’d suggest cooking them in their skins, as Darina Allen does in her Ballymaloe Cookery Course; even once peeled, they retain an intense potato flavour that stands out in the crowd. Jamie Oliver, who first encountered the “beautiful” tattie scone in Glasgow, doesn’t bother peeling them at all, which works for his thicker cakes, but proves too chewy in a thinner scone. The skins are very easy to remove once cooked anyway, so you’re at least saving yourself a few minutes with the peeler.
As per McNeill’s description, Allen, Annie Grierson (a Dumfries cook whose recipe is included in Mark Hix’s British Regional Food), Lawrence Keogh, head chef at the Wolsey, and Sue Lawrence (author of Scots Cooking) all specify that they should be hot. Oliver leaves them to cool, while MacClure demands “cold boiled potatoes”. I find the cold versions difficult to work, and, in Oliver’s case, impractical, as it’s quite hard to mix butter into cool mash. Warm it is, but preferably as dry as possible: it’s a good idea to return them to the pan to steam a little before mashing, as Lawrence suggests.
Flour and raising agents
Flour is used to turn the mash into a dough. Allen uses a scant two tablespoons to 900g spuds, and her scones are the most potatoey of the lot – more like a cross between a baked potato and a croquette than a pancake. That said, hers are an unusual shape (of which more later), and it would be hard to roll such a fragile dough much thinner.
The problem I come up against is getting the ratio of flour to potato right: too little and they fall apart; too much and the scones taste raw and gummy. A ratio of five parts raw potato to one part flour seems the most common, but I think that, like Keogh, we can get away with less: four to one allows the potato flavour to come through, but is still rollable with care.
Lawrence and Oliver put baking powder in their scones, but I’m not sure what this adds – certainly they don’t seem lighter or fluffier than the others, and I’m doubtful if it could get to work during such a brief cooking time, especially in such a heavy dough.
Butter and milk are the most common fats used to bind the potatoes and flour together, though Allen adds beaten egg as well, which makes it a bit wet for shaping. MacClure and Grierson both use only milk, which I suspect is the more traditional addition, milk being cheaper than butter, but butter, for the decadent, gives an undeniably richer flavour. If you’re just looking for something to eat with your fry-up, then milk will do nicely, but if you’d like a scone that stands on its own, you need butter, and in some quantity too. Keogh uses one part butter to six parts potato, which is a little excessive: Lawrence’s 1:10 seems more reasonable if we’re going to spread it with butter later. Which, of course, we are.
Generous seasoning is vital with such a simple dish, though, as I find Lawrence’s half a teaspoon slightly overpowering, I’m going to recommend that you do so to taste. Keogh adds ground mace for a peppery flavour, while Oliver goes for snipped chives. Both are great ideas if you’re serving them with scrambled eggs or smoked salmon, but for a more all-purpose scone, I’m leaving them out.
Shaping and cooking
The most difficult part of this recipe proves to be shaping the scone into anything that would pass muster with a discerning Edinburgh cook. Allen gets round this by leaving the scone a good inch thick, which means it just requires a little tidying up around the edges, but this makes it into more of a potato cake than the scones I’m used to – definitely not something you could spread with jam, should the occasion demand. Oliver leaves his 2cm thick, and Keogh only 5mm thinner, which presents a similar problem – it is impossible to cook them right through in a hot pan, and I can taste raw flour in the finished scones.
It is more usual, in my experience, to roll the dough somewhat thinner: Lawrence goes for 5mm and MacClure “very thinly, less than an eighth of an inch”, or 3mm, like Grierson. I like Lawrence’s best: thin enough to cook through (and, more importantly, spread with butter, roll up and eat), but thick enough to allow a contrast between the crust and the fluffy interior. McNeill instructs us to “cut into bannocks (using a meat plate) and then into farls”; in other words, into a round, and then into triangles. Pricking the dough all over with a fork will also help it cook through.
Allen bakes her farls in an 180C oven for 15-20 minutes, which works because of the thickness of her recipe, but would turn a thinner scone into a crispbread. Much, much better to fry them in a griddle or a heavy-based frying pan, greased with butter or bacon fat – although if you’re going to make a lot, vegetable oil might be a better choice, as butter heated in a pan for too long will, of course, burn. (Oliver’s olive oil, however, is just plain wrong.) Allen and Keogh both dust their dough with flour before cooking, which gives them a lovely crisp crust, but be careful not to overdo it. Save that for the scones themselves.
The perfect tattie scones
(Makes 24 triangles)
500g floury potatoes, unpeeled
125g plain flour, plus extra to dust
Put the potatoes in a pan, cover with water, salt generously and bring to the boil. Simmer until cooked through, then drain well and return to the hot pan for a minute to dry off. Peel off the skins as soon as you can handle them.
Add 40g butter and mash, then stir in the flour and season to taste. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 5mm thick, then cut around a side plate to shape. Dust lightly with flour and prick all over with a fork.
Heat the remaining butter in a griddle or large heavy based frying pan over a medium-high heat and then fry until golden on both sides (about 3-5 minutes). Cut into triangles and serve immediately, or cool in a tea towel for later.
Tattie scones, totties, farls or fadges: whatever you call them, how do you like them? And, at the risk of starting a ruck, is the full Scottish the best breakfast in Britain?
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