Somebody recently asked me "What is the first thing you remember cooking?". I have thought about this for a few days now and I would have to say that it is making scones with my grandmother. My Grandma Pickles lives in an isolated farming area in Southern Australia, where like most farms in the region the main income is derived from cropping (wheat and barley) and farming sheep. Grandma may have made scones on an irregular basis, but always when the sheep were being sheared and it is likely that this is when she helped me make my first batch.
When moving sheep from the pasture to the shearing shed (which may be many miles distant) even thirty odd years ago in my childhood it was usual practice employ a truck, but as my grandfather was somewhat idiosyncratic these sheep were moved the old fashioned way - on their own feet with sheepdogs for encourangement and with human helpers following by foot or riding in a horse drawn gig. Obviously this took quite a long time and required supplies, this would usually be tomato, jam or cheese sandwiches, tea from a thermos or made in a Billy and large batch of my Grandmother's scones with butter (never cream which would not survive the heat) and jam.
My Grandma made fantastic scones, white on the sides, golden on the top, light in texture and not so sweet as to make the addition of huge spoonfuls of jam cloying. So my first memory of cooking is being given my own bowl of flour to make a batch of scones, during the shearing season. I can't remember what these tasted like, but I can remember being annoyed that my grandmother's scones were much taller then mine, three inches at least I am sure. I now realise that although the ingredient list is simple in making scones truely great scones is a great skill and my fumbling five year old fingers were simply not up to the task. I'm not sure what recipe my grandmother used, if she used one at all but it would have used a similar ingredient list to this modern recipe.
2 cups of self raising flour, 50 gms butter, salt, 3/4 cup of milk
Until I lived in Scotland I had no idea that there was any other type other then the white, light and wheat flour type. In Edinburgh I was exposed to plain scones, fruit scones, treacle scones, brown (whole wheat) scones, cream scones, cheese scones and potato scones. I imagine that for many people this comes as no surprise as Scotland is the original home of the scone after all, with the word "scone" throught to be derived from the Dutch "Schoonbrot" ("fine bread"). However, all of these scone types were basic variations on the theme I was use to - with the exception of the potato scones. These were flat, more like a pancake then a "scone", triangular in shape (this shape is known as a "farl") and most often served as part of a savour fry-up then with jam in my experience. At the time I thought I knew a bit a about food and I was pretty sure that these potato scones were not really scones at all. As so often happens I was competely wrong.
While most people know of scones as a product that is baked in the oven and raised with chemical agent, however, the use of chemical agents is a relatively recent innovation. Originally scones were baked on a griddle, not in an oven, and were likely to be made from barley, not wheat flour. The nature of these flat barley scones is alluded to in Robert Burns' poem "Scotch Drink":
Thou king o' grain.
On thee aft Scotland chows her cood,
In souple scones, the wale o' food!
Or tumblin' in the boiling flood
Wi' kail and beef;
But when thou pours thy strong heart's blood,
There thou shines chief.
Many of Burns' fellow countrymen appreciated the soft, "souple" (supple) nature of these scones, which no doubt contrasted to the drier and firmer texture of their usual oatcake. Apart from these barley scones there were a large range of other griddle baked products produced in Scotland which were called scones, none of which resemble the modern scone. The "Full Scottish Breakfast" fry-up potato scone seems to be the last of this old fashioned type of scone. The problem with this type of scone is that they are very difficult to make, a great deal and skill and practice is required to produce a product that is not tough and leathery - especially when using oat or barley meal. The introduction of chemical rasing agents changed all of this. Within a generation the art of scone making was transformed. Even five year olds like me could produce a scone that wasn't completely inedible, if not three inches high.
Interestingly it is proberly the Americans that should be thanked for this revolution in British cooking. With their vast acres of woodlands they were producing potash on an industrial scale early in the 18th century for the glass and soap making industries. Pearlash, a more highly purified and concentrated potassium carbonate derivative of potash was found by colonial American cooks to be able lighten dough without the addion of egg or yeast. It's use in baked products was first published in 1796 in Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery". As Europeans were less then keen on developing a dependence for American potassium carbonate, by the late 18th century methods had been developed for the local production of sodium carbonate. This crystaline substance was commonly refered to as "Soda" (and today as "Washing Soda") was also used in the manufactor of soap and glass and was soon found it's use in baking. By the 1840's the use of sodium bicarbonate (modern "baking soda") in baking was becoming common. Essentially these carbonate chemicals produce carbon dioxide gas bubbles when reacting with an acid. In baking this can be achieved by the addition of acidic sour milk, buttermilk, naturally fermented dough or acid chemicals like tataric acid.
A very early English recipe shows a transition from in the use of these chemical raising agents, although recipe has "potash" in the title, it actually uses the much more refined products tartaric acid and soda (likely to be sodium carbonate, but possibly potassium carbonate).
The New London Cook by Duncan MacDonald (1808).
American Potash Cakes
Mix a pound of flour, and a quarter of a pound of butter; dissolve and stir a quarter of a pound of sugar in half a pint of milk; and make a solution of about a tea-spoonful of salt of tartar, crystal of soda, or any purified potash, in half a tea-cupful of cold water; pour them, also among the flour, work the paste up to a good consistence, roll it out, and form into cakes or biscuits. The lightness of these cakes depends greatly on the briskness of the oven.
These "American cakes" are indistinguishable from the modern "British" scone and it is worth comparing with near contemporay recipes for authentic Scottish flour scones.
The Cook and Housewife's Manual by Meg Dods (1826).
FLOUR SCONES, or Slim Cakes, are often used in the Highlands, and in country situations, for breakfast or tea. To a pound of flour allow from two to four ounces of butter, as much hot milk as will make a dough of the flour, and two beat eggs, if the cakes are wished to rise. Handle quickly, and lightly roll out and stamp of any size wanted, with a basin, a saucer, or tumbler. Bake on the girdle, or in a thick-bottomed frying-pan. They must be served hot, kept in a heap, and used newly baked, as on keeping they become tough. Sometimes for rich scones cream only is used.
Within a generation the use of chemical raising agents had largely replaced old fashioned types of scone. By the 1847 edition of Meg Dods' "The Cook and Housewife's Manual" a note was added intot he baking section of the book to the effect that:
"The carbonate of soda is now extensively used in small family baking for flat cakes, or what in Scotland are called scones. The only art is to apportion the alkali and acid, the soda and the buttermilk, so as to suit the degree of acidity, and to bake before the effervescence has subsided, so that the cakes may rise lightly."
So the "Art" had been taken out of this branch of British cookery by the introduction of an American innovation. Thank God for Americans and their innovations or who knows what sort of sad little leathery disasters I could have made with my grandmother 30 years ago of so - maybe the experience would have put me off cooking entirely? Incidently, the American Potash Cake recipe makes very good "scones" (and they are self spliting!). Simply replace the soda with bicarbonate soda (or use baking powder, in this case do not add the tartaric acid) and bake for 15 minutes at 220.C.