While Scotland’s national drink is loved the world over, Scottish cooking hasn’t exactly had good press over the years. This is perhaps not too surprising, as the national dish, haggis, consists of a stomach stuffed with diced innards and served with mashed tatties (potatoes) and neeps (turnips). Not a great start. And things got even worse when the Scots discovered the notorious deep-fried Mars bar. But Scottish cuisine has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years and Scotland now boasts some of the most talented chefs, creating some of the best food in Britain. The heart of Scottish cooking is local produce, which includes the finest fish, shellfish, game, lamb, beef and vegetables, and a vast selection of traditionally made cheeses.
What makes Scottish cooking so special is ready access to these foods. What could be better than enjoying an aperitif while watching your dinner being delivered by a local fisherman, knowing that an hour later you’ll be enjoying the most delicious seafood? Modern Scottish cuisine is now a feature of many of the top restaurants in the country. This generally means the use of local ingredients with foreign-influenced culinary styles, in particular French.
International cuisine is also now a major feature on menus all over the country, influenced by the rise of Indian and Chinese restaurants in recent decades. Indeed, so prevalent are exotic Asian and Oriental flavors that curry has now replaced fish and chips (fish supper) as the nation’s favorite food. Anyone staying at a hotel, guesthouse or B&B will experience the hearty Scottish breakfast, which includes bacon, egg, sausage and black pudding (a type of sausage made with blood), all washed down with copious quantities of tea, Scotland’s staple drink.
Although coffee is readily available everywhere, do not expect cappuccinos and café lattes: filter coffee is the staple ‘tea-substitute’ in most hotels and B&Bs. You may also be served kippers (smoked herring) or porridge, an erstwhile Scottish staple, which is now eaten by few people. Porridge is made with oatmeal and has the consistency of Italian polenta. It is traditionally eaten with salt, though heretics are offered sugar instead.
Oatcakes (oatmeal biscuits) may also be on offer, as well as potato scones, baps (bread rolls), bannocks (a sort of large oatcake) or butteries (butter-laden bread similar to a croissant). These local baked goodies can be spread with marmalade, brought to the world’s breakfast tables by the city of Dundee.
After such a huge cooked breakfast you probably won’t feel like eating again until dinner, or tea, taken between 5:00 and 6:00pm, a national institution consisting of a cooked main course (usually fish and chips) and a smorgasbord of scones and cakes, washed down with more pots of tea.
Fish, meat and game form the base of many of the country’s finest dishes. Scottish beef, particularly Aberdeen Angus, is the most famous in the world and has escaped the worst of the recent BSE scares. This will, or should, usually be hung for at least four weeks and sliced thick. Game is also a regular feature of Scottish menus, though it can be expensive, especially venison (deer), but delicious and low in cholesterol. Pheasant and hare are also tasty, but grouse is, quite frankly, overrated. Fish and seafood are fresh and plentiful, and if you’re traveling around the northwest coast you must not miss the chance to savor local mussels, prawns, oysters, scallops, langoustines, lobster or crab. Salmon is, of course, the most famous of Scottish fish, but you’re more likely to be served the fish-farmed variety than ‘wild’ salmon, which has a more delicate flavor. Trout is also farmed extensively, but the standard of both remains high. Kippers are also a favorite delicacy, the best of which come from Loch Fyne or the Achiltibuie smokery. Arbroath smokies (smoked haddock) are a tasty alternative.
Haggis has made something of a comeback, and small portions are often served as starters in fashionable restaurants. Haggis is traditionally eaten on Burns Night (25 January) in celebration of the great poet’s birthday, when it is piped to the table and then slashed open with a sword at the end of a recital of Robert Burns’ ‘Address to the Haggis’.
Other national favorites feature names to relish: cock-a-leekie is a soup made from chicken, leeks and prunes; cullen skink is a delicious concoction of smoked haddock and potatoes; while at the other end of the scale of appeal is hugga-muggie, a Shetland dish using fish’s stomach. There’s also the delightfully named crappit heids (haddock heads stuffed with lobster) and partan bree (a soup made form giant crab’s claws, cooked with rice). Rather more mundane is the ubiquitous Scotch broth, made with mutton stock, vegetables, barley, lentils and split peas, and stovies, which is a mash of potato, onion and minced beef.
Waist-expanding puddings or desserts are a very important part of Scottish cooking and often smothered in butterscotch sauce or syrup in order to satisfy a sweet-toothed nation. There is a huge variety, including cranachan, a mouth- watering mix of toasted oatmeal steeped in whisky, cream and fresh raspberries, and Atholl Brose, a similar confection of oatmeal, whisky and cream.
Eaten before pudding, in the French style, or afterwards, are Scotland’s many home-produced cheeses, which have made a successful comeback in the face of mass-produced varieties. Among the tastiest examples are Lanark Blue, made from unpasteurized ewe’s milk and similar to Roquefort, and Teviotdale and Bonchester, which both come from the Borders. Many of the finest cheeses are produced on the islands, especially Arran, Mull, Islay and Orkney. Caboc is a creamy soft cheese rolled in oatmeal and is made in the Highlands.
Vegetarians are increasingly well catered for, especially in the large cities, where exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurants and cafés are often the cheapest places to eat. Outside the cities, vegetarian restaurants are thin on the ground, though better-quality eating places will normally offer a reasonable vegetarian selection.
For a cheap meal, you’re best bet is a pub, hotel bar or café, where you can have a one-course meal for around £5 or less, though don’t expect gourmet food. The best value is often at lunch time, when many restaurants offer three-course set lunches or business lunches for less than £10.
Whisky, or uisge beatha (“water of life” in Gaelic), is the national drink of Scotland. Whisky has been produced in Scotland since the fifteenth century. For a long period of time, the distilling of whisky was illegal, a law achieving nothing but driving stills underground where illicit distilling went on. In 1823, the production and selling of whisky was legalized and today the drink is Scotland’s chief export. Many of today’s huge distilleries are built on the same spot as the original illegal stills, using the same source of water as before. The quality of the water is considered the crucial element in the making of a good whisky. Many distilleries are therefore situated in the Highlands, taking advantage of the clear mountain springs.
Two types of whisky are produced in Scottish distilleries: single malt is made only with water, barley and yeast, whereas grain whisky, relatively cheap in production, is made with maize and a small amount of barley. Blended whisky, which accounts for more than 90% of the total sales, is a blend of the two types. A blended whisky is made up of around 70% grain whisky and 30% malt whisky. The higher proportion of malts, the more expensive the blend. Brands such as Johnny Walker, Bells and The Famous Grouse are some of the best-known blended whiskies. All have a similar flavor, and are drunk neat or with water, sometimes with mixtures such as soda or lemonade. Many distilleries produce malt whisky both for blending with others and for their own single malt brand. Grain whisky on the other hand is produced only for blending. As with all spirits in Scotland, a standard single measure is 25ml, though some places serve 35ml.
Despite the dominance of the blended whiskies, single malt whisky is infinitely superior, and, as a result, a great deal more expensive. Despite the snobbishness which surrounds he subject, malt whisky is best drunk with a splash of water to release its distinctive flavors. Single malts vary enormously depending on the amount of peat used for drying the barley, the water used for mashing and the type of oak cask used in the maturing process. Traditionally they are divided into four distinct groups: Highland, Lowland, Campbeltown and Islay. However, with Campbeltown down to just two distilleries, and new distilleries springing up all over the country, there is a strong case for dispensing with the old labels. The two most important whisky regions are Speyside, which produces famous varieties such as Glenlivit, Glenfiddich and Macallan, and Islay, which produces distinctively peaty whiskies such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.