I had never tasted a proper home-made Scotch egg until I married an Englishman*, and his mother made a whole clutch of them for a picnic. They were the shape of small rugby balls, crisp and golden, and inside the firm shells of spicy pork-sausage meat were whole eggs cooked to perfection, their yolks as yellow and fluffy as the centre of a daisy.
Mrs Balls Chutney, as I sat on on a tartan blanket on the slopes of Table Mountain, swigging warm tea from a (tartan-patterned) thermos flask. My late mother-in-law Audrey was probably a bit dismayed at how many of the Scotch eggs I wolfed that day, but I couldn't help myself. They were very, very good, like all the proper English food that flowed from Audrey's kitchen, and I'm really sorry I didn't plague her for her secret formula before she passed away a few years ago. She would willingly have given me the recipe - really good and accomplished home cooks never mind sharing - but somehow I never got around to asking her.
I've done my best to recreate that delicious porky casing in this recipe. It's a daintier version of Audrey's one, using quails' eggs, newfangled salad greens and a nest of straw potatoes, and while it may not have the retrolicious appeal of cold Scotch eggs swaddled in tin foil and eaten while ants crawl over your legs, I promise there will be a few squeals of delight - from children, at least - when you bring the dish to the table.
I am interested to learn that the English department store Fortnum and Mason takes credit for inventing the Scotch egg in 1738. I can't find any evidence online to back up this claim, nor any reference explaining why they are called 'Scotch' eggs. Wikipedia claims that the first printed recipe for Scotch eggs appeared in Maria Rundell's 1807 book A New System of Domestic Cookery, and here it is. Mrs Rundell's recipe is just five lines long, and uses anchovies or 'scraped ham' to flavour the forcemeat casing for the eggs, although it makes no mention of a breadcrumb coating. 'Fry of a beautiful yellow brown,' she says, 'and serve with good gravy in the dish.'
Quail's eggs, being so small, need to be cooked with some care so you don't end up with yolks like yellow bullets. For eggs with perfect centres, and no nasty green rings, exactly follow the cooking time I've given below. I have specified more eggs than you need to allow for breakages and other mishaps.
Salad of Scotch Quail's Eggs in Straw Potato Nests
20 quails’ eggs
12 good-quality pork sausages
6 fresh sage leaves, very finely minced
the finely grated zest of a lemon
a pinch of cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
a pinch of allspice (optional)
a quarter of a whole nutmeg, very finely grated
salt and milled black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup (125 ml) flour
1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs (Panko crumbs are ideal)
sunflower oil for deep frying
2 bags of mixed green salad leaves, or enough for 8 people
a vinaigrette or salad dressing of your choice
Bring a large, deep pot of water to a gentle rolling boil. Put all the eggs in a large metal sieve, immerse it very slowly in the boiling water, then very gently tilt the sieve so all the eggs roll out into the boiling water. (If you do this too quickly, the water will come off the boil and your timing will be ruined.) Boil the eggs for exactly two minutes and 20 seconds (set a timer!). Pour off the boiling water and fill the pot to the brim with cold water from the tap. Leave the pot under a trickling cold tap for 7 minutes, allowing the water to spill over the edges.
Drain the eggs, gently crack the shells and peel them. The shells should come away easily, but if they do not, peel them under cold running water. Pat the eggs dry and set aside.
Squeeze the meat out of the sausage skins and place in a mixing bowl. Add the sage, lemon zest, cayenne pepper, allspice and nutmeg, mix well, and season with salt and black pepper. Before you enclose the eggs, check the seasoning of the sausage meat by pinching off a marble-sized piece, flattening it into a patty and frying it in hot oil. Add more salt, pepper and spice, if necessary, and to taste.
Divide the sausage meat into 16 equal portions. Roll a portion into a ball, flatten it in the palm of your hand to make a patty and put a cooked quail’s egg on top. Gently wrap the the meat around the egg to enclose it completely, pinching the mixture to close any gaps. Now roll the ball delicately between your palms to create a pleasing egg shape. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Put the eggs on a plate, cover with clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes to firm up.
Place the flour on one large plate, the beaten eggs on another, and the breadcrumbs on the third plate. Roll the Scotch eggs in the flour and shake to remove the excess. Dip the eggs in the beaten egg yolk, then roll them gently in the breadcrumbs, patting down gently so that the crumbs stick. Half fill a narrow-sided pot with sunflower oil and heat it to 165ºC. (If you don’t have a cooking thermometer, click here for deep-frying tips). Fry the eggs, four or five at a time, for four and a half minutes, or until crisp and golden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.
Next make the straw potatoes. Using a mandolin or a very sharp knife, cut the potatoes – no need to peel them – into slices 3 mm thick. Place the slices in stacks and cut them vertically into very slim 'matchsticks'. Dry the matchsticks by squeezing them gently in a clean tea towel. Heat the oil again and fry the matchstick potatoes, in three or four batches, for 2-3 minutes, or until they are golden and crisp. Drain well on several layers of kitchen paper and season generously with salt and pepper (or any highly seasoned salt you have in your cupboard).
To assemble the salad, arrange the leaves on a large salad platter. Pile the matchstick potatoes in a ring in the centre of the platter, and heap the warm Scotch eggs in the middle. Drizzle the vinaigrette over the leaves and serve immediately.
* My husband may have been born an Englishman, but actually he only lived in England for 8 years, and has been a South African for 43 years. The only trace of English about him these days is his ridiculous passion for Manchester United, and his fondness for steamed puddings and blackcurrants. Oh, and he also says 'yoggit' and 'tea towel' not 'yo-gert' and 'dish cloth'.