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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Lobscouse

Updated: Feb 18


We will be ‘Sailing the Pirate Round’ once again and as before we will be visiting several English Heritage sites across Britain and introducing visitors to some of the food and drink popular in AD 1700 during the reign of Queen Anne and at the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. Those visitors who sample the prepared dishes nearly all agree that our lobscouse is delicious. It being a mixture of fried potatoes, fried onions, corned beef hash, smoked ham and spices – the recipe is below - what is not to like? However, as we got to speak with people from different parts of Great Britain and further afield, we began to realise that versions of this dish, with slightly different names, remain popular over a wide expanse of northern Europe. We quickly realised that this continuity had a long history, so we set out to discover the origins of lobscouse and its variations.


Lobscouse


It was immediately evident that lobscouse had a maritime connection. The name lobscouse commonly refers to a stew eaten by sailors throughout northern Europe in the 18th-century, a recipe that survives in different forms across northern Europe today. According to Webster's Dictionary the first known use of the term ’lobscouse’ dates to 1706 but, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, its origin is frustratingly unknown. The OED goes on to compare ‘lobscouse’ to ‘loblolly’ where the latter term is a combination of ‘lob’ referring to the thick, heavy bubbling of cooking porridge, and ‘lolly’ an old British dialect word for ‘broth, soup, or any other food boiled in a pot’. To confuse matters, ‘lobscouse’ may be encountered in contemporary sources written as ‘lopscourse’, ‘lobscourse’, ‘lobskous’, ‘lobscouce’, ‘lap's course’ and in its shortened form of ‘scouse’, more of which later.


Although its origins are obscure, variations of the word ‘lobscouse’ also appear in several northern European languages centred around the North and Baltic Seas. That lobscouse or scouse in Britain is so similar to the traditional dishes found in the Scandinavian countries of Norway (lapskaus), Sweden (lapskojs), Finland (lapskoussi), Denmark, (skipperlabskovs), and in northern Germany (Labskaus) strongly suggests these stews or hashes have their roots in the maritime trade across northern Europe. It is difficult to be certain whether ‘lobscouse’ originated in the Baltic ports as some claim or in Britain, however. That said, the first mention of lobscouse (as ‘lobs course’) appears in ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ written by Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett [1] and published in 1751. A derivation of the word first appears in German in 1878, some 127 years later, which tends to suggest that usage spread from Britain to northern Europe rather than vice versa.


Scouse


Scouse is strongly associated with the port of Liverpool, echoing its maritime roots, and its hinterland, in the north-west of England. While other regions of Britain were slower to begin growing potatoes, they were widely cultivated in Lancashire from the late 17th-century onwards. By the late 18th century, the potato-based lobscouse had not only become a traditional dish of the region, but its name had, according to the OED, been shortened to ‘scouse’. There is no rigidly defined recipe for lobscouse (or scouse) since it was traditionally made from leftovers and whatever was in season at the time. A 1797 description records that potatoes were:


‘…peeled, or rather scraped, raw; chopped, and boiled together with a small quantity of meat cut into very small pieces. The whole of this mixture is then formed into a hash, with pepper, salt, onions, etc., and forms a cheap and nutritive dish’ (Pike, 2014, 160).


However, an earlier reference from 1785 reads:


‘LOBS-COUSE, a dish much eaten at sea, composed of salt beef, [ship's] biscuit, and onions, well peppered and stewed together’ (Crowley, 2017, 35).


Clearly being a seaport would explain how scouse, ‘much eaten at sea’, became a favourite in Liverpool and why the inhabitants of the city are often referred to as ‘scousers’.


Ingredients


Being a dish intended to make use of leftovers and seasonal fare, the ingredients can vary according to time, place and budget. As a rule, the essentials are potatoes, carrots, onion and diced meat, which together are slow cooked for several hours. Some recipes suggest including marrowbones to thicken the stew echoing the sailor’s practice of adding ship’s bread (otherwise known as hard-tack or ship’s biscuit). Beef is traditionally preferred over lamb but where the latter is used, then the result is more akin to an Irish Stew or Lancashire Hotpot, both of which favour lamb or mutton. The proportion of meat to vegetables can vary from equal amounts to a one part meat to five parts potato. Purists may argue that any deviation from beef, potatoes, carrots, onion is not scouse, but remember the recipes are intended to produce cheap, nutritious meals that are eminently practical, easy to make in a small kitchen or indeed a ship’s galley, and adaptable to the season or prevailing circumstances. In the poorest areas of Liverpool, when funds ran too low for the purchase of even the cheapest cuts of meat, then a ‘blind scouse’ using only vegetables would be made.


Variations on a theme


Focusing just on Great Britain, lobscouse also appears in other parts of the country. In North Wales the full form is retained as ‘lobsgows’ (Welsh: lapsgóws), whereas in the nearby Potteries of the West Midlands it is known as ‘lobby’. The latter is a traditional North Staffordshire stew eaten by poorly paid potters who were often unable to afford freshly prepared food every day. Lobby typically consists of minced or diced beef or lamb, diced potatoes, onions, carrots, leeks, and root vegetables bulked up with pearl barley, and seasoned. As a cheap, nutritious meal made with seasonal vegetables, it remains on the menus of local pubs and on locals' dinner tables today. Slightly further North, the dish earned the inhabitants of Leigh, Greater Manchester the nickname ‘lobby gobblers’ (in contrast to the ‘pie eaters’ of neighbouring Wigan). Interestingly, one writer from Wigan states that, as well as mutton or tinned stewing steak, lobby can be made using corned beef.

Travelling further North, the good folk of Lancashire make a very similar dish called ‘potato hash’. Also known colloquially as ‘tattie’ash’, ‘tayter’ash’ or ‘potato ‘ash’, this is a classic one pot dish combining minced beef, onions, carrots, potatoes and beef stock. Once again, it is a tasty, simple to make, thrifty and economical family meal.


Lobscouse fit for Pirates


Returning to its nautical roots, 'one pot cooking' would be an ideal way to feed a large crew on board a ship. Our recipe for lobscouse, which has proven extremely popular with visitors to English Heritage’s pirate-themed events, is a variation on a corned beef hash. The recipe below has been slightly updated from the one published in 'A Banquet Fit for Pirates'. However, in the latter post you will also discover a recipe for Ship's Bread which can be added to thicken the dish or more generally bulk out the ingredients. Bon appétit:


 

References:


Chotzinoff Grossman, Anne; Grossman Thomas, Lisa (1997). Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. W.W. Norton. pp. 18–19.


Crowley, Tony (2017). The Liverpool English Dictionary: A Record of the Language of Liverpool 1850–2015. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


nordicnibbler.blogspot.com, (2010), ‘Lapskaus: a Hearty Norwegian Stew’, Available online (accessed November 25th, 2023).


Olsens, T.H., (2016), ‘Lobscouse’, nordicdiner.net, Available online (accessed November 25th, 2023).


Pike, E. R., (2014), ‘Human Documents of Adam Smith's Time’, London: Routledge.


Sandvold, Irene O. (2011). Gudrun's Kitchen: Recipes from a Norwegian Family. et al. Wisconsin Historical Society Press. pp. 87–89.


Endnote:


1. Tobias George Smollett, pictured right, (baptised March 19th, 1721 to September 17th, 1771) was a Scottish novelist, surgeon, critic and playwright. He was best known for picaresque novels such as ‘The Adventures of Roderick Random’ (1748), ‘The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle’ (1751) and ‘The Expedition of Humphry Clinker’ (1771), which influenced later novelists, including Charles Dickens.

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