A pound of flesh

Food - Bee Wilson enjoys a Highland fling

The food of Scotland, as has often been remarked, is socially schizophrenic. Driving upwards through the Highlands last week, most of the shops we stopped at were manned by laconic men whose main trade, it seemed, was in tinned soup, sweeties, plain biscuits, oatmeal of various descriptions, dried food of all kinds and fizzy drinks of particularly lurid hues. Being squeamish southern tourists, we didn't eat any of this long-life junk (actually, we did, scoffing packets of amazingly sweet Orkney fudge). But our main meals were extravagant banquets of the native meats of Scotland. A large group of us shared a vast roast gigot (pronounced "jigget") of mutton, taken from a cousin of the sheep we could see chomping outside our windows (foot-and-mouth not having, thus far, reached the Highlands). There were lobsters and crabs and langoustines, still struggling out of the sea and bought straight from fishermen. We ate oysters in abundance and incomparable rib of beef and felt deeply, improbably aristocratic.

When equipped with such faultlessly fresh produce, all that remains to be done is to prepare it as simply and precisely as possible. With oysters, this is easy. You need just a tea-towel, a short knife, a strong hand and a lemon. But with creatures that need cooking, it is harder. It was striking how many of the conventional timings given for meat and crustaceans proved unsatisfactory. The Highland beef we ate, for example, was a four-rib joint, weighing 12lb. The standard instructions for rare roast beef recommend 20 minutes in a very hot oven, followed by 15 minutes a pound at a slightly lower temperature. For a 12lb joint, this would work out at three hours 20 minutes. Yet our beef had just two hours and was exactly right, pink in the middle but rather crusty on the outside, wonderful in sandwiches with mustard the next day. Any longer would have ruined it.

Even allowing for differences in oven heat, the conventional timing was way off. The trouble with per-pound timings is that they are based on the assumption that you will be eating a middle-sized joint. By the same token, the timings given for huge Christmas turkeys are usually far too long, because they are based on the times needed to cook much smaller poultry, simply multiplied. But oven-cooking doesn't work like this. As Nigella Lawson puts it, the "time decreases as the weight of the bird increases". If a 2.25kg turkey takes one and a half hours to cook, you would expect a 4.5kg one to take three hours. Actually, it takes only two hours, as with our beef.

With lobster, on the other hand, the tendency seems to be towards a one-size-fits-all approach. Our 2lb lobsters, which we had purchased at jaw-dropping expense, were prepared for us by a local, and highly competent cook, a brilliant pudding-maker. We asked her how long she was going to boil the lobsters for and she said, briskly, that she would cook them for a good ten minutes, as she always did. It is churlish to say so now, but they were overcooked. We disguised our disappointment. A fellow guest, who was American, politely commented that Scottish lobsters seemed less sweet than those of Maine. They still tasted fresh and pleasant, but the flesh in the body had somehow gone rubbery, and it was hard to see why this should be considered the most luxurious of all seafood, which is certainly how it was priced.

Not that it was the cook's fault: she was merely following standard advice. In fact, by some standards, she was being quite restrained. When I returned home, I was astonished to read in Rick Stein's English Seafood Cookery that lobsters of this size should be cooked for not ten but 20 minutes. Five minutes would be nearer the mark, however unlikely it may seem when you have a snapping black monster heavy in your hand. A gnarled Scottish fisherman I spoke to warned me never to boil lobsters for any longer than this, and I believed him. Jamie Oliver recommends three minutes a pound in very salty water, which is probably about right. Crabs, on the other hand, can be cooked for much longer without drying out, 15-35 minutes depending on size.

If lobsters and joints of roast meat are all too often overcooked, the opposite fate threatens pieces of fish and meat cooked in a pan. In his Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson explains the instinctive misapprehension many of us feel. "One might think that a piece of fish two inches thick would take twice as long to cook as a piece one inch thick. Not so; if the heat has to go twice as far, it will take four times as long." This explains why, sometimes, you cook a thick steak for what seems like an age, only to find that the inside is still as cold, red and raw as a spoiled townie's cheeks after a walk in the Highlands.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made