Insight Guides: Pocket Scotland - Insight Guides (2016)
The Scots are very proud of the amount of good cooking to be found throughout their country, even in the remotest spots. Scottish chefs have won many accolades at international culinary competitions, and the better hotels and country house hotels may be staffed by award-winning chefs. The tourist office’s ‘Taste of Scotland’ initiative has encouraged chefs to rethink traditional dishes, using the freshest local ingredients. Chefs make full use of these local basics: fresh salmon and trout, herring, beef, venison, grouse, pheasant, potatoes, raspberries, and other fruit and vegetables. Oatmeal turns up in all kinds of dishes. Long gone are the days of Samuel Johnson’s oft-quoted remark about oats after he toured the northern regions of Scotland: ‘…a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’.
The List’s Eating and Drinking Guide provides listings for Edinburgh and Glasgow; www.list.co.uk. For restaurants serving traditional Scottish food visit www.taste-of-scotland.com.
Much Scottish fare is hearty, intended to act as a fortification against the weather. Whenever possible, try traditional dishes, which are often delicious. Vegetarian options are widely available in the cities, and are increasingly offered in smaller towns and villages.
WHEN TO EAT
Outside the cities, restaurants, roadside inns and snack bars are rather thin on the ground. Even in the cities, many of the finest Scottish restaurants are in hotels; non-residents are usually welcome, but check with guest houses or smaller establishments. In the summer, it is a good idea to book ahead, particularly if the restaurant is known for its fine cuisine. If you are touring, picnic lunches are a good idea - you may find yourself miles from any food outlets and there is certainly no shortage of lovely sites.
Breakfast, usually from around 8am-10am, is provided by practically every hotel and guest house in Scotland. Away from major centres, restaurants may not serve lunch before noon or much after 2pm, and dinner may only be served between 7 and 9pm.
A full Scottish breakfast
David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications
In general, restaurant prices compare favourably with those south of the border. This does not prevent certain Scottish establishments from charging prices that would not be out of place in London’s West End. Keep in mind the inclusion in restaurant prices of 20 percent VAT sales tax, and often a 10 percent service charge. A full Scottish breakfast is usually included in your hotel or bed and breakfast tariff.
While a light lunch at midday and more substantial dinner in the evening may be the style in tourist areas, conversely, in the countryside dinner is sometimes what the substantial midday meal is called, while the lighter evening meal may be called tea or supper.
WHAT TO EAT
Unlike England, where some hotels have converted to the ‘continental breakfast’, the Scottish breakfast still gives you the works. Porridge is served with cream or milk (and sugar, though this is frowned upon by traditionalists, who prefer salt and use water instead of milk), followed by fruit juice, fresh fruit, eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, potato scones, rolls, jam and marmalade. A special touch is the addition of the Scottish kipper and smoked haddock - it’s hard to argue with the conventional wisdom that Loch Fyne kippers are best, but it is equally hard to find a smoked herring from anywhere in Scotland that isn’t delicious. The famous Arbroath smokies are salted haddock flavoured with hot birch or oak smoke. Finnan haddock (or haddie) are salted and smoked over peat. Pâtés of kipper, trout, smoked salmon and haddock have become favourite starters in good restaurants.
Traditional Scottish soups are best if they are homemade. Try a few of the following:
Cock-a-leekie - a seasoned broth made from boiling fowl with leeks and at times onions and prunes. Consumed for at least 400 years and dubbed the national soup of Scotland.
Partan bree - creamed crab (partan) soup.
Scotch broth - a variety of vegetables in a barley-thickened soup with mutton or beef.
Cullen skink - milky broth of Finnan haddock with onions and potatoes.
Lorraine - a creamy chicken soup made with nutmeg, almonds and lemon, named after Mary of Guise-Lorraine.
Oatmeal - made with onion, leek, carrot and turnip.
Try Arbroath smokies while in Scotland
David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications
Fish and Shellfish. Scottish smoked salmon is famous all over the world, thanks to the special flavours introduced by the distinctive peat or oak-chip smoking process. Farmed salmon is now widely available, and while the purist may argue that it isn’t as good as the wild variety, there are few people who can actually tell the difference.
Nothing is better than a whole fresh salmon poached with wine and vegetables. The west coast is renowned for the excellence of its lobster, scallops, crayfish, mussels and oysters.
Meat and Game. Scottish beef rivals the best in Europe. Aberdeen Angus steak is a favourite, served with a mushroom-and-wine sauce. Whisky goes into many sauces served with beef: Gaelic steak, for instance, is seasoned with garlic and fried with sautéed onions, with whisky added during the cooking process. Whisky is also used in preparing seafood, poultry and game. Forfar bridies are pastry puffs stuffed with minced steak and onions. If you are lucky, you might also find beef collops (slices) in pickled walnut sauce. Veal is rather scarce. In recent years, lamb has appeared more frequently, sometimes in ingenious dishes.
Game still abounds in Scotland. After the shooting season opens (on the ‘glorious 12th’ of August), grouse is an expensive but much sought-after dish, served in a pie or roasted with crispy bacon and served with bread sauce or fried breadcrumbs. Venison appears frequently on the menu, often roasted or in a casserole. You will also find pheasant, guinea fowl, quail and hare in terrines, pâtés and game pies.
Haggis. Haggis, Scotland’s national dish, hardly deserves its horrific reputation among non-Scots. Properly made, it consists of chopped-up sheep’s innards, oatmeal, onions, beef suet and seasoning, boiled in a sewn-up sheep’s stomach bag. Haggis is traditionally accompanied by chappit tatties and bashed neeps - mashed potatoes and turnips.
Haggis and whisky
David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications
Other traditional dishes are Scotch eggs: hard-boiled eggs coated with sausage meat and breadcrumbs, deep-fried and eaten hot or cold. Scotch woodcock is toast topped with anchovy and scrambled egg.
Potatoes and Oatmeal. Potatoes are a particular local pride. Stovies are leftovers from the Sunday roast, usually including potatoes, onions, carrots, gravy and occasionally the meat, cooked in the dripping. Rumbledethumps are a mixture of boiled cabbage and mashed potatoes (sometimes onions or chives and grated cheese are added). You should not have to go all the way to northernmost Caithness for Scotland’s basic dish of tatties (potatoes boiled in their skin) and herrings. And in the Orkney Islands they like clapshot (potatoes and turnips mashed together and seasoned with fresh black pepper) to accompany their haggis.
Skirlie is a mixture of oatmeal and onions flavoured with thyme. Oatmeal also turns up as a coating on such foods as herring and cheese and in desserts.
Afternoon Tea, Dessert and Cheese
Tea rooms all over Scotland offer afternoon tea, with sandwiches, cakes and other delicacies. Shortbread is, of course, a Scottish speciality. Another classic Scottish speciality is rich, dark Dundee cake, made with dried fruits and spices and topped with almonds. Dundee also contributed bitter orange marmalade to the world in the 1700s. Scones and bannocks (oatmeal cakes) are among the great array of Scottish baked and griddled goods. A teatime treat is Scotch pancakes, served with butter and marmalade or honey. Oatcakes come either rough or smooth and they are eaten on their own or with butter, pâté, jam, or crowdie, Scotland’s centuries-old version of cottage cheese. In Edinburgh, the afternoon tea at the Balmoral Hotel is famous, and in Glasgow, don’t miss going to one of the Willow Tea Rooms, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
For dessert, you’ll see various combinations of cheese, with red berries or black cherries and vanilla ice cream. Cranachan, a tasty Scottish speciality, consists of toasted oatmeal and cream and whisky or rum topped with nuts and raspberries or other soft fruit. Rhubarb-and-ginger tart is worth looking out for, as is butterscotch tart.
Scotland produces several excellent varieties of cheddar cheese and recent years have seen a rediscovery of old Scottish cheeses. Produced (although on a small scale) throughout the country, the speciality cheeses are characterised by a high degree of individuality. Try Criffel, Lanark blue, Isle of Mull or creamy Crannog or Orkney Cheddar.
WHAT TO DRINK
A huge amount of folklore surrounds every aspect of Scotch whisky, from its distillation using pure mountain water, to the aroma of the peat, to its storage, all the way to the actual drinking. The word ‘whisky’ derives from the Gaelic uisge beatha ‘water of life’. It is available in two basic types - malt (distilled solely from malted barley) and grain (made from malted barley and grain). Most of the Scotch sold today is blended, combining malt and grain whiskies. There are now more than 2,000 brands of authentic Scotch whisky.
The malt whiskies come primarily from Speyside and the Highlands, and each has its own distinctive flavour: dry, smoky, peppery, peaty or sweet. Purists insist that a single-malt whisky should be drunk only neat or with plain water - never with other mixers, although these are acceptable with blended Scotch, even by Scots.
Whisky in Glen Coe
David Cruickshanks/Apa Publications
After dinner, Scotland’s version of Irish coffee, which naturally uses local whisky, may be called a ‘Gaelic coffee’. A rusty nail, believed for obvious reasons to have associations with a coffin nail, is one measure of malt whisky plus one measure of Drambuie. A ‘Scotch mist’ is made from whisky, squeezed lemon rind and crushed ice, shaken well. An ‘Atholl Brose’ blends oatmeal, heather honey and whisky.
Because of the country’s long-standing association with France - the ‘Auld Alliance’ against the English - good French wine, especially claret, was on Scottish tables before it was widely available in England. Most reputable hotels and restaurants offer an extensive wine list, often now including good wines from New Zealand, Australia and Chile.
Scotland is proud of its beer. The Scottish equivalent of English ‘bitter’ is called ‘heavy’, and should be served at room temperature. The ‘half and a half’ featured in old-fashioned pubs is a dram of whisky with a half pint of beer as a chaser.