How Scotland does a parfait

By Natasha Frost
Updated August 28, 2018
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You almost never find cranachan south of the Scottish border. Across the Highlands and Lowlands, it’s a regular feature of dessert lists and Tripadvisor restaurant reviews. But somehow, this tangle of oatmeal, raspberries, whisky, and cream hasn’t taken off elsewhere in the United Kingdom—or the world.

It’s a shame, because cranachan is delicious, easy to make, and relatively inexpensive. It’s indulgent, but light; complex in flavor, but easy to love. Its layers of whipped cream and whisky belie its humble Presbyterian origins. Nowadays, cranachan might be eaten as a luxury dessert, with the oats providing rustic heft, but it has its roots in breakfast food, and a time when Scottish people ate oats in order to survive.

Before cranachan, there was crowdie. From at least the 1600s, and possibly earlier, crowdie was the name for a thick paste of oatmeal and water, often eaten cold and at any time of the day. As Marian McNeill explains in The Scots Kitchen, it was “at one time a universal breakfast dish in Scotland.” If you were a lowly crofter or peat farmer, crowdie might be all there was between you and starvation, with buttermilk occasionally standing in for water when you were lucky enough to have it. Crowdie was what you ate when there was nothing else, and what you wished for when there was nothing at all.

Crowdie pops up time and time again in Scottish ballads, poetry, and songs, including in the work of the 18th-century Scottish poet and national treasure Robert Burns. In “Crowdie Ever Mair,” Burns adapts a popular folk song about a man faced with a hungry family who want crowdie three times a day. With nothing to feed them, he says, he wishes he’d never got married at all: “Now I've gotten wife an' weans, / An' they cry "Crowdie" evermair.” And it’s not just Burns. Elsewhere in the history of Scottish literature, people go “hame at crowdie-time,” are fed with “crowdy-mowdy,” and, in one very rude lovesong from 1513, call their lover “my tyrlie myrlie, my crowdie mowdie.”

If crowdie was for every day, “cream crowdie” was the luxury version, to be eaten only on the most special of occasions. Writing under the pen name Hugh Halliburton in 1894, Scottish literary scholar James Logie Robertson described how Scots came together each year for a “kirn,” which is an autumnal harvest festival that takes its name from the “churn” of the cream. Before the farmer paid his shearers, he’d treat them to a party in the barn to celebrate the final ear of barley being shorn. There’d be dancing and diddle-diddle-diddling, shouting and singing, and—the high point of the evening—a portion of “cream crowdie” for everyone, showcasing the highlights of the season’s spoils.

By early autumn, cows had had their run of the healthiest grass, producing the richest cream of the year. The barley was recently harvested, and the oats were beginning to turn gold and “qualify for the sickle.” And whisky, being made by most families at home, was at its best whenever you wanted it. These would be mixed together into a festive “cream crowdie,” with whisky and cream ladled out to hungry threshers and local villagers from great big barrels. “The ambrosial concoction called ‘cream crowdie,’” writes Halliburton, “was an essential part of the great banquet of the Kirn.”

Sometime around the 1820s, “crowdie” acquired another meaning. It began to be used as the word for a particular Scottish fresh cheese, slightly firmer than cottage cheese and with a sour tang. Whether this name relates to the fact that it was eaten with crowdie-cakes, made of oats, or that it was a product of the autumn “cream crowdie” churn isn’t clear. Although it seems unrelated to “cream crowdie” as a dish, the two are often said to be linked, leading some modern recipes for cranachan to call for it to be whipped into the cream.

In the decades since Halliburton’s harvest knees-up, hearty “cream crowdie” has evolved into the much more refined cranachan. What was once a humble mixture of whisky, cream, and toasted oats is now a full-fledged luxury pudding. It’s usually served in a glass, where the individual layers can be clearly made out: Scottish raspberries, muddled with whisky; coarse pinheads of toasted oats; and whipped heavy cream, sweetened with honey. Though there’s nothing to stop you, it’s unfortunately very seldom eaten for breakfast. Instead, it has a reputation, as British food writer Felicity Cloake explains, as the “uncontested king of Scottish desserts.”

But ignore tradition. You should eat cranachan in the summertime, and you should eat it in the morning. In summer, raspberries are at their best, and cold desserts, and breakfasts, at their most appealing. While it’s true that you tend not to see cranachan on Scottish breakfast menus, which are usually given over to porridge or fry-ups of black pudding, haggis, and baked beans, there’s nothing to stop you at home. If you’re quizzed on it, explain that you’re simply embracing its humble origins as crowdie, and that the extra tot of whisky is for good luck. If you can’t stomach single malt before noon, or want cranachan in midwinter, however, you’re not alone. Cranachan very often appears on menus for Burns suppers, the night in late January where Scots celebrate the life and works of Robert Burns. It might not be seasonal, but it’s still very tasty made with frozen raspberries instead of fresh. And as ever, the whisky is good all year long.