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Recipe for traditional Cullen Skink, a thick and creamy Smoked Haddock Soup from Cullen in Scotland with potato, onion and milk with added bay leaf and parsley.

Often served on Scottish occasions such as Burn’s Night (25 January) or Saint Andrew’s Day (30 November), or simply in many Scottish restaurants. French friends particularly love this for something deliciously different as a starter in Winter. What’s more, discover a tartan connection between Scotland and France.

white lion bowl of creamy fish soup surrounded by tartan and heather

What is Cullen Skink?

Cullen Skink is a classic Scottish soup – much like a creamy, thick chowder. It’s traditionally made using Finnan Haddie (Finnan Haddock), a cold-smoked haddock known for its smoking methods in North-East Scotland. However, most of the time it’s made with un-dyed smoked haddock, potatoes and onion.

In my recipe, however, I often use leek instead of onion. So it tastes much like a creamy leek and potato soup with the added smoky flavour of the fish. For textures, I love the smoothness of the soup with added chunks of the poached fish, flaked in at the end of cooking.

Why is it called Cullen Skink?

Why is this smoked haddock soup called Cullen Skink?

Skink is an old Scots word for soup or an essence – as it’s wonderfully strong and flavourful.

Cullen is a small fishing village on the Moray Firth on the North-East coast of Scotland. As it’s where haddock is particularly popular, it’s no surprise it’s where the soup originated. So that’s what the Cullen part means.

cullen skink ingredients

Cullen Skink Ingredients

Recipes for Cullen Skink vary but the basic ingredients for traditional Cullen Skink are un-dyed smoked haddock (preferably a Finnan Haddie to be authentic), milk/cream, potato, onion, a bay leaf and fresh parsley. There is no butter.

In Scottish restaurants, I’ve had light versions but overloaded with potato chunks with not much fish.  I’ve also had extra thick versions, loaded with rich cream that by the time the main dish arrived, I’d already had my fill since it was too rich. So I prefer mine with semi-skimmed milk – the result is a creamy texture at only 190 calories a bowl.

Scottish purists may scream, but I often make it using a leek (we love leeks!) but if you prefer to make Cullen Skink the traditional way, use an onion instead. For the potato, if you like a more firm variety, pick an all-rounder such as Charlotte, Yellow or Yukon Gold. However, we love a more floury potato, so pick from Russet, King Edward, Maris Piper, Desiree or Binje (See more on potato varieties in cooking).

My favourite way of making this soup has been a mix of many different approaches: I simply poach the fish in semi-skimmed milk and use no cream – and no water either.

I only half blitz it with the hand mixer until smooth and creamy, so leave some chunks of potato then flake in the poached fish at the end, topping with chopped fresh parsley.

crate of yellow smoked fish at market

What is Smoked Haddock in French?

Ideally traditional Scottish recipes call for Finnan haddock or undyed smoked haddock fillets.  As it’s not that easy to find them in France, I take the only smoked haddock I can find. It’s simply called “Haddock” (pronouncedaddock – the French don’t pronounce the ‘H’). Years ago, when I called it Haddock Fumé with my Jane Birkin accent, I was corrected. So, just saying.

If you want plain, unsmoked haddock in France, it’s known as Eglefin.

fishcakes with tartare sauce, topped with chives and lemon wedges

What do you Make with Smoked Haddock?

Fishmongers at our French local market in Saint-Germain-en-Laye are surprised that I use smoked haddock to make soup. In fact, it surprises the French each time I tell them about this recipe. So, even if this recipe is in English, this is for you, Mesdames, Messieurs – and our French dinner guests who love this as it’s something a bit different as a starter.

For something more classic, make these delicious smoked haddock fish cakes. Serve them with homemade Tartare Sauce (mine is in the shape of Corsica here!).

bowl of soup surrounded by tartan cloth

Is there a Scottish Tartan in France?

Indeed there is. As a pure Scot myself and French citizen, I’m proud to show this as a continuing alliance between the French and the Scots.

Since 1984, the French town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye near Paris has been twinned with Ayr in Scotland.  This Scottish tartan, ‘the Princess Mary’, in the photo above is the special tartan created in 2001 for the French and Scottish Twin Association between Ayr and Saint-Germain-en-Laye by the Queen’s Chancellory and the Court of the Lord Lyon in Edinburgh.

The Scottish connection with France and Saint-Germain-en-Laye goes back to the young Mary Queen of Scots, who lived for a short while as a child with the young Dauphin in the Château of Saint-Germain. Later, with James VII of Scotland (and II of England), the Stuart family lived here in exile, thanks to James’s cousin, Louis XIV. James VII (grandfather of Bonnie Prince Charlie) stayed the rest of his life here and is buried in the church across from the Château.  As a result, the tartan is based on the Stuart tartan.
For more about the royal town, see my introduction to Saint-Germain-en-Laye – I highly recommend visiting from Paris.

Did you know there’s even an Auld Alliance museum in France? It’s in Aubigny-sur-Nère where there’s an annual Scottish-French festival to celebrate the Auld Alliance in France.

How do You Make a Cullen Skink?

Back to this soup. I couldn’t resist saying that, as it sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? It makes me think of the one, “How do you stop a skunk from smelling?” Answer: “Hold its nose.”

Here’s how to make a Cullen Skink, or a Scottish Smoked Haddock Soup/Chowder from scratch.

how to make cullen skink soup

  • Put the smoked haddock, bay leaf and parsley in a large pan and pour over the milk.
  • Cover and poach very gently over a low heat for about 10 minutes (please don’t overcook the fish otherwise it will turn rubbery).
  • Take out the fish to cool on a plate, then add the potatoes and onion (or optional leek) until cooked. When cooked, add the chopped fresh parsley (always at the end to preserve its flavour and vitamins). Blitz to your preferred consistency then flake in the fish and serve immediately.

lion bowl of fish chowder with tartan and heather

I’ve been ‘bowled over’ (groan!) to discover that French friends find it an impressive dish served as a starter. It’s perhaps not just the comforting thickness and creaminess of the soup but the smoky fragrance just gives it that something extra special.

I’ll also let you in to a cunning secret: I serve small to medium-sized portions of this to start the meal, leaving friends wanting just a bit more.

The added bonus is that Cullen Skink freezes well too for up to 2 months.

white lion bowl of creamy fish soup surrounded by tartan and heather
5 from 3 votes

Scottish Cullen Skink Soup (Smoked Haddock Chowder)

Author: Jill Colonna
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time30 mins
Total Time40 mins
Course : Appetizer, Soup, Starter, Light Lunch
Cuisine : Scottish
Keyword : Cullen skink, Scottish soup, smoked fish chowder, smoked haddock soup
Servings : 4 people
Calories : 190kcal

Description

Traditional recipe for Cullen Skink, a creamy smoked haddock soup - much like a chowder -originally from the fishing village of Cullen in Scotland. Healthy recipe using semi-skimmed milk instead of cream.

Ingredients

  • 300 g (10.5oz) Smoked haddock (1 large fillet)
  • 1 litre (1.5 pints/4 ¼ cups) semi-skimmed milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • few stalks parsley (keep the leaves for later)
  • 1 large onion (or optional leek, white part only) finely chopped
  • 500 g (2-3) potatoes see notes*
  • 1/2 tbsp fresh parsley leaves finely chopped
  • freshly cracked pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Put the smoked haddock, bay leaf and freshly parsley with the stalks in a large pan and pour over the milk (keep parsley leaves for later).
    Cover and poach very gently over a low-medium heat for about 10 minutes (don't overcook the fish otherwise it will turn rubbery).
  • Remove the fish with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate to cool.  Throw in the chopped potato and onion (or leek), cover and leave to cook gently until soft for 15-20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, take off the fish skin and flake the fish with your fingers, removing any bones.
  • Remove the bay leaf and parsley stalks from the pan then half blitz the soup with a hand blender (or transfer to a liquidiser or food processor) until the desired consistency. I like to blend only half way to have some chunks of potato.
    Add some pepper (a few turns of the pepper mill) and stir in the flaked smoked haddock and chopped parsley and gently heat. Only add some salt to your taste but not necessary with the smoky fish.

Notes

Potatoes: if you like your soup chunky, then use waxy potatoes like Charlotte - otherwise if blending to a smooth chowder, use a floury potato such as Binje. See more on the Potato Market page.

 

This post was originally published January 2016 but has now been updated with new images and text.

Have you made this recipe?

I’d love to know how it turned out. Please let me know by leaving a rated review below. It means so much to have your support.
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From the market

From the kitchen

21 responses to “Cullen Skink Smoked Haddock Soup”

  1. 5 stars
    Disclaimer : I usually cannot stand fish. But here, the meshing of smokey, flakey fish in a creamy broth is just heavenly. I was so sceptical but wanted something healthy and hearty for the new year, and it surpassed my expectations. Thank you Jill, my fish hating heart grew three sizes today

  2. Absolutely love this soup. It tastes delicious and is really straightforward to make. Can’t get enough of it.

    • Thanks so much for your lovely feedback, Liz. So happy you like this one too.

  3. Hi am a fan of Cullen Skink – enjoying the occasional tin of a famous Speyside family’s gourmet soup or choosing off a menu when out. I live I inland from Cullen and are lucky to have a couple of fish vans which visit our area weekly. I found your recipe online and will give it a go – I’m confident it will be delicious……. thanks for the guidance!

    • Hi Dawn, I’m so happy you found this recipe! What with living near Cullen and with fresh fish on wheels – I can’t think of a more pleasurable way to enjoy this smoky Scottish soup. Have a delicious weekend.

  4. I wonder what my grandmother would have thought of the discovery of Cullen Skink! My mother’s family, back down through the generations, were fisher folk on the Moray Firth coast, in the next village along from Cullen. Fishermen in those days didn’t make the huge profits of today, or have the vast trawlers. Often my grandfather would return from a hazardous fishing trip round the north of Scotland with no money to give my grandmother for housekeeping. Cullen Skink was a staple in the household, and though basic, I have never found its match in a restaurant now that it has become fashionable. The basic recipe was a mix of smoked and unsmoked haddock, onions, potatoes, Carnation evaporated milk, water, salt and pepper. Never blended – the potatoes were cooked to the point where they started to disintegrate.

    • Linda, thank you so much for sharing your family history with us here – and so appropriate around the village of Cullen. How fascinating! My mother’s family was also from a generation down the line of fisherfolk from Musselburgh and my grandfather sold fish from a van going down the coast from Portobello to Prestonpans. I know how this soup is more fashionable these days and no doubt not quite the same as the traditional basic but I love it to (sorry) bits! Wishing you a very Happy and delicious 2017.

  5. I’m loving this recipe Jill. I’m going to make it this weekend. My mouth’s watering already.

  6. Loving this informative post, Jill! Despite the challenge to photograph soup, you presented it nicely, and reading your voice is a joy. Glad you spent time in Scotland recently. Keep warm, my friend.

    • Reading your comment has made my day Brooks! Thank you. Yes, woke up to -4°C around Paris and heavy frost and looks like we’re in for more.

  7. Any warming soups are most welcome right now!!
    I suppose you can use demi-creme as well? I’ve yet to see skimmed milk here..love to know your preferred brand of hand blender btw. I Must get one soon.
    Cheers
    Carolg

    • Hi Carol, yes semi-skimmed IS demi-creme (see the photo of ingredients on the label). My hand blender is just a cheap Moulinex one I picked up years ago in Carrefour. It’s a horrible yellow colour and was hoping it would die on me to get a lovely fancy new one but no, it keeps on going…

  8. I love smoked fish and this soup sounds delightful. I’m afraid poor old Bill might run for the hills if he came home to this for dinner, but I’d happily sip on a warm bowl of your lovely soup 🙂

    • I’m sure Bill would love the smell of this, though – and watching you eat it may turn him to like smoked haddie!

  9. Thanks Christina. I can imagine you wanting to make Cullen Skink at this time of year too and bet you have yet another delicious version! It’s so comforting and love how it’s so easy yet has that wow factor. Let’s try and encourage more good smoked haddock in France and in California!

  10. This is on our menu this week! LOVE a good Cullen Skink and yours with leeks sounds fabulous! Wish it was more readily available to us in the US, especially on the west coast! Your guests are quite lucky, to say the least!

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