In Praise of the Rowie

For some reason I’ve had rowies on my mind lately. I must be missing home.

For anyone not already aware, ‘rowie’ is one of the names for a uniquely Aberdonian type of bread roll that engenders singularly strong emotion in people from the north east of Scotland.

Other places with a specific culinary speciality will be the same, I imagine. Citizens of Lisbon must have strong attachments to their phenomenal pastéis de nata custard tarts and the people of Parma doubtless get misty eyed about their peerless ham.

There’s a very particular sort of nostalgia attached to the food of the place you grew up and for many Aberdonians the catalyst for that comforting glow is the rowie, also known as the buttery — a unique, flattish, flaky bread roll made using a similar method to croissants or filo pastry, where the dough is folded with layers of lard to create what’s known as laminated pastry. (I just repeated that in my head in the voice of Homer Simpson. “Mmmm… Laminated pastry…” I’ve obviously got it bad.)

The generally accepted reason for there being two distinct names for what is essentially the same thing is that, historically, the word ‘rowie’ was used by people from the city and ‘buttery’ by people from the country. Further obfuscation is caused by the fact that, depending on how they’re made, they can be crispy or soft and this has led to endless discussion about whether the texture is also a town/country thing. Personally I don’t think it is, but I don’t have a horse in that race. I like them crispy and I call them rowies, and here’s why:

First, the word ‘buttery’, in my mind, is an adjective and not a noun, and although there’s no denying it’s a fair description — particularly after you’ve smeared an extra centimetre of delicious salty butter on top because there’s just not enough fat in that bad boy already; second, ‘rowie’ isn’t a word that you come across anywhere else and that seems somehow more fitting. An extraordinary roll deserves unique nomenclature. A rowie has character. It has history. Its origins are in the fishing communities of the north east of Scotland where it was taken to sea in the pockets of fishermen. The sheer quantity of fat and salt packed into its easily transportable form meant that it was slower to perish than normal bread, could last for several weeks and even then, could be moistened with a splash of sea water when it got stale. It also delivered a huge energy boost to flagging fisherman. Bread with a specific job surely deserves a specific name.

For the uninitiated, there are a couple of other things to be aware of.

A rowie is not a thing to be messed with. If you take one out the toaster too quickly, you’re unlikely to be identifiable by your fingerprints ever again. Rowies heat up to approximately the same temperature as the surface of the sun. They demand your respect.

If it were up to me, they’d be protected by the equivalent of a DOC or AOC. Perhaps an RR designation — ‘Richt Rowie’. Don’t be fooled by those substandard non-entities that try to pass themselves off in supermarkets as rowies, butteries, or “Aberdeen rolls”. Don’t go near them. Those johnny-come-latelys are as similar to a true rowie as Shakin’ Stevens was to Elvis. They’re basically a bad photocopy. When they started appearing in supermarkets I remember trying them and thinking ‘What the hell is that?” It tasted like yeast and vegetable oil, had the chewy texture of day-old focaccia and was a total stranger to me. The dough was all wrong. I’m sure they’re much improved now, but still. *shudder*

For me, a Richt Rowie is deliciously crunchy and flaky round the edges and soft and fibrous in the middle. And salty. So very salty. Oh, how I want a rowie, but in Edinburgh, where I live, they’re nowhere to be found and I have to rely on the occasional care package from home to get a fix.

People have been known to put strange things on them — I’ve heard exotic tales of sausages, jam and cheese — it is bread, after all, so I guess the rule is: whatever you can balance on top is legitimate. But my personal guilty pleasure is ham. Yes, really. Not every time — I’m not a barbarian — just once in a blue moon for the novelty of it. You slice the warm rowie horizontally, slide in a piece of sweet honeyroast ham, a sprinkle of rock salt (because again, not enough salt in there already) and ohmygoodgod.

Generally speaking though, I’m more of a purist. I like it heated, then slightly cooled (safety first …) then salted butter. But there are definite Goldilocks issues to be taken into account here: if it’s too hot, the butter sinks right in and ruins the wonderful crispiness; too cold and it just sits there on top making you feel guilty for putting a load of fat on top of an item whose principal ingredient is lard. But get it right and wow. The combination of warm, salty, crunchy and buttery is as close to bread heaven as you can get. And the guilt adds an extra layer of illicit pleasure to the whole experience. Every rowie comes with the certain knowledge that it’ll be a while til the next one. Well, it will be, just after you hoof that other one that you bought in case there was some kind of incident with the first one. That’s another thing — you always need a back-up safety rowie. Which you always eat fairly swiftly after the first one so it doesn’t hang around making you feel guilty.

Everyone has their own way to ‘do’ their rowie. It’s a bit like bacon that way — everyone knows exactly how they like their bacon and anything else is good — sometimes even great — but not perfect. I wonder what the vegetarian equivalent might be. Although vegetarians would be steering well clear of proper rowies anyway, since they contain high levels of, you know, oink.

So. Now. At the risk of drawing the fire of north-easters, it’s time to nail my colours to the mast. The Granite City’s blessed with some great bakers and Messrs Thain and Messrs Chalmers craft an extremely fine rowie, there’s no denying, but the gold standard, the ne plus ultra of rowie-dom for me has to be the mighty Aitkens Bakery. In a lifetime of recurrent rowie-ing, they’ve never provided anything less than perfection. Often with something you love to eat and look forward to as a treat, the idea of the thing actually turns out to be better than the over-anticipated reality. Not so an Aitkens rowie. It’s amazing the kind of Pavlovian joy that can be had from just holding a gently bulging paper bag with a blue lighthouse on it.

I read an article by some self-proclaimed international gourmand recently about trying rowies for the first time and how, although they were delicious, he decreed that any right-thinking person should shun them due to the dangerously high fat and salt content. Ok, at 300-plus calories a pop (with sundry healthy toppings probably adding another 100ish) it probably isn’t in a nutritionist’s Top 10 Healthy Picks, but I’m not suggesting anyone eat them in bulk. As risks go it’s minimal and really, without occasionally allowing ourselves to steal into deliciously illicit territory, what’s the point?

I gave up smoking and I drink in moderation — they can take my cigarettes, they can take (some of) my wine, but they’ll never take my rowies.