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There are a number of theories about how Scotch eggs came to be, but before we investigate their origins we must discuss what they are and how they’re made.
Scotch eggs are hard-boiled eggs wrapped in a raw meat mixture (usually sausage in recent decades), rolled in bread crumbs, and fried or baked until golden brown.
They have also been called bird’s nest eggs and forcemeat eggs in previous centuries. Forcemeat is a common term from earlier time periods which simply referred to minced meat.
In discussing the origins of the eggs, we must first consider the claim by Fortnum & Mason of London that they invented the dish in 1738. – source: an email from Leonard, Wayne, Customer Relations Advisor, Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London.
They opened for business in 1707 when William Fortnum, footman in Queen Anne’s household, persuaded his landlord, Hugh Mason, to go into the grocery business with him. They were appointed grocers to HRH, the Prince of Wales, in 1863. They were and still remain known for their prepared foods and carry-out hampers.
While every Scottish cookery book worth its salt containing traditional dishes includes a recipe for Scotch eggs, if Fortnum and Mason’s claim is true, they are English in origin and not Scottish at all.
Their spokesman did confirm their claim to having invented Scotch eggs in 1738, however, it may be that they didn’t so much invent the eggs as they may have improved them, and they certainly seem to have been the first to market them ready-made.
Spokesperson for Fortnum & Mason says, as we would expect, that eggs were smaller in the 18th century and the meat scraped for the forcemeat would have been gamier, “like a strong Victorian pate`.
Interestingly, Fortnum and Mason were appointed Grocers to HRH, the Prince of Wales in 1863, and since the firm had been selling ready-to-eat Scotch Eggs for some 125 years by then, along with other upscale ready-to-eat treats, it is quite possible that the royal family consumed them as did many others in and around London.
Our second theory as to their origin begins much earlier in India. In the very early 1600’s, the East Indian Company was formed and trade began between the British and India. Some believe Scotch eggs evolved from an Indian dish called Nargisi Kofta, which is made by wrapping hard-boiled eggs in minced lamb and cooking them. The Daily Mail supported the claim that British soldiers found them tasty and upon returning home to England had the eggs made for their families. – Hope, Annette. A Caledonian Feast.
A restaurant review found in the Cincinnati Magazine says Nargisi Kofta was made by wrapping minced lamb around the eggs and cooking it in a sauce. They were supposedly named for the Narcissus which they are said to resemble when sliced in half. – June 1980.
Another theory is that Scotch eggs are, “a Northern variant of Cornish pasty produced by Scottish smallholders who would have kept chickens and pigs”. They were in essence a poor man’s lunch, made from left-over meat and eggs, quite handy because they were so easily transported. – Chambers, Neil, owner. The Handmade Scotch Egg Company. Herefordshire.
The earliest known published recipe titled Scottish eggs dates to 1807. Maria Ketelby Rundell’s version published that year is found verbatim in several cookbooks from that time period.
Boil hard five pullet’s eggs, and without removing the white, cover completely with a fine relishing forcemeat in which let scraped ham or chopped anchovy bear a due proportion. Fry a beautiful yellow brown, and serve with a good gravy in the dish.
Twenty-one years later a recipe appeared which was very similar.
Scotch Eggs.-Five eggs make a dish. Boil them hard. Shell and dip them in beat egg, and cover them with a forcemeat made of grated ham, chopped anchovy, crumbs, mixed spices, etc. Fry them nicely in good clarified dripping or lard, and serve them with a gravy sauce separately.
The earliest recipe found for Bird’s nests was published in 1871.
Eggs are boiled hard and each surrounded by forcemeat; after which it is fried or browned and laid in the dish with gravy. – Orr, N., Mrs. De Witt’s Connecticut Cook Book. 1871. NY.
A recipe for Forcemeat Eggs was published in 1872.
Boil six eggs till the white be firm; peel off the shell, cover them thickly with the forcemeat in the preceding receipt; fry them till quite brown, and serve in a rich brown gravy. – Fox and Company Publishers. The Cuisine, Containing Household Cooking Recipes. 1872. Boston.
The forcemeat recipe referenced above was made from veal pounded in a mortar with fat and butter, bread crumbs, parsley, salt and pepper, cream, and egg-yolks.
Marion Harland’s version published three years later was made from 1 cupful of minced chicken, ham, veal, or tongue, 1 cupful of rich gravy, ½ cupful of bread crumbs, parsley, onion, summer savory or sweet marjoram, juice of 1 lemon, and 1 raw egg lightly beaten. The mixture was combined and wrapped around six hard-boiled eggs as above and browned in the oven. – Harland, Marion. Breakfast, Lunch, and Tea. 1875. NY.
Note: If you can get them, free range eggs make a much nicer presentation than the pale-yolked grocery store eggs. This dish is so simple that it merits using the best ingredients available.
Harland’s recipe was republished verbatim in 1905. – Wilcox, Woods, Estell. The Original Buckeye Cook Book and Practical Housekeeping. 1905. St. Paul.