Cullen skink is a traditional thick Scottish soup originating from the North East of Scotland that has remained popular to the present day. It can be found on the menus of local restaurants here in the North East and is often served as a starter in formal Scottish dinners. The name derives from the two separate sources. The ancient coastal town of Cullen lent its name to this dish and to quote Catherine Brown in A Year in a Scots Kitchen,
“Ever since this soup-stew first attracted the attention of food writer and folklorist, F M McNeill, which she describes in her book The Scots Kitchen (1929) as Cullen Skink, it has been known by that name though, of course, it was a universal habit throughout East-Coast fish-smoking communities who harvest their living from the sea.”
As for Skink, which may be an unfamiliar word now, in Scots it refers to the shin and is so used to describe the cut of beef from the shin of the animal, including the bone, which was a common base for soups and stews in Scotland. This has the same meaning as another old Scots word Hough, which still used for ham houghs better known elsewhere as hocks. Presumably the people in coastal communities such as Cullen were lacking in beef skink as a base for their soups and adapted to what was in plentiful supply, smoked haddock, and the name has long persisted.
Seafield Street, Cullen (Credit: Anne Burgess)
Cullen skink is traditionally made from Finnans, a type of cold smoked haddock originating from the North East of Scotland. These are prepared with a whole haddock, its head removed and slit open with the bones left in, which is brined and smoked to a pale straw color. Named after the tiny village of Finnan, just six miles south of Aberdeen, the inhabitants of which were famed for this particular method of smoking haddock. Traditionally prepared Finnan haddock is an uncommon sight here now and most smoked haddock is sold as fillets, sometimes known as an Aberdeen fillet, made as for a Finnan but without the bones. This is the type of fish I used in this recipe as it is readily available from my local fishmongers. This shouldn’t be confused with the more commonly available bright yellow smoked haddock fillets that are artificially dyed to imitate the color of the traditional long smoking. The vivid yellow color is not suited to using in a Cullen skink.
There are many variations in the making of Cullen skink. My recipe is a rather general one from reading a number of other recipes and I usually use all milk, rather than both milk and water as some recipes do, to make it somewhat richer and more filling. The inclusion of leek is not so common but I do like something green in my food and I find it adds some extra flavours together with the onion. I also add some dried dulse, an unconventional but otherwise traditional Scottish ingredient, that adds some extra flavours and nutrition to the resulting soup.
- 1 Smoked haddock fillet
- Whole milk – at least a pint
- 2 Small nions
- 1 Leek
- 4 Potatoes
- Dried dulse – a few leaves (about 5 grams)
- Salt and pepper
- First cook the potatoes. Place in a pan and cover with water adding a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and then simmer till they can be pierced easily with a sharp knife (About 25 minutes). Choose floury potatoes that will mash well, I used Maris Piper.
- Meanwhile finely slice the onions and leek and cook over a medium heat in a heavy pan with a knob of butter. Stir occasionally until soft and well cooked, this should take about the same time as the potatoes take to cook, then remove from the pan and set aside.
- Place the smoked haddock fillet into the empty pan and add enough to just cover the fish. As haddock fillets are quite long I cut mine in half to fit in the pan. Bring the milk to a simmer on a medium heat, taking care not to burn the milk, and then simmer until the fish turns white and the flesh begins to flake away.
- Add the dried dulse to the milk while the fish is cooking. As it cooks the seaweed will break up into small pieces of its own accord.
- Remove the cooked fish from the milk and let it cool enough to separate off the flakes of flesh from the skin breaking the flakes into the desired size for adding back into the stew.
- Mash the potatoes to whatever degree you like, I prefer to roughly mash it so that there are still come lumps of potato in the stew. Add the mashed potato, flaked fish, cooked leek and onion and a pinch of salt and black pepper into the hot milk. Add more milk to reach the desired consistency and slowly heat, stirring occasionally, until it is all hot and well mixed.
- Serve with some black pepper ground over the top.
Serves two hungry people.
There can be few other meals as warming and satisfying on a cold autumn evening in North East Scotland than a piping hot bowl of Cullen skink.