From humble utilitarian bar snack to fully evolved gastro pub status symbol, the recent gentrification of the Scotch egg speaks volumes about our current gastronomic zeitgeist. A bit broke without being totally penniless, the discerning punter now contextualizes the relative expense of their eating and drinking habits. Now, he or she rightly thinks: if it costs more, it should do more. So generic, only vaguely psychoactive piddle of the Carlsberg school has been replaced by potent double IPAs from as far as New Zealand and smoky porters from as close to home as Haggerston. We have come to realise, it seems, that while more bespoke pleasures may cost more, they also tastes twice as good and, crucially, pack twice the punch.
The same but also the reverse is true of our dining habits: no longer can be regarded as slaves to the sit down meal. Rather, a splash out supper can now comprise a few small plates over some pisco sours at a trendy new joint like Ceviche or, if you’re really ancient, a comparable experience at the relatively geriatric Spuntino. Likewise, for considerably less trendy types like me, it can amount a bit of old school munch at a nice boozer – not the full on sausage and mash treatment so much as that wondrous deep-fried combination of chicken period, sausage meat, and bread crumbs, the Scotch egg. Sure, with some of the better ones approaching £5, it might all seem a bit excessive for a bar snack, but when you consider that Mark Hix would call it a starter, charge close to a tenner for it, and have it served to you by an arrogant turd, you realise that you’re almost approaching the realm of good value.
Because for all our pretensions as foodies – for all our affectations as crusaders of the smoked artichoke – sometimes it still is more about lining the stomach than chasing down the next temple of gastronomic greatness. Until about a year or so ago, I scarcely knew Scotch eggs existed outside of the odd roadside M&S en route to the mysterious territory known as the North. Now, they’re the first thing that cross my mind every time I step into a pub that seems to have an above average air about it. More often than not, I’m disappointed and presented with something that’s about as attractive as a graceless description of its raw ingredients. Occasionally I find myself satisfied, and ever so rarely I’m left wowed.
The Jugged Hare is one place that elicit the less common response. As you would expect from the ETM Group – also known for the Botanist in Sloane Square and the Prince Arthur in London Fields – the recently opened Hare is a textbook posh pub. The deferential bar staff dress in waist coats and are attractive in a generic kind of way, there are lots of stuffed dead things, and much of the building is given over to full-scale dining. You really wouldn’t fancy your chances of getting served if you wandered in wearing a tracksuit, but it’s not so intimidating that you wouldn’t pop in just for a beer and ales are a real strength. The well-kept selection is focused around London breweries and is served in frosty mugs, a brave move that will no doubt irk traditionalists but one I fully endorse. Inevitably, the pricing is enthusiastic: the handpulls aren’t too jawdropping, but bottles, including an excellent house pale ale, are a bit precious for my wallet. Still, so long as you have an ample budget and don’t get too worked up by the ‘City types’ that tend to dominate this part of town, it’s a good spot to get a good beer.
And a very good bar snack. Crispy skate knobs sound tempting, while chips and gravy seems deliberately out of place on the menu of a City gastropub, but it’s really all about the Scotch egg. While the choice of meat filling comes across as knowingly upmarket, there is no question that this venison version is superb. Made fresh – so expect a short wait – it arrives warm, crisp and delicately crunchy on the outside, with rich gamey flavours lurking inside, along with an egg that is crucially still a bit runny. It’s big enough to justify it’s £4.50 price tag and the accompanying Cumberland sauce is another gutsy decision I thoroughly approve of and a further nod to the more righteous elements of Northern gastronomy. In fact, I would actually venture that it’s a much better partner as hot mustard can be too dominant at times.
You’re spoilt for choice for pubs in this part of town and, down the road towards Clerkenwell, The Old Red Cow makes for an interesting comparison with the Hare. It’s more self-consciously chalk and sawdust, the kind of post-modern no frills boozer where a rug is about as decorative as it gets but the dispensing system probably costs as much as a two-up, two-down on Humberside. It offers a very good selection of cask ale – Sambrooks was particularly well represented on my visit – and rotates an excellent range of craft beer that might feature Brew Dog, Meantime and Camden Town alongside carefully considered options from the U.S. and the Continent. It takes its beer very, very seriously indeed and holds regular dinner events to promote the criminally underappreciated pairing potential of said tipple. Both traditional and progressive, it’s like a little compact version of my current Favourite Pub in London, the Jolly Butchers, and is everything I look for in a drinking den. I’d be lying hideously if I said I didn’t find it a considerably more inviting venue than the Hare, not least because bar manager Elliott is down-to-earth, knowledgeable, and reminds me of Neil Young – I don’t think you’re likely to find him decked out in kitsch Victoriana anytime soon.
Based on its Scotch egg, the kitchen is pretty damn rock and roll too. In many ways, it’s a classic interpretation of this very versatile bar snack: all old school herbaceous, porky goodness served in the more traditional way with mustard. But in another sense, it’s totally of its time, as the Scotch egg’s elevation from service station standby to fully fetishized food stuff is absolutely a recent development. Like medium rare burgers, the gooey-yolked Scotch egg has evolved into a foodie obsession over the last couple of years and at the Cow, the luminous orange liquidity at the heart of the beast is almost unreal, threatening to steal the show entirely. I make no bones about being an amateur photographer at best, but I’d challenge you to find a better Scotch egg money shot than this:
Pronouncing on my favourite between the two is a bit beside the point, because they’re both excellent and either would be a welcome addition to any boozer in the country. If prodded, I would have to go with the Old Red Cow’s version because, with little to differentiate in terms of quality, the deciding factor is personal taste and I’m an eternally biased little sod – I will almost always take classic over upmarket, rough and ready over slick and polished. That I felt more at home at the Cow inevitably improved my overall experience: the yolk of its egg was, in fact, a little bit runnier, but finding it a tiny bit creamier as well is almost certainly the work of my besotted imagination. And it’s a bit cheaper.
But fair dues to the Hare: yes, it’s definitely a full-on ‘gastro’ joint, but it actually does it all quite nicely for the most part. Sure, it’s very expensive and the current mood for taxidermy can’t die soon enough for my liking – but the beer is good and frosty mugs curry a hell of a lot of favour in ScavLand. More than that, you can’t just walk into any ol’ boozepit and find something better than a packet of Walker’s and a bag of dry-roasted nuts to munch on while you apply some hard earned mental lubricant. The places where you can should be praised, even if they do have their faults, and especially so at the more suave end of the spectrum where so many establishments still happily truffle you off with a bowl of shite olives or, worse still, those stale wasabi travesties.
Like bloody faux hunting lodge décor, this whole proper bar snack thing is more than a bit on trend at the moment. I’ve found a number of other good Scotch eggs knocking about recently, at places as diverse as a Shoreditch scenester haunt (The Strongroom Bar & Kitchen) and a gentile riverside pub in Wandsworth (The Ship, below). Out on the streets, the Egg Boss is paving the way and his Holy Fuck number is another one to watch for. There’s definitely the potential for a list of some sort in the future, but rigid classifications aside, it’s simply great news for discerning punters and bad news for subpar kebab shops.
Until someone infinitely more influential than me decides that buffalo wings are going to be the next big thing in British pubs and bars – for the record, please hurry up whoever you are – having quality Scotch eggs like those available at places like The Old Red Cow and The Jugged Hare isn’t bad compensation at all. At the very least, it helps to stave off that next dodgy donner and, accompanied by a nice pint, it’s actually quite a serviceable little meal – for us more plebacious types at least…