(First printed in the Heb Magazine 2010)
By Eileen Bell
Champagne. Roquefort, Gorgon-zola, Stilton. Parma ham, Melton Mowbray pork pies, Arbroath Smokies.
All of these have in common a certain status, tying each product firmly to its own geography and history – legally. And soon enough, Stornoway Black Pudding could be next on the list.
Of course, black pudding is not strictly a Lewis invention, or even a Scottish one. Kitchens all over the world have been used to manufacture and cook up some form of blood sausage; French, Spanish, Finnish, Russian and Thai versions exist. There is even a mention of blood sausage in Homer’s Odyssey, humanity’s oldest known literary work.
The Stornoway version, however, is the best. At least, that’s what the town’s butchers say. And if popularity and sales figures are any kind of indication, the public agrees with them.
Stornoway is lucky to have four quite distinct black puddings. Just as two fans of Girls Aloud can have a bitter falling out over whether Nadine or Cheryl is more talented, two random Stornoway townies will have their different opinions on which is the best Stornoway Black Pudding.
While relations among the butchers themselves remain cordial, there is a long-lived competitiveness bubbling under the surface; but in the name of marketing, they have clubbed together for the common good.
The four butchers - Alex France and Sons on Westview Terrace, Macleod and Macleod on Church Street, WJ Macdonald on Francis Street, and Charles Macleod Butchers at Ropework Park - want to keep membership of the Stornoway Black Pudding Club as exclusive as possible; so they’re taking their case to Brussels.
The process may take two or three years, but in the end, Stornoway’s butchers will be able to rest easy in the knowledge that black pudding lovers will accept no imitations. The journey towards making Stornoway Black Pudding an exclusive brand protected by law has begun.
This is a tidewater mark in the history of black pudding. While the recipe and method have changed little in a hundred years, it is not all that long ago that black puddings were being made from scratch in kitchens throughout the Isles.
In his book ‘The Guga Hunters’, Donald S Murray describes the experience of, as a small boy, watching his Aunt Bella perform this most necessary culinary ritual.
She would have the sheep’s intestines curled up in front of her in an earthenware bowl, a few other ingredients, too, set out and ready to play their own part in this recipe. Sheep’s blood, rich and crimson. Oatmeal. Some coarse salt. Pepper. Five or six onions.
And I’d watch with gory fascination as my aunt spooned that red mixture into the intestines, slowly and precisely, taking care not to spill or waste a drop. She’d squeeze it occasionally with arthritic fingers, ensuring it was all finely and evenly spread out, trying to prevent, too, any clots from forming in the blood. And then when it was three-quarters full, she would take a piece of string, and tighten a knot fast around it. It would be plunged into a large pan of boiling water bubbling on the stove, a witch’s brew prepared with love and kindness.
That’s the traditional view of black pudding: nutrition and thrift, all rolled into one tightly-packed cylindrical package. In recent years however, the world’s top chefs have been helping the maragan dubh find its very own echelon of cool: it’s no longer just for breakfast.
Gordon Ramsay has been known to serve it as a filling lunch, sautéed and served with Jersey Royal potatoes, sage and balsamic cherry tomatoes, and a few crisp salad leaves.
Some chefs take it a step further, finding the spicy dark matter to be complemented by the sweetest fruits. Pop some black pudding on the griddle or the George Foreman along with nice, thick slices of mango or apple. Layer them on the plate, and serve with something simple.
Or, simply pop them into a salad with a few other fine yet simple ingredients: rocket leaves, bacon, buffalo mozzarella, and walnuts. Add a bit of French dressing, or keep it super-simple with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Once you’ve tried all four of the Stornoway versions, have a go at two other island incarnations, also made to an ancient Hebridean recipe. The one and only Harris Black Pudding is made by AD Munro in Tarbert, and a Ness version is produced by Cross Stores.