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Cullen Skink in Ullapool

cullen skink,soup,scottish,recipe

Sometimes when you travel as a chef you end up in places you never expected. I had never heard of Ullapool before I took a job as the sous chef of a small boutique hotel there in 1989. I found the job posting in an employment office in Glasgow, and took the position on a whim. A week later I was in the west highlands of Scotland, working in a town with less than 1000 people.
Ullapool is a pretty little place with quite a large fishing port, and is a popular tourist stop in the summer.

I can't believe I lived here once
After spending a couple of days settling in and figuring out what my job entailed, I set out to explore Ullapool's nightlife. I wasn't the only foreigner in town, but a new face is immediately noticed and I was soon drinking and chatting with locals at the "Calley". I eventually ended up on a pub crawl of every place in town. After last call I made my way home along the main street and came across a group of teenagers drinking and playing guitar around a fire on the beach.
I joined in and had a great time for a while, when one of the girls asked me if I knew how to swim. I bragged a lot and told her I used to be a top swimmer in Toronto in high school, so she challenged me to a race across to the nearby pier. I accepted and we stripped down to our underwear and ran into the loch. I swam about 20 feet before the over powering smell of diesel and fish stopped me and I looked back to see everyone standing on the shore laughing! Despite how beautiful Loch Broom is, it's still a fishing port and not a place to go swimming near the pier. I was covered in a thin coating on oil that stung my eyes and I smelled of gas for 2 days. Needless to say, I was well known in town by the next morning.

One of the dishes we made at the hotel was cullen skink, a traditional smoked haddock, leek and potato chowder which is popular all over north Scotland. It is a great flavoured hearty soup that I recently used as the base for a fish special in my restaurant. Baked cod is placed on a thick cullen skink sauce and topped with a poached egg and horseradish mousseline. The smokiness of the soup works great with the cod, with the egg making the dish richer, and the horseradish adding sharpness.
There are many variations of cullen skink, but this is the recipe as I remember we made it in Ullapool.

Recipe for Cullen Skink

This makes about 4 portions of soup or enough for 6 as a base for my cod dish.
500g smoked haddock or other smoked oily fish like mackerel , skinned and deboned
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 leek, washed and cut into pieces
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into small chunks
500ml water
200ml 35% cream
1. Make a quick stock with the water and the skin and bones of the fish simmered for 10 minutes
2. Sweat the onions and leek in some butter until softened.
3. Add strained fish stock, potatoes, bay, and thyme and simmer until potatoes start to dissolve.
4. Add broken up pieces of smoked fish and the cream. Simmer for about 5 minutes
5. using a hand blender, pulse soup until it is incorporated, but still has some potato and fish chunks
6. Add cracked pepper and test for salt.


Painting by Ann-Cathrine Loo 1990
Working in a small hotel is hard work and usually requires split shifts. I worked breakfast from 6am until noon, and then came back for dinner service from 5 until 9pm six days a week. I was pretty tired on my first day off, but one of the staff suggested I take a walk into the surrounding hills. He gave me a pre-rolled joint and I set out with my walkman and some snacks. The north highlands are truly beautiful, and soon I felt far from the town, walking by a stream in a misty valley between the mossy hills. I sat on a big rock and smoked the joint. I heard some noises and out of the mist came 3 wild horses, slowly walking down the riverbed grazing on grass as they went. They didn't seem to take much notice of my presence, and continued by, passing just a few feet in front of me before disappearing into the mist again. It was magical. One of those perfect moments you remember vividly for a lifetime. I walked up one of the hills and looked out over the fjord towards the open sea. My walkman started busting out "Xanadu" by Rush and as the heavy guitars crescendoed and the wind blew in my face, I knew it was going to be a special summer.

cullen skink,soup,scottish,recipe

2 comments:

Erin said...

Saw 'cullen skink' on Tastespotting and couldn't believe my eyes! Was the scottish dish that stood out for me the most on a trip to Scotland a couple of years back. Ordered it everywhere! Thanks for posting - great little story.

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