Cullen Skink. Not a very promising name for a soup, really, is it? All the images that run through my mind everytime I say Cullen Skink do not equal delicious. As this is a food blog, I shan’t even go anywhere near that stinky animal that’s staring me in the face right now! It sounds immeasurably better when you say Smoked Haddock Chowder – because that’s what it really is!
I love smoked haddock, I guess I love all smoked fish. It would therefore follow, that a soup made with smoked fish would always rank high on my list of things to eat, like this Queen of all Russian foods, Smoked Fish Solyanka:
Naturally, I love Smoked Fish Chowder, or as we are making today, Cullen Skink. It is an amazingly easy soup to put together and tastes immeasurably better than anything you can buy in the shop, and most eateries. Homemade, you always hear me say, is invariably superior because you control the ingredients and therefore, not only can you make a “clean” (read: no nasties) recipe, but you always make it your own, to your taste.
Cullen Skink is a rich Scottish soup made from, you guessed it, smoked haddock. Its base is a creamy mix of dairy, potatoes and leek. Simply perfect with liberally buttered bread of any kind! It comes from the town of Cullen in Moray, North East Scotland. Perfect, I would say, for long, cold Scottish days. Or long, wet, English nights!
But what is the origin of the name Cullen Skink?
Here is an excerpt from the people who should know, Discover Cullen:
“This rather odd name is said to come from the Gaelic word “Essence”. Initially, Cullen Skink referred to a type of broth made with the scrapings of beef from the front legs of cattle. Hard times in the early 1890s left the Northern people unable to buy this product. By this time, Cullen Harbour (completed in 1819) had become the thriving centre of herring fishing and the village also specialised in the production of smoked haddock. With many families in the local villages having a fishing background, they turned to smoked haddock which was in plentiful supply. By using smoked haddock and various other products all put together, a distinctive delicious soup was made.
Hence Cullen Skink was born.”
How to make the best Cullen Skink
The Smoked Haddock
Use good quality, undyed smoked haddock. For the simple reason that the dye is unnecessary and to my eyes, very unbecoming! That saffron yellow tinge makes the fish look rather sickly, don’t you think? Naturally dyed haddock should take its colour from the smoking and nothing else, giving you an off white colour, certainly no yellow in sight!
Milk, Cream, Water, Stock or Wine? I love to make my Cullen Skink with just milk and cream, resulting in a very dairy rich soup that is just the way I like it. Some people like to cook the potatoes in water or stock, adding the poaching liquid (milk) or cream later.
The best Cullen Skink or Smoked Haddock Chowder, to me, should have a subtle creamy base, with each mouthful brimming with the full smoky flavour of the haddock. So because of that, I don’t use any stock or alcohol, letting the fish do the talking.
My husband is not a great fan of milk and cream and does prefer it if I lighten the soup somewhat by using half milk and half water or doing away with the cream altogether. But it doesn’t happen very often!
To Blend or Not to Blend
A real Cullen Skink is a rich and fairly thick soup, thanks to the blending of the soup before the addition of the smoked haddock. However, I like “other bits” than the fish, so I compromise, I blend half the soup, add it back to the saucepan, then I add the fish, resulting in a thick, flavourful soup base with bite.
Chives or Parsley
Purely a matter of preference, parsley seems to be the standard herb of choice but I definitely prefer the more spirited chives for the contrast it provides the creamy and smoky base.
How to stop milk from Curdling
- Always use full fat milk, the higher the fat content, the more stable the milk.
- Don’t cook on a rolling boil, simmer the milk for best results, on medium to medium-low heat.
- Add salt at the end of cooking time, as salt can cause milk to curdle.
- If you always struggle, add a small amount of cornflour/cornstarch (half to 1 tsp) to your milk, this will stabilise it.
Are you a fan of smoked fish recipes? What’s your favourite way with them?
If you fancy more British recipes, head on over to the British page for more goodies like:
Cullen Skink (or Smoked Haddock Chowder)