(Originally published on IslandVittles.com – May 11, 2011)
Yon fellow wi’ the cast in one eye,” he said in a subdued bellow, indicating the gentleman in question by pointing with his chin. “What d’ye say to him, Brianna?”
“I’d say he looks like the Boston Strangler,” she muttered, then louder, shouting into her cousin’s ear, “He looks like an ox! No!”
“He’s strong, and he looks honest!”
Brianna thought the gentleman in question looked too stupid to be dishonest, but refrained from saying so, merely shaking her head emphatically.
Young Jamie shrugged philosophically and resumed his scrutiny of the would-be bondsmen, walking around those who took his particular interest and peering at them closely, in a way she might have thought exceedingly rude had a number of other potential employers not been doing likewise.
“Bridies! Hot bridies!” A high-pitched screech cut through the rumble and racket of the hall, and Brianna turned to see an old woman elbowing her way robustly through the crowd, a steaming tray hung round her neck and a wooden spatula in hand.
The heavenly scent of fresh hot dough and spiced meat cut through the other pungencies in the hall, noticeable as the old woman’s calling. It had been a long time since breakfast, and Brianna dug in her pocket, feeling saliva fill her mouth.
Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn, (Seal Books, 1997)
Brianna Randall has some cojones. After first travelling back 200 years through the stones at Craigh na Dun, Brianna makes a brief stop at Lallybroch to check-in with the family of the 18th Century Highlander father she’s never met, in order to determine if her mother managed to hook back up with him when she hurled herself through the stones a couple of years before.
Reassured that Claire did indeed reconnect with Jamie Fraser, Brianna, after enjoying her last meal on solid land for at least a couple of months, embarks on a dangerous journey by ship from Inverness to America to find her parents and show them a notice of their death by fire in just over 7 years time — a notice she found amongst a library`s collection of historical records in 1970.
Confused? Then you haven’t read the Drums of Autumn, the 4th installment in the wildly popular Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. And I, along with millions of other fans, really think you should.
The itinerary of our lastest vacation in England, Scotland and Wales was no less ambitious than Brianna’s, if just slightly less dangerous. We landed in London, had a short visit with Howard’s dad as well as his aunt & uncle, had some dinner, caught a show, then drove north to Anglesey, Wales (home to Howard’s mom, step dad, brothers and grandma).
With family and friends spread across a couple of countries, visits back to the UK are always hectic. After the first couple of times, when we arrived back home exhausted and in need of another holiday, we’re now always sure to plan a quiet week on our own somewhere along the way. This time, we decided to go big — and so from Anglesey we drove north to Inverness, where we picked up the boat we hired to cruise the Caledonian Canal, including Loch Ness.
Here we are, ready to set off from Inverness on our very own Highland adventure. This being the 21st century instead of the 18th, we decided against procuring a bondsman, and instead comfortably settled into our historical on-board occupations — he as Captain Howard, and me as Chief Cook, bottle-washer and occasional deck hand.
Sound unfair? My younger, l iberated self would have thought so. However, as a somewhat older woman who has been married a number of years, I have acquired a little wisdom — enough to appreciate the understated and underrated position of power that the person in charge of the food can wield — especially if that someone can dish it out when, and if, she has to. Think Aloysius O’Shaughnessy Murphy — he was no dogsbody, now, was he?
The photos say it all — we had just about the best weather 2 voyagers could ask for. For a couple who prefer to travel during the off-peak times of the year, we generally have pretty good weather karma. But the spectacular late-April weather we had while cruising from Inverness to Fort William and back had even the knarliest, most dour-looking lock keeper carelessly taking the bow line from me while he kept his face turned to the shining warmth of the sun.
After what seemed like quite a long while, he turned to face me, lazily handed me back the rope, and with a face-splitting, toothless grin delivered something along the lines of “Aye, ye’ve got fine weather…it looks set t’ stay for the week”… (long pause) …”an’ ye’ll ha’ missed the midges too.”
No more glorious words have ever been croaked.
Of the 7 days & nights we had on the boat, night 3 and morning 4, which we spent moored beside Invergarry Castle on Loch Oich, will go down as our favourites.
Invergarry Castle was the seat of the Clan MacDonnell of Glengarry. Overlooking Loch Oich on Creagan an Fhithich – the Raven’s Rock – the castle occupied a strategic position during the days of clan warfare. After nearby raids by Clan Mackenzie (who else?) in the early 17th Century, the Rock of the Raven was fortified to include a 6 story tower — the remains of which can still be seen today.
Bonnie Prince Charlie visited the castle in 1745, riding high on the early successes of his Jacobite Rebellion, and he is said to have rested there, in April 1746, after it all went wrong at Culloden. Following the Prince’s defeat, the castle was sacked and partially blown up by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops as part of his systematic suppression of the Highlands.
But they couldn’t get all of those thick walls to fall…much to my Outlandish delight!
We spent the night all alone moored beside the castle ruins. We fell asleep counting the stars through the escape hatch over our heads, and awoke to a hard frost on deck, mist on the water and the most beautiful clear-blue sky you’ve ever seen.
Easily a Top 5 wake-up of all time.
Actually, more like a Top 3.
April in the Highlands is hard to beat. Just make sure you pack your long johns AND your sunscreen. Our rosy (mine) and deeply tanned (Howard’s) faces belied the multiple layers of clothing we wriggled into, still abed and crouched under the low ceiling of our cabin, just so we could get the kettle going in the galley. By noon, we were down to one layer of everything, including a brimmed hat and a thick coating of SPF 45.
Me and my pale-skinned Viking colouring don’t fool around. Howard, whose Maltese roots have left him with skin leaning towards olive, applies sunscreen to humour me and dons a baseball cap because he doesn’t like to brush his hair while on vacation. 😉
photo by David Greenhalgh
But this trip wasn’t all about fun in the sun. There was research to do, and an authentic Bridie worthy of Brianna to be found. To that end, I tried one everywhere I found them on the menu, which was, unsurprisingly, mostly in butchers and pie shops. In addition to this lock-side butchers in Fort Augustus where I ate my Bridie while Howard was in the pub getting us each a pint (hence no photo), there were
one or two three in Inverness, another at a BAD roadside cafe (really, we should have known better) and the last one from Auld Jock`s Pie Shop, where I dragged my mother in for a second lunch while we were wandering up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Out of all of my samples, I was surprised that just one was made with short crust pastry, while the rest used puff. In every last one of them, the filling was ground beef, onion, salt and pepper — except for the vegetarian Bridies — which were filled with turnips. While I love the idea of a veggie Bridie, I don’t love turnips. And in Scotland, the turnip is (I’m just going to say it) an OVER-USED vegetable — especially in vegetarian Bridies.
I’m a self-described locavore — honestly — and I went to a lot of trouble to have local, organic produce, meat and cheese delivered to the boat before we boarded in Inverness (Life (and Food) Aboard the Caledonian Canal). But I’ve always preferred a light-handed approach to turnips, which, unfortunately, seems to be in direct conflict with the approach taken by the entire Scottish food scene at the moment. (I ate a lot of turnips while we were there, OK? And yes, I know they’re pretty much the only thing that grows in Scotland this early in the year. Still — there were a lot. TOO MANY.)
OK, strange turnip rant over.
Haggis? No, not so much. Haggis crisps? Yes please! And no, you can’t have one — nor can you have a sip of my cider. I know I’m smiling, but I suggest you back away before bad things happen.
Even Howard had to go get his own bag. I stayed behind to guard the drinks. (Selfless, I know. People tell me that ALL THE TIME.)
OK, strange Haggis
chip crisp tangent over.
Forfar Bridies, as they are formally known in the homeland, are said to have first been made by a traveling food seller, Maggie Bridie of Glamis, about 125 miles southeast of Inverness. Local lore has her selling her hot, savoury pies at the Buttermarket in Forfar, Forfarshire (now County Angus). While it traditionally uses the same short crust pastry as a Cornish Pasty, the filling of a Bridie is different to its southern cousin. A pasty traditionally contains beef, onion, potato and rutabaga (yellow turnip (it’s everywhere — aagh!)), whereas a Bridie’s ingredients are limited to beef, suet and, most times, onion.
As you may have gathered, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Bridies I sampled on our trip. I was disappointed by the puff pastry and ground beef. There is a big difference between a flaky, buttery shortcrust made by hand and mass-produced, oily puff pastry. There is also a big difference between minced steak and hamburger. In both cases, I prefer the former.
I have no doubt that, somewhere in Scotland, a great authentic Bridie still exists — I’m sure it was just a case of this Outlander not knowing where to go (silly Sassenach) — so, if you know the whereabouts of the ultimate Bridie, please share the wealth!
As for the two Bridies that Brianna bought on the market square in Inverness — the first she savoured herself, the second she shared with her newly acquired bondsmaid Lizzie — Diana is very specific in her description:
A bridie was a plump hot pie in a half-moon shape, filled with minced steak and suet and spiced with onion. A rush of hot, rich juice and flaky pastry filled her mouth, and she closed her eyes in bliss.
Diana Gabaldon, Drums of Autumn, (Seal Books, 1997)
Having found modern-day Bridies to be so much less than bliss making, I think it’s in all our best interests if we go back in time and make them the way they used to. Sort of.
Brianna, born in 1948, would have been accustomed to the taste of suet — even before she travelled through the stones. Prior to the wide-spread popularity of vegetable shortening, animal fats were widely used in baking, and there is no doubt that the crispest, flakiest pastry is made with suet (beef) or lard (pork). However, animal fats have fallen out of favour in recent decades, so that many people today consider suet`s taste unusual, if not unpalatable.
Before we left on our trip, I made a batch of Bridies using suet. Having taken one bite, I doubt there are many alive today who would choose to eat a whole Bridie made with exclusively suet. If you exist, you know who you are. The rest of us should use butter. Although much more expensive than suet, butter was readily available in the 18th Century. If you are determined to incorporate at least a little suet into the recipe for authenticity’s sake, I suggest using it in place of the butter I have called for in the meat filling. Beef fat mixed with meat is more familiar tasting than suet pastry (actually, it’s quite tasty).
Suet used to be found in the at the end of the frozen meat section. It is getting harder to find though, especially at times other than Christmas (traditional mincemeat uses suet). Your butcher may have some buried in his/her freezer — you’ll never know until you ask.
In addition to a hand-minced steak Bridie, I also created my own version of a vegetarian Bridie. For all that authenticity is important, most people these days agree that vegetables are more important. If Claire was around, I’m sure she would approve.
I omitted the turnip and instead opted for potato, onion, celery, carrot, red pepper and extra-aged cheddar. Claire probably would have used at least some turnip — and thrown in the green tops in for good measure. I’ll leave that decision to you.
(Click on the title below for a printable version of the recipe.)
Inspired by Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
Yield (4) 6” Meat & (4) 6” Vegetable Bridies
This shortcrust recipe makes enough for 8 Bridies, and the 2 filling recipes make enough for 4 of each type.
- Sirloin/Top-Round, diced – 1 lb
- Onion, diced – 1 cup
- Butter, diced – ¼ cup
- Salt – ¾ tsp
- Pepper – to taste
- Potato, peeled & diced – 1 medium
- Onion, diced – 1 small
- Celery, diced – 1 medium stalk
- Carrot, diced – 1 medium
- Red Pepper, diced – ½ medium
- Cheddar Cheese, grated – 1 cup, lightly packed
- Butter, diced – ¼ cup
- Salt – ¾ tsp
- Pepper – to taste
- Chili Flakes (optional) – to taste
- Short Crust Pastry, chilled – 1 recipe
- Egg – 1
Mix the minced steak, onion, butter and salt & pepper together in a bowl and refrigerate. Mix the remaining ingredients in a separate bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap to prevent the potato turning brown. Refrigerate until ready to use.
On a lightly floured board, roll out the one of the pasty discs into a rough circle about 1/8-inch thick. Slide a pastry scraper under the dough periodically as you roll it out to prevent sticking. Cut (3) 6-inch circles from the dough, then roll each circle to lengthen into a slight oblong.
Pile 1/4 of the meat filling onto the bottom half of each oblong, leaving a 1/2-inch border to seal. Wet the bottom edge of the pastry with water, and fold the top half over to make a pie. Press, then crimp the edges to seal well, and with a sharp knife make a slit or hole on the top of each pie to vent the steam. Refrigerate while you repeat with the second pastry disc and the vegetarian filling.
Piece the pastry scraps together with a ¼-inch overlap, then roll out and cut 2 more 6” circles and fill with the remaining filling.
Chill all of the filled pies for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C), and move the oven racks to the middle positions.
Beat the egg with 1 teaspoon cold water. Brush the tops of the bridies with the egg wash, then bake for 30-40 minutes until golden brown, turning a rotating the pans halfway through.
Serve them hot, as Brianna enjoyed hers, or cold, as a 21st Century snack on the go. They also make a great dinner when served with a great big salad on the side. (And of that, Claire would definitely approve.)
Short crust pastry has a reputation for being tricky to work with. Here’s a few tips:
- To use the pastry scraps, piece them together with a ¼” overlap, then roll out, covering holes with scraps as needed.
- To crimp the pie shut, you basically roll the edge of the dough under itself as you work left to right. I found this video gave the best angle of all the “how-to crimp a pasty” videos I watched. There’s no audio, but it’s clear what the cook is doing, even if it is a little trickier than her old hands make it look.
- Practice makes perfect. Your 4th or 5th batch of shortcrust will be infinitely better than your first couple of tries. Have faith.
© 2011 Outlander Kitchen/Theresa Carle-Sanders. All rights reserved. Don’t Steal — Karma’s Real.