Old Scots recipes

If you are of a delicate disposition, do not read on! This is a recipe from a little 1960’s (or maybe earlier) cookery booklet by Janet Murray and it’s for ‘potted heid’. If I mention that ‘heid’ is the Scottish spelling of head, and it involves that part of a cow’s body, you may not wish to read further! If however, you’re interested in how people used to cook and eat, even if we wouldn’t cook in this way now, then read on!

Potted heid

Janet writes: I am always amused at the old Scots recipes for potted heid because they begin ‘Take one cow head and two ox heels’, and I would not like to insist on this in my butcher’s, helpful as he is. A whole head makes an awful lot of potted heid and I use half a head and one heel, or ox cheek and two heels.

  • half a cow’s head, cut into convenient pieces by your butcher
  • 1 cow heel
  • salt
  • salt and pepper

Janet continues: here is the method:
wash it thoroughly in cold salty water and leave it to soak overnight in salty water.
Put it in a roomy pan and just cover  and no more with cold water. Bring it slowly to the boil and skim well. Cook it slowly for 4 hours and on no account let the water boil in. Make sure the meat is tender before you take the pan from the fire. And remember the meat must be very tender, and the heel falling to pieces, if you are to get sufficient gelatine from it to set the meat.

This roomy pan must be massive! Cows have very big heads, and imagine the very big muscles of the Scottish housewives who are lugging the pan full of water and head about the kitchen. It’s interesting that Janet refers to taking the pan from the fire – I’m sure most town and city people would have had modern style cookers in the 1950’s and 60’s, but maybe in the countryside, in the highlands and islands they didn’t. Or maybe it’s just a left over colloquialism. I’m guessing not letting ‘the water boil in‘, means boil dry. The next bit is not for the squeamish:

Take all the meat and the bones from the pot and strain the stock. (Let it sit over night and then you can get all the fat off.) While the head is still warm, remove all the meat from the bones. Skin the palate and remove all fat and vein from the cheek flesh. Put all the meat through a mincer, or cut it very fine by hand.

I’m imagine how heavy the big pan full of liquor must be that has to be strained, and how big the colander to strain it through. What mighty muscles the housewives had! I’m guessing the removed parts would be fed to the dog!

Put the stock free from fat, back into the pot, add the meat and bring it to the oil, skimming if necessary. Season to taste with pepper and salt, and cook gently for half an hour. Let it cool before putting it into bowls, otherwise you may find you have a meat top and jelly base when you turn it out.

I’m puzzled by how much meat there would be, how big is a cow’s head – even half a head sounds massive and there is no mention of brain or tongue. I’ve looked at other recipes, and one says that from a calf’s head you get 12-15 lbs of meat.  How many bowls would it fill and how you would keep it before mass refrigeration. Would the family have a bowl each for their dinner – it’s obviously served cold, like brawn, turned out onto a plate with a mix of jelly and meat. If it was to be kept, then I would have thought a layer of fat would have covered it to preserve it.

Interesting from a food history point of view, but definitely not something I’m going to try!!


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