True Highlands Blog
When people think of Italian cuisine or going out for an Indian or a Chinese takeaway, most have a distinct idea in their head of what exactly they are letting themselves in for. Scottish cuisine is however a bit harder to pin down. We are blessed with an abundance of fresh ingredients here and a long tradition of using locally sourced produce (often by necessity), so as we begin the Year of Food and Drink, we thought we would share a few thoughts about what it all means to us.
A national dish should be more than just something that fills you up – it has to be something that stirs your soul as well. It should be like a blanket on a winter’s day, something that evokes memories of people and place or a ritual that connects one generation to another. Cullen Skink is our favourite, its simplicity contrasting with the myriad of differing recipes and serving suggestions. It’s a history lesson and a warm hug rolled into one and the definitive recipe can be found here:
Haggis is our second contender for national dish with its consumption on Burns night every year, tied in with our national poet and our national drink. To the outsider it may seem like a curious ritual, full of pomp and ceremony and nationalistic fervour. It’s a shame that this dish is rarely enjoyed in isolation as it is truly an exceptional and wholesome culinary treat. Sheep’s liver, lungs and heart are diced, with spices, oatmeal and suet and served with potatoes, turnips and whisky. Who could believe that such a simple dish could play such a large part in the formation of the Scottish identity.
Another authentic favourite of ours that, is tied to a particular place, is reestit mutton. This distinctive Shetland delicacy has been popularised in recent times by the Michelin Starred Chef Martin Wishart. It originates from crofting households where there was no refrigeration and mutton was soaked in brine then hung up in the cottage rafters to cure over burning peat. Traditionally it was eaten throughout the winter and it makes an amazing base for a Scots type broth.
Rationing has not been a common sight in the islands for many years but that is in effect what takes place when the Guga harvest is distributed every year. For 10 days every August a small party of local men harvest baby gannets from a remote island off the coast of Lewis. The chicks are decapitated, singed and pickled and are much prised for their unusual flavour. This anachronistic ritual has its origins in subsistence crofting townships where people could not afford to be fussy about what they ate. Its evolution into a cultural source of pride among the islanders is a wonderful example of Gaelic tradition reasserting itself in the modern world. You can’t change the fact it still tastes like fishy leather though.
For something that is actually supposed to taste of fish then we head out west to Lochinver. A remote village of only 600 inhabitants, is not the obvious destination for serious foodies, but believe it or not Lochinver has three award winning restaurants and the best take away in the country. Maybe it has something to do with the abundance of seafood in the area or the availability of local produce but finally the secret is out, Lochinver is the fashionable foodie place to be seen. Award winning chef Albert Roux has contracted out the kitchens at Inver Lodge, which has fierce competition from The Michelin Starred Albannach, Peet’s and the infamous pie shop at Lochinver Larder. Locals seem at a loss when trying to explain the concentration of culinary talent in such a small area but the fall-out from foodie tourism can be seen in the presence of a panini takeaway van and a community project at the old fisherman’s mission which serves quality food at accessible prices.
Our much maligned Scotland diet has for many years been the butt of many a European’s joke but it’s a situation that has been partially cultivated by us as a nation. I watched an Italian friend recoil in horror as I recounted to him the exact nature of “Pizza Crunch”. During an international football match with Italy the Scottish fans did indeed sing a song threatening to deep fry their opponents Pizza. And thus a contemporary delicacy is born. It would be snobbish in the extreme to discount such mainstays of the national diet, it’s unhealthy but it’s our bad health, and we love it and should not be ashamed of it.
In an era where supermarkets can sell Canadian lobsters, once the preserve of the moneyed elite for as little as £5.00 then is there any future for the Scottish seafood industry? Thankfully the answer is a resounding yes. You only have to taste the difference between a heavily processed, frozen fish that has been transported half way round the world and something that is caught and served up locally. This is not just an ethical debate over food miles and sustainability – it is as simple as getting the message across that Scotland really does have some of the best seafood in the world, which when freshly prepared is as good as you will eat anywhere.
It would seem that the rest of the world is slowly beginning to appreciate this. In recent years a number of smokehouses have opened along the west coast to prepare and export some of the best of the locally fished produce. Using traditional methods which include the use of peat these business are thriving by providing a no compromise, top quality product that we in this country should be proud of.
The same is happening across estates in the Highlands with venison increasingly finding its way onto the tables of the most upmarket restaurants across the country. In addition, continental style charcuteries are combining artisanal techniques to create things like venison chorizos and salamis, the tradition is imported, but the products are 100% local.
For those with a sweet tooth don’t despair, apart from the ubiquitous deep fried mars bars then Scotland has more bakes, bannocks and black buns than you can shake a toothbrush at. Some of the best have already been covered in previous blogs along with our favourite seaweed desert but the things that really excite us are the things that we remember from our childhood. Maybe it’s memory playing games with us, or our sub conscious reacting against the inevitability of growing old, but sweeties really did taste better when we were young. Tablet and highland toffee, Ferguzade and treacle scones, snowballs, and soor plooms in a paper bag. Even if I could buy them now how could they ever live up to the reverential status they currently occupy in my memory. Instead of reverie though, how about some contemporary alternatives, Tunnocks tea cakes, Kirriemuir gingerbread, Ecclefechan tarts, shortbread and red Kola. All is not lost for the kids of today.
If a Scotsman could find a way to deep fry porridge for breakfast he would probably take 5 years off his life. It’s fortunate then in these health conscious times that an unmolested bowl of porridge is extremely good for you. As this is almost contrary to the nature of a Scotsman, it is possible to sabotage this staple with all manner of additions. Cream and bacon are our favourites, closely followed by whisky and coconuts. There are no rules in our kitchen! One associated tradition that we are not that keen on is that of pouring the leftovers from the morning’s pot into your kitchen cabinet. For a tasty snack in days of old you would just slice a piece of the cooled and hardened porridge to take with you to your jovial days toil. Now that stoats make the best flapjacks in the world, the appeal is somewhat limited.
Believe it or not the second best breakfast in the world is also from the Highlands of Scotland. Stornoway Black Pudding (deep fried of course) served with potato scones. It makes us want to drink more whisky in the evenings to justify its preparation in the morning, as every local knows there is no better hangover remedy in existence.
Scottish drinking is for most people a lot easier to define as it is what we do best. Whisky in all its glorious variations, ages and flavours. In addition to promoting the Whisky itself, the Year of food and Drink is about highlighting the attractions associated with the industry. Festivals, distillery tours and tastings serve to illustrate the importance of whisky as a tourist draw as well as an important export. But it’s not all about tradition, local produce and a bit of know how has led to quality gin being produced in Caithness as well as alcoholic fruit infusions and cordials for the kids.
Highland brewers have also been undergoing a bit of a resurgence in the last few years with small independent producers enjoying local and international success with traditional and experimental brews. The varieties are too numerous to list here but our current favourites are Orkney Dark Island for a quiet evening by the fire, something light like a Happy Chappy IPA from the Cromarty Brewery for a lunchtime pick me up or Trade Winds from the Cairngorm Brewery for an all day session.
We believe this should be a year of discovery and celebration, our chefs, ingredients and culinary heritage are truly world class, our traditions of food and drink have shaped us as a nation and this is the perfect time to show off what they mean to us and why the rest of the world should be excited.
If you want to join us on Twitter to “tweet and eat” the year away, use the hashtag #TastescotlandTags: #tastescotland, black pudding, Cullen Skink, lochinver, oatcakes, porridge, scottish food, Scottish Recipes, seafood, whisky, year of food and drink