Scouse: The Delicacy of The Discerning!
Liverpudlians find fun in food, and in sharing this with family and friends. Of course, our local delicacy, and from which comes the name of our dialect and community, is ‘Scouse’. However, and contrary to popular opinion, our traditional dish is not related to either Irish Stew or Lancashire Hot Pot, being in fact of Scandinavian, seafaring origin.
Indeed, 18th century Liverpool sailors would have known the dish well; sailing and trading as they did, with Nordic sailors and ships, especially in the whaling vessels of the Baltic Fleet. They would have called it ‘loblolly’. This name derives from a combination of two Norwegian words, meaning ‘broth’ and ‘to eat noisily’ ; the word ‘lob’ also being a Lancashire dialect word for when potatoes collapse, or ‘fall’, during the cooking of a stew.
The Liverpool matelots then adopted the dish themselves, but calling it ‘Scouse’; a shortened form of the word ‘lobscouse’. This name appears to have come about from an amalgamation of the Danish word ‘Lapscouse’ and the Dutch word ‘Lapskous’, both meaning ‘spoon meat’. The first written reference to this was made by the early 18th century writer, Ned Ward, in his book about ships and seafaring, ‘The Wooden World Dissected’. Written in 1708, he describes seamen eating ‘a baked food of spare meat and vegetables’ called ‘lobscouse’.
The meal was ideal to eat at sea, because it could be very quickly prepared using cheap or leftover cuts of meat, such as lamb. Plain root vegetables such as potatoes and onions, which were just as inexpensive and readily available, would then have been roughly chopped and added to the meat. Covered with water and seasoned with salt, this could then be left to stew slowly on a hob for an indefinite period, without needing to be watched.
This made it a very convenient meal for sailors because it could be eaten at any time, when their duties at sea permitted, especially following rough weather or cold and stormy conditions. It was exactly at times like these when something that was quick, cheap, and easy to produce, and which was tasty, warming, and nourishing, was really needed.
On shore, it became the food of sailor’s families and of poorer people, for the same reasons, and because the basic recipe could vary depending on the ingredients that were available.
When meat was unavailable or too expensive, the stew would be made from a broth of mutton bones thickened with potatoes, and perhaps a grain such as barley, or with crushed ship’s biscuits. This was known as ‘Blind Scouse’. To add flavour and variety to the Scouse, any other vegetables that were available would be added to the basic stew mixture. And so, because of its capacity to easily fill empty stomachs, the popularity of Scouse grew, becoming a widely familiar dish throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; in Liverpool, and well beyond the Port.
In the early 20th century, as social conditions improved and stabilised, the recipe became fixed to consist largely of lamb, onions, and carrots, with lots of ‘old’ potatoes that will ‘fall’ during the cooking process, thus thickening the broth.
Between the First and Second World Wars, the place of Scouse in the local diet grew in popularity, with surges in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it remained a rare Liverpudlian household indeed that did not feature Scouse in the family menu, occasionally if not regularly.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Scouse is once again a popular dish that can found on the menu of many cafés, restaurants, and clubs all over the City. However, beef is most commonly used in the dish now, although a truly authentic Scouse should be made only with lamb. This really is a matter of taste of course, as both recipes are delicious, but they do have very different final flavours and appearances.
Once the food of the poor, Scouse is now a ‘stylish’ and ‘trendy’ meal: pubs serve it now more than ever before, and many such hostelries offer periodic ‘Scouse Nights’, which are always popular.
Do try it; in any of its various forms, it is delicious and wholesome. Better still, why not make some yourself, and throw your own Scouse Party? Use my own foolproof and simple recipe:
Ken Pye’s Tried and Trusted Scouse Recipe:
- Dice enough meat, either stewing beef or shoulder of lamb as preferred, to feed your guests (say 4-6ozs for each person). Do not over-trim the meat, because the fat thickens and flavours the broth. Place the meat in a large, heavy, cooking pot: Scouse is stewed on a hob, not baked or casseroled in an oven.
- Next, roughly chop enough large Spanish onions to give each person ¼ of an onion. Then slice enough large carrots, to give each person about ½ a carrot. Add these to the pan.
- Coarsely dice 1 large potato for each guest and add to the pot. It is important that the potatoes should be ‘old’ potatoes, such as King Edwards or Maris Pipers, which will collapse or ‘lob’ during cooking.
- Season to taste with salt and white pepper, and pour enough cold water into the pan to just cover all the ingredients. Stir well to mix the ingredients and the seasoning together.
- Leaving the pot uncovered, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Check the seasoning. Now cover the pot, and continue simmering gently, on a very low heat, until the potatoes have fallen, stirring occasionally. Check the seasoning again.
- Keep cooking gently until the meat is tender and the broth has thickened. If it has not thickened enough, and just before the meat begins to fall apart, you can rapidly raise the heat and reduce the stew.
You will now have a basic, but tasty and nutritious Scouse that can be reheated easily if necessary. This makes it a good dish to prepare in advance of a family meal or party. Scouse also freezes and defrosts well, so you can make lots of it, and save it for those cold and rainy days!
Today, it is perfectly acceptable to add an appropriate stock to the stew before cooking and, if using beef, an Oxo cube or dessertspoon of Bovril will enhance the flavour. A lamb or chicken stock cube in the broth for a lamb Scouse is also a good idea, as is the addition of a few good dashes of Worcestershire Sauce, in the final twenty minutes or so of the cooking. This will really lift the flavour too; but these suggestions, of course, are all a matter of taste, so experiment; the stew can stand it!
If preparing a ‘Blind Scouse’ for vegetarian guests, simply leave out the meat, of course; but do flavour the broth with a good vegetable stock: adding a little thyme and a bay leaf is my own ‘special’ secret. Nevertheless, whichever way you prepare your Scouse, and whatever your ingredients, how you present and then eat it are critical!
Serve great scoops of the broth on large, warm, dinner plates, and make plenty of it because everyone will want seconds. Ensure that there is plenty of crusty bread on the side, to dip into the Scouse, and to wipe your plate clean with afterwards so that nothing is missed or wasted. Pickled red cabbage and sliced beetroot are essential side dishes, and do not be ashamed to garnish your plate of Scouse with dollops of thick Brown Sauce, or a few extra dashes of Worcestershire Sauce.
If you are on your own and need cheering up, a good pan of Scouse will do it every time: It has that ‘home-cooked’, ‘mother-used-to-make-it’ taste and texture that we all welcome; to give us a lift from time-to-time.
Planning a dinner or buffet party? Scouse is easy and inexpensive to make, and is a sure-fire winner because it is so unusual at ‘posh do’s’! Serve it with all the trimmings though! Your guests and their stomachs will thank you.
And to drink? A good, large mug of steaming, strong, Yorkshire Tea; or a large glass of full-bodied red wine are good accompaniments. However, best of all is a huge glass of your favourite British beer, such as Newcastle Brown, Ruddles, Flowers Bitter, Old Speckled Hen, Bombardier, London Pride, Bishops Finger, or Beamish Red.
Under no circumstances though, should you drink lager with your Scouse; that is a heresy! The darker ales like Guinness and Beamish Black are also good with Scouse, although their flavours could be a little intense against the thickness of the broth. But, whatever you drink, make it very good and very large!
Bon Appétit! Or, as we sometimes can be heard to say in Liverpool …
Gerrit down yer lad. It’ll stick ter yer ribs on de way down an’ purra back on yer like a ware‘ouse cat!
© Ken Pye March 2010
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