IN a year as strange as 2020, perhaps it is fitting that this week the most hotly debated topic in the UK has been the Scotch egg. This humble ball of egg, meat and breadcrumbs has for days graced front pages, radio shows and television news segments. The matter in question: is it a meal or a snack?
The furore began when Cabinet minister George Eustice said that a Scotch egg would count as a substantial meal, and could therefore be served with alcohol by pubs in tier two areas.
Michael Gove, perhaps unaware of the hornet’s nest he was kicking, said shortly afterwards: “A couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned.” He later changed his mind and agreed that it could be a substantial meal, and perhaps he had too big an appetite as a “hearty trencherman”.
Nobody, then, is any clearer on the topic – but what is clear is that the very nature of the Scotch egg has changed over the years since it was invented.
Luxury department store Fortnum & Mason claims to have created the dish in the mid-18th century, touting it as an easy snack for the well-to-do traveller passing through London’s busy Piccadilly. However, this isn’t necessarily the truth. “I’m sure they started life as part of dinner, not as a traveller’s food,” food historian Annie Gray said in 2015. “Plus, if you’re rich enough to shop at Fortnum’s, you’d be stopping at an inn for lunch, not stuffing an egg in your pocket.”
There is another theory that Scottish farmers invented it as an inexpensive dish, hence the “Scotch” part of its name, but others believe it has nothing to do with Scotland and arrived here from India, after British soldiers returned home from the colony having enjoyed the dish nargisi kofta – an egg wrapped inside lamb mince and fried.
Whoever we have to thank (or blame, depending on one’s taste buds), the Scotch egg appears to have enjoyed life as a substantial meal in certain homes in Victorian Britain. In Mrs Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, she advises to serve one for supper with “good brown gravy”. The sausage meat could also, she suggested, be replaced with pounded anchovies.