Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Food of Scotland - Part I


My family vacationed in the U.K. last month, and I’m just getting around to processing the experience—digesting it, if you will. (I thought of blogging from there, but figured that any mention of being away from my home would lead to it getting burglarized, despite the vicious attack dog and gun-nut house sitter who, as far as you know, always watch over the place during our vacations.) Since I already wrote about the food of London, this post focuses on the food of Scotland, where we spent close to two weeks.

I will point out up front that I’m not going to pretend I could give an overall account of how good Scottish food is, or try to compare it to what we eat in the Bay Area. In Scotland I was a largely clueless tourist with no idea where to go, and judging Scottish food by the random restaurants I blindly stumbled into would be no fairer than judging San Francisco food by the highly forgettable restaurants you’ll find along Fisherman’s Wharf.

Also, this post doesn’t cover certain British fare that you might expect it to, as I decided not to rehash certain food experiences already described in my previous post. Such omissions include bangers & mash, high tea, bacon (British vs. American), Indian Thali platters, and pork belly.

Local specialties

Some journalist friends of mine gave me some blogging advice. They advised me to put the very best stuff at the beginning of my story, and then to delete everything below it, if not the entire story. In fact, the holy grail of journalism is to somehow get into the reader’s brain and rip out all memory of anything else he may already have read. These techniques are called “the lead,” the “nut graph,” and “concise writing,” respectively. With the journalists in mind I’ll cut right to the chase and start with the most important, fascinating, and famous Scottish specialty:


What is haggis? My dictionary defines it as “A Scottish dish consisting of a mixture of the minced heart, lungs, and liver of a sheep or calf mixed with suet, onions, oatmeal, and seasonings and boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal.” Its popularity goes beyond its deliciousness; it’s a part of the heritage of Scotland. Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland (a country where the national poet is like a rock star) has written a poem in its honor, “Address to a Haggis,” which includes these lines (given first in the original, then in a modern translation):

His knife see rustic Labour dicht,

An cut you up wi ready slicht,

Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,

Like onie ditch;

And then, Oh what a glorious sicht,

Warm-reekin, rich!

His knife see rustic Labour sharpen,
And cut you up with practiced skill,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like any ditch;
And then, Oh what a glorious sight,
Warm-steaming, rich!

Among English majors, the literary term for a poet like Burns is “badass.”

Here is my plate of “haggis, neeps, and tatties” (that is, haggis with mashed turnips and mashed potatoes):

Of course you want to know, “How was it?” Well, it was even tastier than it sounds. I’m no haggis expert—I can’t wax eloquent about the piquancy and freshness of the suet used, or the pleasingly coarse grain of the oatmeal, or how the heart, lungs, and liver compare to that of other haggises and other formulations of organs and offal, such as soul food or the Manager’s Special at Furr’s Cafeteria. All I can say is that it was delicious, in a warm-steaming, rich, gushing-entrail kind of way.

Lest you doubt my sincerity, or think that I just have some sort of culinary fetish for slaughterhouse loss-leaders, let me tell you what my family thought of the haggis. My daughter Alexa, because she was closest, was the first to satisfy her curiosity. Her yummy-noises instantly alerted her sister Lindsay, who wasted no time getting a sample. As Alexa struck again, and then Lindsay, my wife Erin saw her window of opportunity closing and dove in from my right. In seconds flat we had a full-fledged skirmish on our hands. The plate of haggis was gone in sixty seconds or less. I’d have ordered another plate of it, but the service was really slow at the Red Squirrel, and we were only in Edinburgh for the day.

The neeps were, well, the best turnips I’ve ever had. I know that’s not saying much, but if I had another pile of them here in front of me, I’d wolf them right down. The mashed potatoes were up to the task as well.


Several people have asked me about Scotch whisky. Of course we had some, and plenty of Scottish ale as well. (Why isn’t it Scottish whisky or Scotch ale? Beats me.) Look, here they are now!

The Scotch was very smoky. I’m not going to go on and on about what part of the tongue it was activating and all that; what I mean by “smoky” is, when you took a whiff, it was like somebody was having a fire in his fireplace. The kids were enthralled. It tasted just fine in that Willy Wonka Technicolor one-taste-after-another kind of way. It hit the sinuses like wasabi. It made us feel good. Beyond that I can’t say much; I’m as ignorant about Scotch as I am about, say, golfing technique or credit default swaps.

The ale, on the other hand, I can say more about. At the various places we had it, it was always served cool, not ice-cold, because it’s pumped from unrefrigerated underground tanks. You can see the effort required in drawing the beer; in comparison, the taps in American bars suddenly seem silly, like power steering or something. I prefer cool to ice-cold beer. And I like how the Scottish barmaids take their time filling the glass, letting the foam settle, brushing the extra foam off the top, then filling the glass a little more … it was all I could do, watching, not to yell, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” (It’s a little like watching your burrito being crafted at a really good taqueria.)

The other great thing about the pints in the UK is that they’re imperial pints, meaning they’re 568 ml, vs. the mere 473 ml of our lowly American pints. That is, they’re about 20% larger. It’s a rare instance of Americans not being at the forefront of Supersizing. Must be our puritanical streak. Wrap your hand around one of those big fat imperial pint glasses and you just feel good. Damn good, like an American should. How is that it the U.S. has fallen off the map in this all-important category?

(No, it’s not Obama’s fault. And at least he gets to drink beer, unlike that last guy.)

Beyond its glorious serving size, the Scottish ale was very good. What you see in my photo is McEwan’s, a brand very popular in Scotland. To do it justice I must, oddly enough, describe it in French: Présente des arômes de pâte à pain, de fleurs et une finale passablement fruitée avec des notes de cerises. Définitivement une bière de degustation. (Loosely translated, “It had a good and yummy taste, well worth drinking.”)

Full Scottish Breakfast

And now, on to the Full Scottish Breakfast. That has a nice ring to it, eh? Like Full Dinner Jacket. Now, if you aren’t familiar with this classic offering, here is a description:

For some reason, the place we went (an awful strip-mall outfit hawking kilts and t-shirts and other souvenirs, catering to the tour-bus set) gave us all seven items instead of asking us to choose five as their sign indicated. Before I go any further, however, I must draw your attention to the disclaimer above: do not use that picture as a stepladder!

In the photo below, starting with the vulcanized eggs and going clockwise, we have the tattie scone (very greasy, and tasting a lot like those horrid tortilla bowls that taco salad comes in at Chilis or TGI Fridays or whatever); the hash-brown cartridge (greasy, salty, a first cousin of what you get at McDonald’s); bacon (quite salty and chewy but still superior to most of the bacon in the U.S.); the sausage lozenge (properly called Lorne sausage, also very greasy and salty and somehow alarming in the way you’d expect haggis to be, except haggis isn’t); and blood pudding. The tomato half in the middle, warm and dried-out and about half as flavorful as it looked, was the highlight. The blood pudding was a chewy, mulchy little disk of congealed, salty pig’s blood, perhaps not as little as I’d have liked it to be, and a bit of a struggle to get down.

The best thing about this meal is that it ruled out lunch entirely, saving the family some money. It also had a very low glycemic index, with the meat products slowing down our bodies’ ability to process the starch, so we were well fuelled for a hike up Ben Nevis.

Other UK classics

Okay, now on to some British classics not specifically associated with Scotland. First, the ubiquitous fish & chips:

The fish was very fresh, very tasty, perfectly battered, with just the right amount of greasiness, and was served piping hot. Malt vinegar, of course, came stock. The chips, on the other hand, were tired, limp, almost frowsty. I’m sure it’s my fault. It was probably a judgment call on the part of the cook—he wondered aloud, “Are these too old to sell?” and the waitress said, “It’s just a table of bleedin’ American numpties, they won’t know the difference.”

As for the mushy peas served alongside, I never even got to taste them. When I did the standard plate trade with Erin, she went nuts on them and my plate came back without a trace of green mush. I can’t say I’d necessarily have enjoyed them anyway, but still. I have to assume they were tasty.

On to another classic, beans on toast. Check it out:

Given that these kids won’t even eat PBJs or bananas, I was pleasantly surprised when they gobbled up this British standard. They even ate their crusts for once. I sneaked a taste, and found beans on toast to be exactly as good as I expected: that is, not at all. Not shown: breakfast porridge, made from a mix whose name escapes me but which was very old-school. It was glue-like and perfectly serviceable and the kids liked it just fine.


I realize only now, when it’s too late, that I shouldn’t have saved the highlights for last. I can still feel those journalists breathing down my neck (even though they surely lost patience with this post at least 1,500 words ago). The main highlight was frankly that haggis, along with some haggis stromboli we had at the Elephant House, a little coffee shop where J.K. Rowling used to sit and write.

Beyond that, I particularly liked this salmon, which we had in a little restaurant in Mallaig, along the west coast of Scotland. I believe the place was called the Steam Inn (just in case you find yourself in Mallaig). I’d seen something about salmon being an amenity of the area, and when I asked the waitress “Is the salmon local?” she answered with the kind of “Yes!” that you utter when you find a $20 bill on the sidewalk.

I don’t know what that sauce was called but it was really tasty. The salmon was perfectly cooked—that is, rare, but with crispy edges. Dang it, hang on—I just drooled on myself.

This place also had great mussels. We had a lot of mussels during the trip, but these were the best. Why? Who knows. Inferior mussels are kind of creepy—they can be grainy, off-color, sometimes vaguely genital. But good mussels are all alike, right? Almost. Yes, these were like all good mussels everywhere, but better. Maybe it was the broth.

We also had a very good leg of lamb at the Ben Nevis Bar up in the Scottish Highlands. (By “we” I mean my wife ordered it and I moved in on it.) The Ben Nevis Bar is really more like an inn, whereas the Ben Nevis Inn, where we also went, is really more like a bar. (Between the dodgy dates on receipts and the pound/dollar conversion, sorting out the books after this trip was a real challenge.) Something about the Ben Nevis Bar originally struck me as touristy and inauthentic, so I wasn’t expecting anything good. Turns out the place has been there since 1806, and the food was solid. (This is where I got the fish & chips too.)

The lamb was on the fatty side, which a) I like, and b) meant that I got a fair bit of it.

Another food highlight was the great cheese shop across from the flat we were staying in in Glasgow. We went there a number of times. You walk in the door and this rich, dank cheese aroma envelops you. Big wheels and wedges and blocks of cheese everywhere, some of them with the rough exterior of a stone. Some of it was French, but they also had a lot from Scotland and Ireland. The shop folks always gave us free samples. The shop also had these groovy pointy baguettes, and other stuff like quince and whatnot.

We didn’t get too crazy with the cheese varieties because the kids begged for their usual favorites: brie and camembert. It was all really good. Look:

I don’t claim to be an expert on baguettes, but these were as good as anything I’ve ever had. I’m no pushover, either—except for in France, I’ve never had a halfway decent baguette outside of the Bay Area (which has a strangely large number of great bakeries).

The beer you see above, in the Hoegaarden glass, isn’t Hoegaarden. You knew that. It’s Chimay, which is to say nirvana. That’s Belgian, not Scottish, but this wasn’t a field trip, it was a vacation and I’ll buy Chimay at any opportunity.

A food-highlight surprise for us was the basic wheat bread we found in the supermarket in Glasgow. The brand was Vogel’s, and it was this somewhat heavy, hearty, really tasty bread. Maybe it was the bit of rye flour in it, or maybe the fermented yeast, that made it so good. It got kind of crunchy when we made croque-monsieurs with it (which we did a lot). Between the really good cheese and ham we got in Glasgow and this bread, these were the best croquet-monsieurs of my life, I now realize. I didn’t think to photograph this bread—I mean, who would?—but here is a portrait of my family rendered as Vogel’s toast:

Whoah, how did I do that? With my … iPhone? No, it’s not a mobile app, you nerd. It’s good-old-fashioned web app. Click here to render your own portrait in Vogel’s toast. (Do the Americans have the Toastarizer? Alas, no. Perhaps our days as a superpower are truly over.)

To be continued…

Look, I really didn’t mean to malign my journalist friends earlier. Lord knows, they have enough problems, with the newspaper industry totally cratering, having finally given in to its readers’ tastes, and market forces, by reducing the articles down to almost nothing, like literary white dwarves, with the all-ads-all-the-time format still managing to plump out the pages and gag your recycling bin. (Full disclosure: my friends are actually recovering journalists, who have moved on to better jobs but whose convictions have somehow not changed.)

So, where was I? Oh yes—I’m going to take the journalists’ advice and cut this off right here. Did I just hear a sigh of relief? Look, I’m just glad you made it this far. You’ve been great, really. And if, after a cooling-off period, you think you’re ready for more Food of Scotland, tune in next time for “Food of Scotland Part II – The Spawning,” where I’ll share our adventures in Scottish World Cuisine; Things We Didn’t Eat; Surprising Kids’ Menus; and Weirdness.

dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. Vogel's Bread is a staple in NZ, and until now I thought it was a local brand. I remember a TV ad that featured a young bloke on his big OE ( who's quickly hiding his Vogel's bread (from home) from his returning flatmates, whom I assumed were English.

    It seems strange that he would have to hide his secret stash if he could just go down to the local Tesco and buy some more, but I suppose that's not the point of the ad.

    Strangely, the Wikipedia article on "Vogel" ( mentions only New Zealand in connection with bread. probably needs to put their web marketing and social media experts on that.