Monthly Archives: August 2011

Haggis, Black Puddings and Steak and Ale Pies: The Not So “Unimaginative” Scotland Cuisine

British cuisine. One may ask herself if there is such a thing :). British cuisine has long been ridiculed as being ‘unimaginative and heavy’, but, when you live in a country where even in the high summer you don’t expect temperatures of above 19 degrees C on average, and 95% of days are rainy and foggy, maybe ‘heavy’ is what you need to keep you toasty and happy? 🙂    Besides, when you’re hiking most of the day through Scotland’s countryside, a hearty warm meal always makes for tummy happiness in my book 🙂 On my recent trip to Scotland, I discovered that even though British cuisine may lack in imagination,  at least it’s consistent in quality, and it will keep you warm on those 19 degree summer days 🙂 What gave the food its special charm was that (at least in my experience) it was always served to us with care for presentation and a genuine smile. In fact, it was the warmth and hospitality of the Scottish people that made the entire trip that much more special. In this post, I’ll share with you some of my impressions and of course photos of the local food we enjoyed across Scotland.

The first stop was Edinburgh, and the place recommended in our guidebook as one of the locals’ favourites for Sunday brunch was “The Outsider“.  The Fringe Festival was in full swing in the city, and The Outsider is located just off of the Royal Mile, close enough to all the festivities, but far enough away if one desires a quiet lunch or dinner.

The place had a quiet elegance to it, and it was completely packed, although it took them less than 5 minutes to seat us, during which time we were given menus to look over.

The item that caught my eye was the beef and chilli burger with gruyere, picalilli and fries.  I was so happy with my choice, not just because the burger was perfectly done with just a touch of chilli, and the brioche was slightly smoked, but the presentation was immaculate.  Also, picalilli made for an awesome garnish 🙂

Christina was curious about the fish pie with smoked haddock, spinach and salmon, so she decided that this would be her choice.  Indeed, it’s rare to see fish made into a pie, and again in such a pretty presentation.  The smokiness of the haddock complemented the more ‘fishy’ salmon in a creamy concoction, finished in a flaky pastry.

And of course, no fry is perfect without some real (never MiracleWhip!) mayo!  Yum!

Only few doors down from The Outsider, we found another gem called “The Elephant House“.  We decided that this would be a perfect place for a Monday morning breakfast.  The setup is that you order food at the counter, pick up your drinks/coffee and carry it to your table along with a table number (below), which is a glass bottle with a numbered wooden spatula.  So funky! 🙂  While I was waiting on my cappuccino to be finished, I couldn’t resist capturing this lovely espresso machine 🙂

No Scottish experience would be complete without an authentic “Scottish breakfast” so, I decided this would be my meal for the morning.  I was also quite curious about the Scottish national dish – haggis, and it conveniently was served along with my breakfast :).

Haggis and black pudding (pictured below) are the staples of Scotish cuisine.  Haggis is a dish that constists of the sheep’s liver, lungs and heart, simmered with onions, oatmeal, spices and stock, simmered in the sheep’s intestine for several hours.  Even though it doesn’t sound appetizing, it’s quite delicious – the taste is nutty and meaty, with just the right amount of spice.  It’s usually served with ‘neeps and tatties’ (yellow turnips and potatoes), and a ‘dram’ (shot of Scotch whiskey), but it can be served with other accompaniments (i.e. my breakfast! :))

Black pudding (darker) is a type of sausage made by cooking blood or dried blood along with a filler (usually meat, bread, sweet potatoes, nuts, onion or barley), long enough to congeal when cooled.  If this is not imaginative I don’t know what is 🙂  I must say black pudding wasn’t my favourite, I much preferred the haggis, but it was a must to try at least 🙂

While sipping on my cappucino and waiting for the food (#8!), I started looking around and noticing interesting things around the cafe.  We discovered that the Elephant House is apparently the “birthplace of Harry Potter”, as evident on the t-shirts available for sale.  After more research, we found out that J.K. Rowling used to sip coffee here and write her books while overlooking the Edinburgh Castle.

J.K. Rowling’s influence on this cafe is most evident on the walls and doors of the washrooms – filled with people’s messages for her, mostly thanking her for bringing such joy to their childhood.  And then there are some more interesting ones like “make sure your magic wand is free of hogwarts before sticking it into her chamber of secrets”… 🙂

The Elephant House gets my vote for the great and friendly baristas, good food (the best haggis I’ve had on the trip) and a very unique atmosphere.  I can see why Ms. Rowling and Mr. Rankin found inspiration here.

Continuing on our culinary adventure, the next local thing to try was the Jacket Potato.  There were many varieties to choose from in this cafe (name forgotten) on the Royal Mile.  The concept is simple, as is evident in the photo below – baked potato finished with different toppings.  Chicken on my jacket potato of choosing, was slightly dry, but the mayo helped with that. The potato was well cooked – not too soft, and had a lot of flavour on its own, even without the topping.  The salad on the side is a bit pathetic, but ok if for nothing else than for some colour on the plate.  All in all, maybe next time I’ll order curried chicken or something a bit more interesting.

Our journey continued into small-town Scotland, along scenic routes.  First stop, a lovely little port village of Culross (pop 395).

Culross is a formal royal burgh in the Fife region of Scotland.  It is the best preserved example of a village from the 17th century, with most of the historic buildings still intact.

Culross has one cafe called The Biscuit Cafe, which is also a pottery gallery.  It has a lovely back terrace and garden, and the cafe itself is located in a glasshouse next to the terrace.  The goodies below were displayed on a table, and guest are free to help themselves.

It was fairly cold outside and Christina decided she would take a hibiscus tea.

I just loved the vibrat red colour that resulted after the infusion and the contrast it made against the white cup.  It was also the perfect break from the rainy cold day outside.

The next stop on the journey was a town of Stirling, most famous for its landmark – the Stirling Castle.  Stirling used to be strategically important as the ‘gateway to the Highlands’ and it also houses the Church of the Holy Rude – the only other church in Britain aside from Westminster Abbey where a coronation took place (King James VI in 16th century).

Our first night in Stirling turned out to be a hunt for a dinner place that served food past 20 h.  Finally, we were recommended No. 2 Baker’s Street pub that seemed to be the only place with people in it on the block.  We later found out that it was trivia Tuesday 🙂  The pub had a friendly atmosphere, and it was completely packed, so we shared our table with a few French tourists.

We discovered that in most pubs in Scotland, and this one was no different, the food had to be ordered at the bar, and in some cases also paid for in advance.  I was curious about the beef lasagna, and it was also one of the only choices on the menu that wasn’t fish and chips.  As you can see – very filling 🙂

The most interesting part of my meal was the Belgian Kriek that came wrapped in paper. I liked the presentation so much that I brought the bottle back home with me, and will probably use it as a vase.  The taste was also quite good – very different from the other krieks I tried in Belgium, but fruity nontheless.

I have never had more cheesier lasagna in my life!  The lasagna itself wasn’t anything to write home about, but at least it didn’t lack in cheese!  I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing when it comes to lasagna.  Maybe this is one of the tricks of the British cuisine – cheese makes everything better?

In the morning, the quest was on to find a good breakfast place, and lucky for us, this didn’t take nearly as much time.  We found another pub, that was serving breakfast, and with some really interesting choices, like this pancake stack below.  I was most intrigued by the presentation, as I’ve never seen pancakes and eggs presented in this manner…and I must say I may just steal this idea in the future 🙂

The pankaces were fluffy and just slightly sweet which complemented the saltiness of the bacon quite nicely.  For some reason I couldn’t get down with having syrup poured over the whole thing as it was supposed to be served, so I asked for it on the side.

Christina went with a safer choice with just regular toast.  Butter in Scotland I swear is made in heaven. It is so much creamier and flavourful that the butter at home, which only reinforces the fact that I have to make my own butter soon!

After Stirling, we continued our journey north to a small town called Forfar.  The most interesting culinary fun fact about Forfar is that it’s the birthplace of the famous Forfar Bridie (below).  It’s a light savoury pastry filled with a mixture of minced steak, butter and beef suet, seasoned with salt and pepper and sometimes onion is added.  The closest thing that I can think of that comes close to it are the empenadas I had in Sao Paulo.

James McLaren and Son have been making bridies since the late 19th century, and the Forfar bridie is different from bridies in the rest of Scotland in that the Forfar bridies are made with shortcrust pastry, whereas flaky pastry is used in most other places.

Sadly, we came to Forfar just in time for McLaren’s to close and they had ran out of their bridies, so we went across the street to Sadlers of Forfar.  We had to try both to compare, and I must say I liked the flaky pastry better.

The drive through Scotland’s countryside looks something like the photo below.  The green rolling hills, wheat fields and plains with cattle and sheep.  On our castle trail, we visited the Fraser Castle and Craigievar Castle, from which the view below was taken.

The bed and breakfast where we stayed the night was in a small town of Inverurie, called Bridge of Muchalls.  The hostess at the B&B prepared us the loveliest breakfast, and we ate in the sunroom that overlooked the garden, and in the background, mountains and wheat fields went as far as eye could see.

I liked the presentation of this toast – even though it was plain toast, the serving dish made it feel so much more special.  Of course, the curly  and creamy butter didn’t hurt either 🙂

Chickens (from which our breakfast eggs came) played around in the garden while the sun warmed the little sunroom and our faces.

The waffle-like item is actually made of potatoes and called a potato scone.  Usually, in other places it looked a lot more like a hash brown rather than an actual scone, but this was the only place it looked like a waffle.

And if we didn’t feel full from the plethora of food already in front of us, there were homemade jams to sweeten the deal 🙂

In Inverurie, there was again plenty of pubs to choose from for some late night grub.  Edward’s was the pub (that also calls itself a diner and a nightclub) of choice that evening, as it had a very convincing sign in the front that “good food served here” 🙂 :).   I found a dish on the menu that said “Chicken Goujons” and was curious about it so I ordered it.  It turned out it was just chicken fingers 🙂  Nothing too exciting 🙂

Christina’s choice was much more interesting – Steak and Ale Pie.  The beef was cooked for a long while and in plenty of ale, which made it super tender but also didn’t make the ale test overhelming.  The flaky pie gave a good texture contrast to the meat.

Next stop was Inverness, the gateway to Loch Ness 🙂  (no, we didn’t see Nessie :))

While walking around looking for a dinner place, we stumbled upon the Castle Tavern, or in Gaielic – Taigh os’da à Chaisteil.  The Castle Tavern calls itself the Real Ale Pub (it won the Real Ale Pub of the Year in 2008 and 2010) and it features a pub on the main floor, a restaurant on the upper floor and a big terrace in the front.  It’s located right across the Inverness Castle.

It was the first time we saw salad on the menu of a pub, so Christina jumped at the chance of having some greens :).  I on the other hand opted for the haddock fillet, since it was localy sourced in the nearby Loch.  The haddock tasted fresh and it wasn’t over-battered as can sometimes happen to mask the staleness of the fish.  The batter was light and crispy, and well seasoned.

From Inverness, we headed to one of the most photographed castles in Scotland – the Eilean Donan castle.  It lies on the small island in Lock Duich and it was most spectacular.  The weather was changing every hour and we had really hoped that the sun would come out in time for the sunset.  While we waited, we decided to look for a place to eat dinner.  The area around Eilean Donan has only about 3-4 restaurants, all serving food starting at 18 h.

We decided that Kintail Lodge Hotel, Shiel Bridge was the best choice, not just in food, but also the location – it sits right on the loch and the view from the dining area is magnificent.  The Hotel has a restaurant and pub which is open to non-residents as they call it 🙂  Christina opted for the fish special of the day, which was this light and flaky halibut – probably caught that day 🙂

Myself, I opted for something more hearty – Cassoulet of Pork, Chorizo, Beans and Root Vegetables.   The pork was tender and it just melted in my mouth, the chorizo was slightly spicy, and the potatoes and beans gave the whole meal a perfect finish.

I was also impressed with the service, and the staff was able to accomodate us without a reservation and even give us a window booth table.  Sunset views and a great meal?  Who can ask for more?

After dinner, we enjoyed the sun setting over Loch Duich.

The last stop on our Scotland adventure was Glasgow.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to explore all the culinary wonders that Glasgow had to offer.  They say that Glasgow has the best food in Britain!  On one of the nights, we opted for Greek.  Elia Restaurant is right on George’s Square, and they offer nightly dinner specials for under 10 pounds.  It was also a good viewing spot for the filming of the new Brad Pitt movie – World War Z.

Our meal came with two appetizers of our choice, so we opted for pita with hummus and greek salad.  The olives were not overly salty, and I really liked the dish they were served in.  The salad was also beautifuly presented, and I really liked how the red of the tomato, the green of the cucumber and the yellow of the pepper contrasted the white serving dish.  Feta was creamy and crumbly, and the tomatoes actually tasted like tomatoes!  I missed yummy tasting tomatoes!

Our main meals were pork souvlaki and seafood risotto.  The pork was slightly dry but it was well seasoned.  I think the best part of that dish was the rice – it was perfectly done, very flaky and well seasoned.

The risotto was mediocre.  It didn’t have much shrimp in it, but the thing that I didn’t like more was that it was too tomatoey.  I was either too full from the hummus and pita (which by the way, was very garlicky – just the way I like it :), or the tomato sauce was overpowering the rest of dish, but I couldn’t finish it.  It’s too bad because the risotto was well cooked and very nicely presented also.

Overall, the culinary adventures of this trip proved to be a lot more interesting than I had expected.  The second part of the trip was in Ireland.  Stay tuned for the next post and the  likes of Irish Stew and Toddies 🙂 Toodles! 🙂