In 1978, the Shetland Times in Lerwick published A Shetland Cook Book by Jenni Simmons. Simple, even plain in the Shetland manner, these dishes have considerable appeal notwithstanding their economy. The authenticity of the book is undeniable, and Simmons in common with every other of the few authors to address the history of Shetland foodways (including us at britishfoodinamerica) reproduces Margaret Stout’s classic formula for saucermeat, or sassermaet, the highly spiced Shetland staple.
Other than that, just about everything in A Shetland Cook Book is audacious, even astonishing in its austerity.
Except in one eccentric respect, and except for a single outlying recipe, the handful of puddings in the Cook Book are simple even by Shetland standards. Shetlanders, it seems, never took to the pudding cloth that revolutionized British kitchens in the seventeenth century. “Pudding skins,” Simmons advises her reader, “can be had from butchers in Shetland.” They are the stomachs of sheep that require overnight brining before they may be cut into lengths… like a cloth. (Simmons 10) Notwithstanding the arbitrary inconvenience, Shetland recipes invariably specify the use of a ‘skin’ rather than cloth for steaming puddings both savory and sweet.
Here, however, is that exception, a pudding steamed in a basin instead of a ‘skin.’ Simmons calls it “a simple meat pudding,” which amounts to a breathtaking understatement. The recipe in full:
“Fill a greased pudding bowl nearly to the top with mince. Cover with buttered paper (or cooking foil) and set in a pan of water. Steam 1 hour. Turn out of a bowl after a few minutes and serve with a thick gravy.” (Simmons 2)
The thick gravy offered by Simmons is as plain as the single shot ‘pudding’ it accompanies, and accompanies a number of other dishes as well. To make her universal Shetland thick gravy:
“heat a knob of butter and add a tablespoon of wholemeal flour with a teaspoon of gravy flour [presumably something like Wondra to prevent lumping]. All the butter should be taken up. Then add a breakfastcupful of water, slowly. Stir all the time and cook gently till thick. Add salt and pepper. Try adding a dash of sherry, too.”
This may be the first gravy we have encountered that lacks even milk or stock, the alltime winner of the austerity sweepstakes.
The other puddings in the Cook Book are more involved but not by much. Burstin puddings combine the toasted and ground bere, an ancient strain of barley, called burstin, “with pig lard and a little salt.” Simmons does not supply proportions.
She describes spaarls as “puddings made from any meat scraps, well minced, with oatmeal. Season well. They can be stewed in water. “Not traditional,” notes Simmons, “but very good, is to eat them sliced in a thick, rich gravy” which is the same sauce she serves with the simple meat pudding. Spaarl is even more economical than its simple sibling.
Shetlanders call their black pudding hoonska, and make it with nothing but cooked blood, flour and suet, while mellie pudden “is made of oatmeal as a base with chopped or minced suet, flour, salt and pepper and fine-chopped onion (if liked).” (Simmons 10) In this world even an onion is optional.
The other pudding recorded by Simmons, curny pudding, sounds a lot like an even plainer preparation than the puddeens described by Marian Armitage thirty-nine years later in Shetland Food and Cooking. Both recipes call for the traditional casing of stomach. Simmons’ version is easy to make if you use a cloth instead and the absence of measurements is not quite an impediment with the exercise of common sense and some reference to Armitage:
“Mix fine oatmeal and flour in equal quantities. Add chopped suet to currants and/or sultanas [raisins] which have been soaked overnight in water (to make the fruit more juicy).” (Simmons 10)
Based on the proportions provided by Armitage, choose equal amounts of flour, dried fruit, oatmeal and suet, then steam the pudding for a little over four hours. As Armitage says of her puddeens, Simmons insists that curny pudding is good “fried in thick slices with bacon.”
She disagrees with Armitage, however, on the authenticity of the dish, even in her even plainer guise. “This pudding,” she warns, “is too rich to be traditional fare.” (Simmons 11) What a stickler.