If you ever happen to find yourself in the Scottish village of Drumnadrochit (population 813), I can tell you with authority that there is something better than catching a glimpse of Old Nessie, and that thing is getting yourself a bowl of Cullin Skink or smoked fish soup. For this serving of heaven you will have to make your way to the maddest, most eccentric hotel you will likely ever stay in in your days called – naturally – the Loch Ness Lodge Hotel. Being situated on the loch, and all. If you’re looking for a deeply, madly Scottish experience you won’t be disappointed. This hotel was surely decorated by leprechauns on speed and it’s completely fantastic (I know, leprechauns are Irish, but these ones were contracted in). What you get when you walk in is floor-to-ceiling tartan, 24/7 bagpipes and bedroom décor straight out of Alice in Wonderland. You also get door handles perfectly positioned for one of those leprechauns. In fact, we had to get on our knees to unlock the door. Needless to say, we were sold.
We had no idea what a Cullin Skink was when it was at home in tartan pyjamas, but being pretty adventurous diners (we ate haggis and black pudding every day. Promise. Both are delicious) we wanted to eat the things we can’t get in Cape Town, and Cullin Skink certainly seemed to be that. What we didn’t know was that we would be struck silent by the mind-boggling deliciousness of this relatively unknown dish, talk about it for days and try to replicate it when we got home. What it is (said Google) is a soup consisting of smoked fish (any kind, but the Scottish version favours haddock), potatoes, leeks, dill, cream and butter. Just writing these words makes me drool. Imagine it’s really cold out (it wasn’t, but imagine it was), you’ve been Loch Nessing all day with barely an oat cake for sustenance (we’d been eating Pringles the whole drive down, sadly, but who knew that was on the menu?) you stumble inside and order a wee dram or three. You’re so hungry your bum’s nibbling the (tartan) seat and before you, like an angel, a waiter (who looks just like Spud from Trainspotting) brings you a bowl of this piping hot soup. It’s creamy, it’s smoky and it’s tasty as hell. I mean, a guy could sing an aria for the joy of it.
So once we had scraped the last small droplet of remaining soup up with our fingers and gathered ourselves enough to speak we decided, then and there, that our mission in life would be to recreate this marvelous dish. Un-dyed Finnan haddock is not as easy to get in Green Point as it is in Drumnadrochit, but luckily the recipe assured us that any smoked white fish would do. So, off to the Waterfront City Market we went and bought this…
…along with a large block of butter, cream and dill. We forgot the leeks, but decided large spring onions would have to do because the loser of paper-rock-scissors reneged on the deal (a-hem). The recipe said to simmer the fish in water with bay leaves till it was ‘cooked.’ A small discussion ensued around whether or not smoked fish qualifies as uncooked since it is, technically, cooked by the smoking. The loser of paper-rock-scissors lost that argument, too. Then, there was a discussion around when it was best to add the cream because some people in this house, even when they have never made a thing, feel that they still know more than the people who wrote the recipe. It went in at the end which I think was the right time. But enough about that.
Here is what you’ll need:
Smoked white fish
A large yellow onion
Leeks (or overgrown spring onions)
A large carrot, finely chopped
2 Sticks of celery, finely chopped
5 Medium-sized potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
A litre of full cream milk
A swirl of cream
Fish stock or fish sauce or both
In a frying pan, cover the fish with the milk and two bay leaves and let it simmer gently for 10 minutes. In a large saucepan, sauté your onion in butter. Add your carrots, celery, potatoes and ‘leeks’ and schmoonk them around till they’re covered in butter. You might want to add more butter. Remove the fish from the milk and put the fish aside. Add the fishy milk to your saucepan together with a handful of dill and a splash of fish stock. Let it simmer until your potatoes are cooked. While they are cooking break the fish up into bite-sized pieces and remove any skin or bones. Let the soup thicken. Add a drizzle of cream and the fish. Let the flavours make friends for a few minutes and then add salt and pepper to taste. Serve very hot with bread and if you’re impressing people, parsley.
I feared making this dish at home would be a bit like Swedish herring which tastes amazing at a midsummer party with a maypole and schnapps but kind of wrong when eaten in Cape Town, but this soup was actually almost better than the one we had in Scotland. And super easy and super quick. You use a lot of butter so it’s pretty rich. I put the smallest amount of cream in because boiling the milk had made it separate slightly, but it’s not really necessary. Traditional recipes don’t include the celery and carrot, but I like my soup to have a bit of sweetness and I thought their inclusion improved the flavour. Lastly, I added a Knorr fish stock sachet thing. I couldn’t really taste it so I added a bit of fish sauce. I think it depends on how smoky your fish is. Have a spoonful and decide for yourself.