James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Blood for Breakfast Is Wasted on the Young

Blood for Breakfast Is Wasted on the Young

Black Pudding in the Outer Hebrides

Never tell an 8-year-old what they’re really eating, especially when their breakfast involves a mix of pig’s blood, oatmeal, beef suet, and onion.

In the islands of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, Stornoway Black Pudding is a traditional breakfast ingredient that, over the years, has evolved from rural island staple to in-demand delicacy, with the same E.U.-protected status as Champagne, Roquefort, and Parma ham.

Horrified at the thought of blood in my food, I didn’t touch another Stornoway Black Pudding for 20 years. By the time I was brave enough to try again, it was too late: I was preparing to move to the other side of the world, to a country where the marag dhubh, as we call it in Gaelic, is banned.

Returning home to the Outer Hebrides after 18 months in New York City meant rediscovering the marag dhubh I had abandoned years before. Where once I had barely noticed it, now it seemed as if black pudding was everywhere, on menus up and down the spinal chain of islands.

Of course, I saw it in Stornoway, the small harbor town that gives the breakfast item its name. I paused in one of the town butchers, admiring the fat lengths of marag hanging on the back wall where they swayed slightly above the counter tops. The debate about which butcher produces the best marag dhubh is a contentious one, even within the same family: one person might prefer Willie John’s, another Charlie Barley’s or maybe MacLeod and MacLeod.

Stornoway Black Pudding now accompanies everything from burgers to freshly caught scallops, but I learned that it’s still best for breakfast. After a road trip through the length of the Outer Hebrides, my family and I were circling our last destination in the car, looking for sustenance after an early morning arrival on the ferry. We found it at Barra Airport, which at times is used more frequently as a café than an airport, given the tidal nature of its white-sand beach runway. With no intention of getting on a plane, I placed my order: Stornoway Black Pudding, bacon, and potato scone on a roll, a classic combination.

Served without the skin that holds it together in the frying pan, the slice of marag was firm enough to retain its circular shape, but just crumbly enough to yield to a generous bite. Its strong peppery taste—a clue about which Stornoway butcher it came from—paired perfectly with the salty bacon rasher, the crispy, fried potato scone, and the fluffy, white bread roll.

My 8-year-old self would have been horrified, but I was in my element: the blood-infused breakfast combination was everything I had hoped it would be. I didn’t see the plane land while I ate my breakfast, but I didn’t mind: my taste buds were making up for lost time, after all.

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