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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Scrag End

Within my lifetime scrag end left the plate and entered the English Language with a life of its own. It was therefore a surprise to see it in our butcher's display this week. Our butcher is at a genuine farm shop just outside the village in an actual field on an actual farm where they sell things they grow or rear on that farm, as well as other delicacies.


It isn't the sort of "Farm Shop" that you need to put in quotes because it has got very little to do with a farm anywhere you might visit, unless you are in the habit of visiting somewhere near the equator, in which case you might be expecting fresh pineapple in your "Farm Shop". It isn't under a railway arch in a hipster part of London either. The sort of area that itself may have been described as a scrag end, not that long ago.


As Sara Stockbridge had it in her 2009 novel of Victorian England "The Fortunes of Grace Hammer", "As if there wasn't enough sensation already for people disposed to such things, if not on their very doorsteps then surely a short ride away from their perfumed gardens to the scrag-end of their fair city."


Those former Scrag Ends of London are probably now the gardens, perfumed by many an exotic street food emporium, shoehorned into an "old camper truck" with no miles on the clock, offering the world's latest food trends, metamorphosed into something you can hold in your hand to consume, that isn't easily spilled down your thousand pound outfit, and which can be snaffled while standing up on newly installed and imported Chinese made Victorian style cobbles, watched by genuine contemporary unwashed urchins on their way home from the food bank, and washed down with a locally brewed organic hipster ale called Strangled Neck, brewed with rare breed hops, biodynamically grown on former Intercity railway sidings, every serving coming with its own complimentary sachet of beard oil.


This is the actual scrag end though, the butt of many a joke or insult, which was the staple food of most people when poverty was just normal. It is considered to be one of, if not the cheapest cut of meat in Britain. Britain, a country that made its fortune out of sheep for a thousand years. It is no accident after all, that the Lord Chancellor on official occasions in the House of Lords sits on a bale of wool, called The Woolsack or that the most impressive building in many a small Cotswold village is often called the Woolstaplers Hall.


Wool was king, lamb and mutton fed the populace and scrag end nourished the poorest. It is a strange state of affairs then that we are now told we have a wide scale problem of poverty while traditional foods of the poor have become unknown and difficult to find. There has been a complete reversal of foods for the rich and foods for the poor. It wasn't that long ago that poor people added oysters to their beef stew to make the beef go further, and there were even organised protests by poor people for having to eat too much salmon.


When processed foods and supermarkets first emerged into the bright lights and colours of the 1960's, tins and packets were for rich people, they were chique, a status symbol. Michael Caine as Harry Palmer the debonair working class spy in The Ipcress File was such a foody that after grinding his freshly roasted coffee beans to impress his one night stand, he impressed his boss, who he bumped into in the industrial looking supermarket, by picking up a miniscule tin of "champignons". Whose upper class boss would be impressed today by tinned mushrooms, even tinned mushrooms in French?

So what is scrag end? There is an advert for an animated growling dried sausage snack that has the strapline "it's a bit of an animal" which I always thought tempted the potential customer to reply, "yes, but which bit"?


Scrag end is the lean upper part of the lamb or mutton neck, hence that big bone in the middle which to some will resemble oxtail. Scrag is a multi purpose word these days and also archaically, as a term for the neck or merely a scrawny and thin person, also a word for getting hanged or strangled or just generally murdered, as in getting scragged, or being handled roughly and beaten up, or tackling an opponent with an arm around the neck in the sport of rugby. So as you can see, they are nearly all neck related. It tends to originate more in Scotland and northern England too and is at least 16th century.


Interestingly it may relate to various Scandinavian words which explains its preponderance in northern former Viking territory. Norwegian skragg (a lean person), dialectal Swedish skragge (old and torn thing), Danish skrog (hull, carcass);

There isn't really a single recipe for scrag end, all you have to know is that it is very tasty and it needs a slow cook for three hours. How you accomplish that and what you add is entirely up to you. What you call it is also up to you, in Wales it could become cawl, ooop north it could be hotpot, in the midlands it could be stew or in Surrey it might be bourguignon, while in Leicester or Balsall Heath in Birmingham it could be a Vindaloo or a Balti, or at a pinch curry goat as in some cultures mutton and goat are used interchangeably.


I fried onions and button mushrooms, none of your champignons, and added the root veg I had handy which in this case just amounted to carrots and potatoes, I also shredded some white cabbage and tossed that in the mix.


Had I not stumbled on my scrag by accident, and planned a bit more, I might have fetched some parsnips and swede too. As it is very much your own invention, empty the veg drawer. Just remember some veg won't stand a 3 hour long cook so you may need to occasionally take your scrag out of the oven to check for seasoning, make sure it hasn't dried out, and throw in the next veg in order of cooking time.



It declined in popularity to such an extent that even in war torn Britain you couldn't give it away.


Buckinghamshire Examiner - Friday 02 August 1940


THE SCRAG END. Tom Pollard, of Chalfont St. Giles, at Hendon, on Monday, was fined £2 and £1 /I /- costs for selling meat at Cricklewood without coupons. Pollard said the meat was scrag end of mutton, which people did not want in Summer time. He got rid of it to save it going bad.


By 1948, post war......


Western Daily Press - Thursday 27 May 1948


Gloucestershire's

"Scrag End"

Farm Shoppers

M. WORKMAN; a Gloucester delegate at the National Union of Agricultural Workers' conference at Scarborough yesterday appealed to the Union to ensure that farm workers were paid on Fridays so that their wives did not become '.'scrag end shoppers."


By 1962 scrag end had become a political hot potato....


Daily Mirror - Saturday 17 February 1962


`No scrag end for me'

Mr. Christopher Soames, Minister of Agriculture, says housewives should be more choosy and go for the cheaper cuts of meat (Mirror, Tuesday). How would he like to come home to scrag end after working from 6.45 a.m. to 6 p.m. ? Those who earn good money choose to spend it on the better joints.—E. F. M., Saffron Walden, Essex.

 

These are the peelings, so if you have a rabbit, give them a treat. My rabbit would eat almost any veg trimmings but went insane for a green grape or two. His dry mix mostly contained pea flakes which he loved but no matter how we hid his occasional grapes at the bottom of the bowl, he always knew they were there, and however full his bowl, one big swipe of his paws had everything on the floor to just to get at the grapes.


I added some dried herbs and some beef stock as well as a teaspoon of Bovril and a teaspoon of Vecon. I also added a squirt of honey. I trimmed some of the thicker pieces of fat off the outside to minimise having to strain any fat off at the end. Once you have fried off the scrag end, top up with boiling water because three hours bubbling will reduce it a lot and it will only burn if you let it go dry. Judicial checking and small top ups should leave you with a thick sweet savoury gravy by the end.


It is at this adding the stock stage that you could swap stock for cider for a rustic finish or even wine if you are headed for the bourguignon end of the spectrum, but you would need to move to Surrey first. It is also the stage where I would add my curry spices to fry off before adding your liquid.


As soon as I realised that the meat was falling off the bone I lifted out the pieces and left them to cool slightly. This was when I added the potatoes. While they were cooking I removed all the juicy dark meaty pieces from the bone. They have a very similar texture and flavour to the more familiar lamb shank, and when the potatoes were almost done I added the meat back in to heat through.


I would not hesitate to buy scrag end again, it is the perfect winter one pot dish. If you have a slow cooker buried somewhere in the attic, (can you bury things in an attic ?), then now is the time to retrieve it. If it has been well buried you may need to take off the 1978 plug and replace it, wipe off the layer of dust, and in these health and safety obsessed times, maybe get it PAT tested first. Slow Cookers were just made for scrag end.

 

In my meanderings through the archive I found this wonderful "Trip Advisor Review" from 1841, decrying the French Inn. This is definitely how we should write on Trip Advisor today.


Magnet (London) - Monday 21 June 1841


Mysteries of a French Inn Kitchen.


The inn at Angouleme, to which the diligence (large, four-wheeled, closed French stage coach employed for long journeys ) brought me, was one of the worst it has ever been my lot to fall upon in any country. There are many signs, and warnings which, to an experienced eye, betokens the badness or excellence of an hostelry. But it was late and dark; the town was miserably lighted, or rather not lighted at all; and it just then began to rain fast and heavily. So, despite, sundry misgivings as to the nature of the quarters I was likely to meet with, I was fain to house myself in the only shelter that presented itself, and make up my mind to take things as they came, for better or worse, the next twelve hours. The house, though a large one seem deserted, and I verily believe that I was the only guest it boasted.


The inmates, too, who had appeared on the arrival of the diligence, seemed to have all vanished as soon as the bustle occasioned by that event had subsided. After in vain calling and bawling, and obtaining from two or three anomalous looking, half-dressed, lounging animals in sabots (clogs) no other reply than 'Je n'es scai rein, moi,' (nothing to do with me) to my inquiries for ' garcon and fillies.' I dragged my portmanteau into the shelter of the open doorway, and groped my way along a dark passage, till at length I found myself in the kitchen.


A miserable looking slender candle, broken in half, was hanging far out of the perpendicular from a tall brass candlestick, and wasting its sweetness and its substance in large fat-drops which fell fast and thick in a slowly refrigerating pool upon the kitchen table. A few embers were smouldering upon the hearth, and the lord of this uninviting castle of indolence, the cook, unmistakeably proclaimed to he such by his filthy apron, once white jacket, and extra greasy nightcap, was snoring in a highbacked chair in the chimney corner, Here was pleasing prospect for a supperless mortal, who had travelled ninety-four miles in a French diligence without eating!


I waked ' Monsieur le chef,' however, and at length succeeded, after he had leisurely taken sufficient time to yawn, and stretch himself, and scratch his head, in making him comprehend my wants. He vouchsafed not a word in reply, but slowly and sulkily took from a shelf a strange-shaped, little, coverless earthen vase. that looked as if it had just been exhumed from amid the relics of Herculaneum, and planted it among the nearly extinct ashes on the hearth. This contained, as I discovered in due course, the delectable liquid which was to figure in my supper table as 'potage'.


His next operation was to unhook from an iron hoop, which hung from the ceiling, a black looking fragment of amorphous animal matter, which a more close examination shewed to be the scrag end of neck of mutton; and this, with a long knife, drawn from an ominously polished leathern case that was suspended at his apron-string, he proceeded to sever into lumps, to be transformed, despite the rebellious resistance of bone and gristle, by assiduous banging, into 'cotelettes.' I pointed out to him, while thus engaged, the condition of his candle, which he suffered to continue unheeded its odoriferous droppings on the table, within an inch or two of the spot on which be was manufacturing 'cotelettes'.


I had better have minded my own affairs, for the result of my interference was his seizing the half-melted candle in his fist, severing it in two with the knife of all work, and, after thus restoring it to the perpendicular, proceeding with the preparation of the cutlets, without even the ceremony of so much as wiping either his hands or the knife. This was done before my face and evidently without the slightest idea entering the head of Monsieur le chef that this meeting of the fats was in any wise objectionable or unusual. Hungry travellers! be warned by me, and be wise! Confine yourselves to the precincts of the salle-a-manger, and do not seek to pry into the mysteries of a French kitchen, or scrutinize too closely the antecedent history of the viands to be set before you."



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