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Issue 3 - Shortbread Tastings

Scotland Magazine Issue 3
July 2002


This article is 16 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Shortbread Tastings


Shortbread (‘short’ describes the crisp, crumbling texture) was originally a yeast-leavened mixture, but by the 1850’s the yeast had been abandoned and it was more or less as it is now – a rich blend of butter, flour and sugar. Meg Dods writing in 1826 suggests adding almonds and extra butter to make a thicker shortbread that was then sturdy enough to be sent to England as a gift.

Petticoat tails are the thinnest type of shortbread and are so-called because of their round shape resembles the full bell-hooped petticoats worn by ladies at the court of Mary Queen of Scots. There is, however, another strong theory about its etymology: that the name derives from petites galettes – French for little cakes.

We proud baking Scots would rather lay claim to having invented this most wonderful biscuit ourselves, however, without any assistance from our dear French friends during the Auld Alliance.

• Ian Buxton is a Management Consultant and contributor to Whisky Magazine
• Sue Lawrence is a food writer and contributor to Scotland Magazine
• Charlie MacLean is Editor-at-large of Whisky Magazine
• Roddy Martine is Contributing Editor of Scotland Magazine
• Marcin Miller is Editor of Scotland Magazine and Whisky Magazine
• Gerald Warner is an historian and columnist with Scotland on Sunday

Our team of tasters gathered in the elegant Drawing Room of the fivestar Scotsman Hotel, Edinburgh, formerly editorial offices of The Scotsman newspaper. Aperfect venue for the appreciation of an unique Scottish product. 20 North Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YT.
Tel: +44 (0) 131 556 5565
Fax: +44 (0) 131 652 3652

Price: £4.79 ($6.98) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £9.58 ($13.96)
Contact: Walkers Shortbread, Aberlour on Spey, AB38 9PD, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1340 871 555
Availability: Independent food stores, delicatessens, food markets. Available in North America
Special ingredients: None
Traditional recipe: Family recipe since 1898

Nearly all the tasters were initially struck by how ‘artisanal’ and ‘homemade’ the biscuits looked, with an “uneven” (Ian) and even “wonky”(Charlie) appearance, certainly not judged to be a bad thing. Marcin also commented of the colour: “quite dark, quite heavily baked”, which Ian described as “attractive, traditional”. More importantly, this sample also won through on taste. All of the panel felt that the balance between sweet and savoury was excellent: “Not too aggressive, certainly not too sweet” in Marcin’s opinion, “nice sweet/salt balance” according to Ian, a “good butter/biscuit balance; not too sweet or fatty” commented Charlie, and “no lingering sickliness” was Roddy’s impression. Another point of praise was the texture of the biscuits. Comments on this ranged from “good” (Marcin) to “excellent” (Gerald) and “great” (Sue). All tasters scored this sample highly, and, as Marcin put it, there was “nothing negative to say”; praise indeed! Overall the panel appreciated that the product was “unpretentious” (Gerald); Ian felt it could have been “hand-made by craft grannies”. Marcin’s comment sums up the general appreciation: “Moderation in all things”. Avery British appraisal!

Price: £6.62 ($9.64) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £13.24 / $19.28
Contact: Island Bakery Organics, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Argyll PA75 6PY, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1688 302223
Availability: Good food halls, delicatessens, organic stores. Available to North America via mail order
Special ingredients: All organic. All-butter, no vegetable fats
Traditional recipe: Yes, but modified with generous quantities of butter

Where the Walker’s Rounds were highly rated for being traditonal and tasty, this second-highest scoring sample was more of a novelty offering. Several tasters commented on the dark colour of the biscuits, which Ian described as “high bake gold / brown colour” and Charlie as “deep golden”. They were judged to look homemade by Marcin and Ian, and the biscuit size struck the panel due to its slim, small dimensions. Where Gerald found this “convenient”, Roddy did not take to it. As for Walker’s, the sweet/savoury balance was admired: “unassuming but good” according to Gerald, “not too buttery/fatty” (Charlie) and “good butter/salt/sweet balance” (Ian). One interesting observation echoed by several tasters was that this shortbread would be an ideal dessert accompaniment. Sue commented:
“Would be good with an ice cream or pudding, not so much tea”, Charlie also suggested “serve with ice cream?” and Roddy judged it “more of a pudding accompaniment than an honest traditional bite”. This was largely because of the small size and the crispness of the biscuits, resembling good quality wafers. As Roddy remarked, “the quality is excellent”, even if shortbread traditionalists might feel it is “not a classic shortbread”, as Charlie commented. The panel felt innovation was no bad thing with such a quality product.

Price: £3.49 ($5.08) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £6.98 / $10.16
Contact: Walkers Shortbread, Aberlour on Spey, AB38 9PD, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1340 871 555
Availability: Independent food stores, delicatessens, food markets. Available in North America
Special ingredients: None
Traditional recipe: Family recipe since 1898

With this sample, the tasters really had something to get their teeth into. First of all, Marcin and Charlie commented on the darker colour, Ian on the “attractive golden and traditional markings” and Roddy on the “good firm appearance”, although Sue thought it looked “unappetising”. As for the texture, Gerald felt it would be “too much for granny’s false teeth to cope with” Ian commented “good body and crunch, nice bite – good resistance in the mouth”, Charlie thought it “harder, firmer, chewy” and Roddy “crisper and very traditonal”. The sweet/savoury balance was again admired, with Ian describing the fingers as “salty” and both Charlie and Marcin commenting it was “not too sweet”; only Sue found this to be a negative point. Certainly the sample was judged to be full of character, “virile” and “an honest traditional product” according to Gerald, “very masculine” (Roddy) and “confident and assertive” from Ian, who guessed it might be a Walker’s product. Ian summed up the panel’s general feeling, describing it as “a muckle bite!”

Price: £3.30 ($6.60) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £6.60 ($13.20)
Contact: Paterson Arran Ltd., Royal Burgh Bakery, Livingston EH54 5DN, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1506 431 031
Availability: Retail outlets at several UK airports. Available to North. America via mail order
Special ingredients: English clotted cream
Traditional recipe: Yes

The richness of this sample, in at number four, struck the panel – perhaps not surprising as English clotted cream is an ingredient of the rounds. Gerald described “rich flavour”, Ian a “buttery nose” (not his own we hope), Charlie “typical butter and pastry” and Roddy a “pleasantly buttery/butterscotch taste”. However, the panel did not find the sample too cloying, with Ian commenting: “quick melting in mouth. Butter predominant, but not too sweet”, Charlie noting “attractive, light pastry” and Roddy summarising: “a ‘light tea’ biscuit”. Sue, though, sailed somewhat against the breeze, finding the sample “rather teeth-cloying”, and “not much buttery flavour”. The texture was universally admired as dry, pleasant and having “good snap and resistance” (Ian). Overall, dual richness and delicacy were appreciated, with Roddy judging it “more for the girls than the boys.”

Price: $15.43 (£10.63) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: $30.86 / £21.26
Contact: Bonnie Doon’s, PO Box 34, Manchester, VT 05254, USA
Tel +1 802 362 0401
Availability: Scottish Highland Games and craft fairs eastern US. Mail order and website
Special ingredients: All natural, no preservatives
Traditional recipe: Yes

The first of our two American samples made from traditional Scottish recipes, Bonnie Doon’s scored equally with the Scottish Dalgetty’s sample. Charlie first of all commented on the unusual square shape of the biscuits, and in general the appearance was favoured. Marcin mentioned the “pleasant appearance” which Ian found “pale”along with Marcin, and Charlie noted a “nice natural appearance”. The biscuit flavour was deemed to be buttery by several tasters, and the texture smooth, with a ‘melt-in-the-mouth’ effect. It was also described as quite crumbly, with opinion somewhat divided as to whether this was a good thing or not. The sample scored pretty well with most tasters, the only criticism being that it was perhaps “too refined”, as Ian commented, and a little insubstantial, though unquestionably enjoyed by the panel.

Price: £2.60 ($3.79) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £5.20 / $7.58
Contact: Alex Dalgetty & Sons, 21 Island Street, Galashiels TD1 1NZ, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1896 752 508
Availability: Direct from Dalgetty’s, various retailers in Scotland. Available to North America via mail order
Special ingredients: 100% butter
Traditional recipe: Yes

Although this scored equally with Bonnie Doon’s, it was quite a different kettle of fish. The tasters were first struck with the colour, described by Marcin as “high yellow”, Gerald as “golden”, Sue as “too yellow”, and as “rather pale”, in contrast, by Ian. The next obvious feature was the liberal dusting of sugar on top of the biscuits, which Marcin found “pretty”, but subsequently “far too much”, along with Ian, who thought it dominated “taste and mouthfeel” and Charlie who deemed the sample “too sugary”. In general, it was felt by the panel to be very sweet, and according to Gerald should be “eaten in small doses” as a result. The texture drew positive comments, with Marcin noting a “good crumble”, Ian a “good ‘snap’” and both Charlie and Sue liking it. Ian and Roddy designated this sample respectively as a ‘high tea/afternoon tea’ shortbread, not a snack shortbread.

Price: £2.58 ($3.76) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £5.16 / $7.52
Contact: Dean’s of Huntly Ltd., Huntly, Aberdeenshire AB54 8JX, Scotland
Tel +44 (0) 1466 792 086
Availability: Supermarkets, various independent retailers and delicatessens. Available to North America via mail order
Special ingredients: No
Traditional recipe: Yes, family recipe with slow-bake process

Sue was impressed with the presentation of this sample, commenting “very nice. Looks hand-made with ‘fork-picking’”. Marcin noted its “traditional shape”, and Charlie its “classic shape”. In terms of taste, Ian mentioned a “pronounced buttery flavour”, Sue a “good buttery flavour”, and Roddy found that there was “not too much sweetness”. However, several of the panel felt that the sample was a little “hollow” (Marcin). Roddy commented “It looks right, but disappoints” and Marcin that it “promises but doesn’t deliver”, with Ian also in agreement. Again, Sue didn’t go with the general consensus, finding the sample “very moreish” and scoring it highly.

Price: £4.55 ($6.63)/500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £9.10 / $13.26
Contact: Shortbread House of Edinburgh, 14 New Broompark, Edinburgh EH3 5BR, Scotland.
Tel +44 (0) 131 552 0027
Availability: Independent delicatessens and department stores. Available to North America via mail order or from
Special ingredients: Rice flour and vegetable shortening for crispness
Traditional recipe: Yes, the original recipe of a farmer’s daughter, Mrs Wilson. Still hand-made.

The tasters felt this was another sample that looked homemade. Marcin described it as “round-ish and dimply”, Charlie noted that it was “scone-shaped with dimples” and Ian remarked on the “scallop edge” and described it as “appealing … Attractive colour and nice uneven markings”. Roddy admired the “good chunky shape”. In terms of taste, Gerald found the flavour “reasonably good” and Charlie the “biscuity flavour good”. Acommon criticism was, however, that the biscuits were “oily/fatty rather than buttery” (Marcin) and “spoiled by being too fatty” (Charlie). Both Ian and Charlie commented that the sample had a “slightly fatty aroma”, and Marcin and Charlie found it a bit too “mouth-coating”. Overall, the sample was felt to be promising, but spoiled by being a little fatty.

Price: £3.43 ($5)/500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £6.86 / $10
Contact: Alexander Taylor, The Waterside Bakery, 10 – 11 Waterside Street, Strathaven, Lanarkshire. ML10 6AW, Scotland.
Tel +44 (0) 1357 521 260
Availability: The bakery shop. Not available to North America
Special ingredients: None
Traditional recipe: Yes

This sample scored equally with Shortbread House of Edinburgh, in seventh place. The appearance of the sample impressed the panel as being “substantial and hearty” (Ian), “large, masculine” (Charlie) and “a boy’s own bite” according to Roddy. Most of the tasters agreed though that the sample didn’t really live up to its initial promise. Marcin found it “very soft”, Gerald, Ian and Roddy “soggy”, and Charlie “soft and chewy”. Marcin, however, commented that it was “not unpleasant. Nice balance between salt and sugar”, and Sue liked the texture and the “buttery nose”. To conclude, Roddy remarked “quite the opposite to its look”, and Ian preferred the unusual image of “a suit of armour with a wimp inside”.

Price: £2.92 ($4.25)/500g
Equivalent price per kilo: £5.84 / $8.50
Contact: Tods of Orkney Ltd, 18 Bridge Street, Kirkwall, Orkney. KW15 1HR, Scotland.
Tel +44 (0) 1856 873 165
Availability: Delicatessens, tourist outlets, some supermarkets, convenience stores north UK. Available to North America via mail order
Special ingredients: No
Traditional recipe: Yes, originating from Westray, one of Orkney’s northern isles

This was the only petticoat tail sample. One major impression for the tasters was that it was “commercial” (Marcin, Charlie), “populist” (Gerald) and “not handmade” (Charlie). Several tasters were struck by an aroma / taste of coconut, and the sample was felt to be “too crumbly” by Marcin, Gerald and Roddy. Sue, however, liked the texture. Gerald and Ian remarked that the appearance of the biscuits was “traditional”. Charlie and Roddy disagreed about the flavour, Charlie commenting that it was “not buttery enough” which Sue also observed, and Roddy that it was “a bit too buttery”. Another contradictory impression was that Roddy found the biscuit “sticks in the teeth”, whereas Ian felt it was “light and lacks substance in the mouth”. This offering somewhat divided the critics. Ian summed it up as “sweetie shop”.

Price: $17.59 (£12.11) / 500g
Equivalent price per kilo: $35.18 / £24.22
Contact: Mrs Morrison’s Shortbread, 10744 Rockvill Street, Ste. 110, Santee, CA 92071, USA.
Tel +1 619 448 2448
Availability: Online, mail order, Scottish gatherings California, USA
Special ingredients: None
Traditional recipe: Grandma Morrison’s recipe brought over from Scotland

Amajor point of comment for this, the second American sample, was the size and shape of the biscuits. The ‘shortbread bites’ were described as “tiny, dinky shortbreadlets” by Sue, and felt to be a little “gimmicky” by Marcin and Roddy. The panel were sceptical about the size of the biscuits, which Ian found “insubstantial”. Sue commented “you’d need a handful to satisfy!” and Marcin that “one bite is not enough”. Charlie, however, felt that they would make “pretty drinks-party nibbles”. The flavour was also deemed to be unusual: “dessicated coconut” (Marcin), “nonshortbread” (Gerald), “lemon flavour to start, then shortbread then a trace of coconut” (Charlie). Sue’s feeling was that the “flavour is fine”.The texture was described by several tasters as dry, though Ian found it “too buttery”. Ian also described it as “a novelty – for tourists”, and certainly the unusual size and shape of this sample went against it.