Why is it so difficult to write about food? No. I don’t mean it’s difficult in the sense I can’t find things to write. I say difficult in the sense that there is way too much to write, to share, to praise, to describe, to… you get the drift.
A long time ago – when I was a grumpy 5-year-old and my sister a teenager – maa and baba told us: “Whenever you visit a new place, you must devote time to the local food. Explore. Enjoy. What you see and what you taste will help make your memories stronger.”
This bit of wisdom had been delivered over plates of piping hot pav bhaji after a long day of exploring Bombay.
Needless to say, we sisters have lived by this mantra. From gorging on gyros in the lanes of Athens, eating frog legs in the streets of Thailand, chomping on banana stem cutlets in Kolkata and enjoying a lavish English breakfast in a castle, our memories of travel are tied with food.
My week-long trip to Scotland was another such experience. Whenever the family plans a trip, yours truly is charged with making a list of ‘places to visit’ and ‘things to eat’. Need I say why it is the latter that always gets done first? The same happened before my trip to Scotland. Only this time, while making that second list, I stumbled upon a few magical phrases like ‘food tours’, ‘Harry Potter’, ‘local gin’ and ‘whisky’. Here is a quick (or not) account of all things food that I experienced in Scotland.
Walking, talking and thinking food
The concept of a food trail was unknown to me until the day I stumbled on the website of Eat Walk Edinburgh that promised a gastronomically satisfying adventure through the streets of Scotland’s city along with a lesson in history, architecture and food. Prompted by my sister, I eagerly booked myself a spot in the evening slot. At a rather steep £63, I was a tad bit sceptical but it was worth every penny.
Here is a quick (or not) account of the first food tour I have experienced. In fact, I’ve decided to look for a food tour whenever I am visiting a new place or even an old. If not that, then join a cooking class in that city to learn the local food. What say?
The food tour did not start on a very positive note as I reached 30 minutes late. In those frantic 30 minutes, I had…
* I tumbled down the stairs near the Princes Garden thanks to an overzealous bunch of tourists and hurt myself
* made a detour to the hotel to change
* ran up and down Princes Street looking for a taxi
I finally dashed into the Whisky Snug of Hotel Du Vin & Bistro to find 5 sets of eyes examining me. These were the guide Julia and two couples, one from the United States and another from Germany. Together we spent nearly four hours sampling the best of food at five handpicked places in Edinburgh. The highlights of these places were not just the food but the curious history of each along with the amount of information – some of it sad and gory – that Julia shared as we walked from the Old Town to the New Town.
At Hotel Du Vin & Bistro, the first stop, I sampled the famed Scotland salmon. For the mild hearted it might be difficult to enjoy the smoked salmon when you realise that the hotel is housed in a building that was originally a lunatic asylum. The building also operated as a medical research centre and a refugee centre, among other things, before it was converted into a hotel.
Our second stop was at Makars Gourmet Mash Bar near Makars’ Court. The latter is near The Writers’ Museum and requires that you look down when walking or you will miss the stones inscribed with quotes of Scottish writers, old and new. At the Makars Rest, I was introduced to the new liquid love of my life Edinburgh Gin. A small-batch distillery, this company has the loveliest list of gins and liqueurs. I can personally vouch for the Rhubarb & Ginger Liqueur and Plum & Vanilla Liqueur; the Raspberry Liqueur cocktail served at the restaurant was the perfect accompaniment with the mash and black pudding with ox cheek and dark gravy. And yes, amid the tales of local gin and revival of the literary heritage, I realised that I had eaten ox cheek after I licked the plate clean. Do note that the black pudding is not pudding; it is a sausage that is eaten grilled, boiled or even fried. It’s a part of the breakfast served in Scotland. The ox cheek is well, ox cheek.
Some things are better learned late. As was also the case with haggis served with whisky cream sauce and mash at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society on Queen Street. It is imperative I mention two things here – squeamish people do not need to know details about the haggis and those who love their ‘scotch’ need to step into The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. At the society, the ignorant us were taught how to savour whisky, one sip at a time. There is a lot of chemistry happening there what with the water and air reacting with the alcohol and some other mumbo jumbo. The posh premise and the amazing whiskies on display – names like Sunshine In A Glass, Spruced-up Fruit Salad, Harbour In A Storm, Work Of Art – made me want to go down on my knees and send up a prayer of thanks.
I repeated this experience at the Dalwhinnie Distillery in the Highland village of the same name. Only in this case, I sampled three whiskies and each was complemented with local, handmade chocolate (photo below).
The deep emotional connect that I formed with whisky made its presence felt yet again at the fourth stop of the food trail, Calistoga, where we sampled a Scottish cheese platter. The world, I believe, has been kept in the dark about the lusciousness of the locally made cheese. Tucked behind a nondescript door on Rose Street Lane North, this tiny gem of a place is easily one of the cosiest places I have visited in recent times. And it was fun talking to two happily high men – gin, whisky followed by beer do that – who wanted to know everything about India. One of the gentlemen even wiped out the map of India on his phone and the three of us spend a few precious minutes bent over the screen as I attempted to explain our country with its several states, union territories, cultures and languages. #IncredibleIndia
The evening ended with the cherry on the cake, the cranachan that soft, soul-satisfying traditional dessert made of fresh whipped cream, whisky, honey, oatmeal and served with berries. Heaven on a plate served at Ghillie Dhu on Rutland Place, one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. Formerly a Jewish synagogue, it’s the perfect setting to end your night.
Planning a trip to Edinburgh might be a bit easier if you check out these posts… Crushing on Edinburgh #Chapter1 | #Chapter2
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