Eating Scotland: What I’ve learned about Scottish food
As mentioned in a previous post and on Facebook, I’d gotten myself into a bit of a predicament over the summer. Without really knowing what I was doing, and totally disregarding the old saying of “never trust a skinny chef”, I signed up to do a walking trip of Scotland. Along with a few select friends, I decided to attempt the Speyside Way, a long-distance walking route in Scotland following the River Spey for 135 kilometers through the famous Speyside (Whisky) region of Scotland. For a challeniging 7 days, we walked, hiked, climbed or crawled an average of 21 kilometers a day through the beautiful Scottish countryside, burning on average 2500-3000 calories each day, leaving us plenty of excuses to spend our nights examining the parts of Scottish culture that are of particular interest to this blog; namely the food and drink culture!
Prior to embarking on our adventure, I’d reached out to the Danish and the International food blogger community for input and ideas on dishes to try and things to look out for on the Scottish culinary scene. The feedback I received was sparse and largely disheartening, if I’m honest. The Scots mainly like processed foods, I was told, the food was bland and other than some fish and seafood there wasn’t really many good eats to be had. That was the gist of the feedback. Obviously, for a major foodie such as myself, the prospect of a week’s worth of bland and/or processed foods weren’t too promising, but I enjoy a challenge as much as the next guy and I had a gut feeling that it couldn’t really be that bad. The good eats were there, I was sure, we just might have to struggle to find them.
And so, with an open mind, an adventurous heart, and a bucket list featuring such odd entries as offal, blood and deep-fried sweets, I along with my two beautiful sidekicks jumped on a plane to Scotland, caught a bus to the fair town of Buckie on the coast and started our 135 kilometer trek and culinary journey down the River Spey. In doing so, we encountered a food culture that was not only substantially more nuanced than we had feared, but also remarkably different from what we knew and expected. We will try to shed some light on the Scottish food (and drink!) culture in the coming weeks, but here, as a teaser, are ten remarkable things I’ve learned about Scottish cuisine.
#1 They’re on a totally different level of processed food fusion gastronomy
One of the first and most stubborn rumors I heard about Scots is that they sure as hell like their processed foods. And, uh, it’s true. In many super markets, the space devoted to prepackaged sandwiches, frozen foods and ready meals far outshone that given to fresh produce and meats. They even have supermarkets entirely devoted to ready to eat meals, we learned! The sandwich, we discovered, reigned supreme as the go to food in the Highlands, some more creative than others, I might add, such as this East meets West meets Tex Mex Coronation Chicken wrap.
Before you pass too much judgement on the Scots, though, it should be noted that the number of speciality butchers or poulterers we encountered far outshone the numbers I’ve seen in other countries on my travels. This may well go to explain the little attention given to fresh meat at local Co-ops and supermarkets.
Also, some of the ready to eat sandwiches are actually not too bad. Such as this classic combination from the local Co-op in Buckie which, even though it came prepackaged, managed to outshine many I’d had fresh on the streets of New York City.
#2 You think they speak English, but they really don’t!
I consider myself as having af firm grip on the English language, but even so Scottish takes some getting used to for the untrained ear. And it probably doesn’t help that the dialect changes every five miles you venture. Once you’ve gotten used to the pronunciation and local dialects, you’re stuck with trying to make sense of what’s being said. For example, the friendly advice “if yer feeling a wee bit peckish, they got’a tea room where’n you can go’wan have coffee,” given to you by a local during your travels along the coast might well turn out to mean something along the lines of “If you’re hungry, they have a place where you can sit down and order a hot meal.”
Speaking of coffee, it’s apparently perfectly normal to order and consume coffee or other hot drinks along with your hot meal. We saw many people, young and old, enjoying fish and chips with coffee or hot cocoa. As a matter of fact, on our trek along the coast, we were looked weirdly for ordering tea and coffee AFTER our meal like some sort of savages.
Another thing about Scottish foods is that they may have totally different names than you’re used to from back home. Sausages may be bangers, turnips are neeps, potatoes are tatties (at least I’d like to think those were potatoes!) and here’s what happened when I ordered the Whisky Pickle at the Glenlivet Distillery visitors center, thinking I was in for a lovely, spicy, sweet and sour addition to my sandwich.
Yup, there’s a bit of a language barrier to be worked on…
#3 In Scotland, coleslaw is, essentially, a food group!
Now, here’s one I bet you didn’t see coming… The Scots like their coleslaw. In fact, they’re damn near obsessed with the stuff! Growing up, I heard stories about the Danish vikings asserting their influence on the British Isles. I have, however, apparently totally missed the paragraph about the Vikings of Dixieland making their cultural impact known on Scotland. But they somehow must have.
This past summer, I spent nearly a month in the American Deep South and, even there, I don’t think I saw nearly as much coleslaw as I did in Scotland. From the coastal hamlet of Buckie to the high streets of Aberdeen, it was basically impossible to order any sort of sandwich in any sort of establishment without receiving a generous side order of coleslaw. Heck, even when ordering starters at the Michelin-recommended Rendezvous @ Nargile, we were treated to Middle Eastern-inspired spinach and goat’s cheese filo rolls with a side of, you guessed it, slaw!
Not even in the strangest depths of my imagination, can I find a reason for this infatuation with a Southern American staple, but nonetheless, the fascination runs deep.
#4 Scotland’s most popular soft drink is… not made by the Coca Cola Company
… Or even Pepsi for that matter! It’s made by A. G. Barr, is called Irn Bru (pronounced: Iron Brew) and is a bright orange, largely synthetic substance known for controversial ingredients and controversial marketing. The smell and taste is best described as that of bubble gum. The best I can link it to in terms of taste, artificiality and level of sugar and caffeine is Mountain Dew but with more of a bubble gum sort of flavor.
The drink, for reasons that elude me at the time being, has been a popular favorite for well over a hundred years, much to the dismay of major international brands and while I failed to finish even a 33 cl can of the stuff, I’ve heard rumors from credible sources that it primarily goes well with vodka – mainly because it masks the flavor of the alcohol incredibly well. I’ll leave it for someone else to experiment with that. Sorry, Scotland.
#5 Kippers for breakfast? It’s a thing!
The Scots, much like the Johan, have deducted that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. As a result, breakfast in Scotland is usually a hearty ordeal including both cereal and porridge as well as the option of a full cooked breakfast, featuring eggs, bacon, sausage and a number of other items…
Want a little smoked fish with your breakfast? Not a problem! Smoked salmon with eggs any way is a popular, and delicious, breakfast option on many menus. If that’s not quite enough to satisfy your hunger, head towards the northern coast and you might be as lucky as to find whole, fat, pungent, smoked kippers available as a breakfast selection. We’ll let the image speak for itself.
#6 Blood and offal for breakfast? It’s also a thing! (and I’ve had worse!)
Smoked fish not enough to satisfy your breakfast needs? How about some traditional British Black Pudding? That is, savory sausage made from oatmeal and pig’s blood amongst other things. “It’ll have you running up the mountains,” my waitress said with a smile when first serving the dish to a rather intimidated food blogger. I am happy to report that it was in no way as disgusting as it may sound, tasting mainly of oat and spices, but whether or not it deserves a spot on the breakfast table along with kippers and other staples, I’m not too sure.
The same, by the way, can be said for that other Scottish national food, haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onions, oatmeal and beef fat then cooked in the animal’s stomach), which despite not being nowhere near as disgusting as it may sound, probably won’t find a spot on my morning table any time soon.
Yup, the Scots sure like their hearty breakfasts (pun slightly intended)!
#7 They will literally deep fry anything!
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Southern United States and in doing so, I thought I’d seen everything when it came to deep frying. But believe you me, people of Dixie, the Scots are on a totally different level of deep frying. They’ll fry anything and they’ll serve it with anything. On our last day in Scotland, my friend Malene (who is by no means a terribly large human being) was served a portion of Britains national dish Chicken Tikka Masala complete with white rice, naan bread, a couple of huge papadums and the question “Do you need chips with that?” … Followed by a somewhat confused scoff when she politely declined.
If curry with chips sounds a little too normal for your liking, here are a few more deep fried dishes we encountered on our travels and largely passed on: deep-fried hot dogs, deep-fried sausages, deep-fried scallops, deep-fried bacon, deep-fried burgers, deep-fried mac n cheese, deep-fried pizza, oh and of course… the legend…
#8 Yes, Virginia, there is a Deep-fried Mars Bar!
Invented some 15 miles outside of Aberdeen, Scotland, it’s not just a thing of myth and legend – the deep-fried Mars bar does actually exist! It took us till our very last day to track one down and it was with no small bit of wonder and fear that I ordered and consumed one as part of our goodbye luncheon at Old Blackfriars Pub in Union Street… Served complete with a drizzle of butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream… You know, in case deep-fried chocolate and caramel wasn’t heavy, sweet and greasy enough on its own.
What does a deep-fried Mars Bar taste like, you ask? The closest I can get to a description is probably: truly and utterly weird! It’s sort of like a warm, semi-molten Mars bar with a crunch, near-savory tempura-like coating. All drizzled with butterscotch and mixed with vanilla ice cream. It’s nowhere near as disgusting as you’d think, but it’s not exactly a culinary delight either. It’s one to try for the books for sure, and probably a dish mostly invented to amuse the locals. The Scottish family dining next to us sure had one hell of a laugh observing our timid dance with their iconic dessert.
Is it a hit? I’m not too sure. When offered a taste, the dad (who had just consumed the haggis burger) respectfully declined with a “I’d heard rumors of such a thing. I’m Scottish and even I wouldn’t eat that!”
#9 Whisky! It’s everywhere!
Alright, so, I realize that whisky doesn’t really fall into the edible category. But can we really talk about Scotland without talking their greatest national export? Of course not! And we will speak about it in more detail soon enough, but for now let it be known that there’s a fair bit of whisky production going on in Scotland and that the extend of the Scottish Whisky production, much like the size of the known universe, is absolutely mind boggling! Seriously. It defies most attempts of explanation.
Upon first arriving in Scotland, we were initially a little stumped by the number of fuel trucks zooming around the countryside. Until we realized they weren’t hauling food, they were hauling Whisky. Why? Because more Whisky was being produced in the area than could actually be stored and aged there… So they had to haul it off to external locations for storage. Just how large is the production you ask? Well, I’ve no idea, but the two distilleries we visited, Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, alone go through 100 metric tons of malted barley per day of production… Each! And that’s just two of maybe 30 or 40 distilleries that were spread out along our 135 km route.
There’s an old joke in continental Europe that you can’t travel from one point to another without at least one castle getting in your way. Replace the word castle with distillery and hey, that’s Scotland for you. Seriously. By the way, need I mention that with all the malting, distillation and aging going on, the air in the Speyside area, especially in and around Dufftown, smells pretty good?
Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a few more words on Scottish Whisky in the weeks to come!
#10 Scottish food culture is incredibly underrated!
Having hopefully made you laugh and smile listing a few quirks of Scottish food culture, please allow me a few honest words of heartfelt praise. Heading into this adventure, I’d heard mostly trash talk about the state of Scottish food. Reports ranged from “there’s nothing good to be said” over “it’s all mostly tastes of salt, pepper and thyme” to “it’s mainly processed and largely disgusting”
In reality, we discovered most of these statements to be either lacking in objectivity or simply not true. While we did encounter processed food and largely greasy/disgusting options, we also encountered a food culture obsessed with local produce, experimentation and quality. Wherever we went, from dying fishing towns on the coasts over remote hamlets so small they didn’t even have a name to the buzzing high streets of Aberdeen, we encountered local culinary heroes who fought their own personal battles to change the face and reputation of Scottish food, sometimes serving up their creations to as little as three diners per night.
Having just had a laugh at some of the weirder aspects of Scottish cuisine, I leave you here with a few snapshots of some of the more surprising dishes we encountered on our journey down the River Spey. As we found out, culinary invention can be found in the least expected of places and if you take the time to scratch a bit below the surface you will see that Scottish cuisine is an entirely different creature than you would expect from listening to rumors.
Scotland, you surprised us! My hat’s off to you and your culinary heroes!
Terrine of confit duck and local pork with onion marmelade and melon. Served to us at our B&B in the tiny hamlet of Cragganmore. The proprietor puts on a show like this each night for as little as three dining guests.