It’s all in the name. The clootie, as anyone of Scots descent knows well enough, is a cloth. And the dumpling, as prepared in Scotland, is nothing like that delicate little envelope of Chinese descent that encloses a prawn. Nor is it the robust white puffball stuffed with apples or plums you might expect to find among cooks who follow the German tradition.
A boiled fruitcake with a catchy name
The clootie dumpling, like English Christmas pudding in its original spherical form, is a boiled fruitcake as prepared by those who like to cook the way their grannies cooked in the highlands and islands of Scotland. (Particularly those fortunate enough to live on the west coast islands, the silver sisters of the Hebrides.) In the old days, a clootie dumpling would have been savory rather than sweet and dropped unceremoniously into a boiling pot along with tatties and neeps — potatoes and turnips — and maybe a handful of barley and a scrap of bacon from last year’s salting-down of the household pig. Since the sweetening ingredients — imported dried fruits and sugar — were expensive and hard to come by on the islands, the clootie dumpling in its modern form — spiced as well as fruited — was only prepared on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
My own experience of the clootie dumpling (and the recipe I give below) was acquired on the beautiful island of Mull, largest of the Inner Isles of the Hebrides, in the little kitchen of my neighbor Chrissie MacDonald’s crofthouse. Her two-up two-down is just around the bay from the cottage where my father-in-law, island-born, spent his retirement and taught his grandchildren to drop bent pins baited with worms to catch the little speckled brown trout in the stream below the kale patch.
An extravagant treat for a crofter
A cottage is not the same as a croft. A croft, those of Scots descent will also know, is not the dwelling, but the land — those few acres of arable turf a crofting family had the right to farm. There were common grazings associated with the croft, and the right to gather nuts and berries from the woodland and fish from the shoreline. Along with such rights came responsibilities. These were primarily to maintain the viability of the croft but included an obligation to assist the community in pulling the boats above the tide line in the winter and taking care of widows and orphans, the sick and the elderly.
No islander would ever deny the crofting life was hard. Nevertheless, until the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 and the imposition of English laws and taxes, every man (and woman) on the islands counted himself the equal of his fellows, from the most powerful chieftain to the humblest and poorest of crofters. And while a crofting household had access to those crops which could be grown (oats and barley) or caught (fish and game) or husbanded (the household cow), and most kept chickens, a pig to eat up the scraps and a cow to provide fresh milk and butter, such money as there was came from the sale of beef-cattle, sheep-meat and wool, all of which had to be transported to the mainland.
A clootie dumpling could empty a household’s store-cupboard at a single stroke, though the expectation was that generosity would be returned. And money in the bank, at least in the those days, was money safely invested.
A clootie dumpling can be served hot as a dessert or cold as a cutting-cake. If hot, serve it with custard or cream and treacle. As a cake, it should be thinly sliced, buttered and accompanied by a cup of strong tea with milk and plenty of sugar. For those who might be in need of fortification, a slug of Scots whisky does the trick nicely.
6 ounces self-rising flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons powdered cinnamon
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
6 ounces brown bread crumbs
6 ounces suet or grated cold butter
4 ounces currants
6 ounces golden raisins
6 ounces muscovado sugar
2 tablespoons treacle or molasses
About 1½ cups milk
- Choose a clean linen cloth about 2 feet square and drop it in a large pot of boiling water.
- Mix all of the ingredients together to make a soft batter, stirring until well-blended. (There should be no pockets of dry flour.)
- Carefully remove the cloth from the boiling water, wring it out, then spread it on the table and dredge with plain flour, smoothing it out with your hands.
- Drop all of the batter in the middle of the square and tie the cloth over the top diagonal corner to corner to form a pouch.
- Suspend the dumpling by its topknot on a wooden spoon across the top of the pan, allowing the dumpling to sit comfortably in the boiling water. Return the water to the boil, turn the heat down, cover loosely and leave to simmer for 2 to 3 hours (suet takes longer than butter), adding additional boiling water if necessary.
- Transfer the dumpling in its cloot to a colander in the sink and allow to drain for a few minutes.
- Untie the cloth and transfer the dumpling to a roasting pan. Place in a low, 140-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes to dry the surface and give the dumpling a shine.
Leave to cool, then cut into slices.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Photos, from the top:
A clootie dumpling. Credit: Flickr / Matito
An original watercolor depicting boats as seen from the beautiful Scottish Island of Mull. Credit: Elisabeth Luard