What with the campaign for Scottish independence receiving an absolute drubbing at the polls, leaving much of the widespread Scots diaspora crying into their pints, I felt that perhaps the best way to lift the spirits would be to take a lighthearted look at Scottish food along with a couple of fellow Scots: Blogger Valerie Howes of Val’s Open Kitchen and Chef John Higgins, Director of George Brown College Chefs School.
Valerie Howes: I never ate oysters when I lived in Scotland. I was not fancy like Jamie.
Jamie Drummond: Haha… hardly. I think that I must have had oysters for the first time when I went down to London to visit my girlfriend in around 1988. I can remember finding them quite strange at first, but slowly getting used to their delicious salinity and minerality.
There’s no chance that I would ever had been served them at home as to this day even the word oyster gives my Mum what she refers to as “the boak“.
When I’m back in Edinburgh I usually try to find time to drop into the Café Royal Oyster Bar… it’s a great old place… although the last time I took my Mum there we had a bit of a scene. When my oysters arrived and I started eating them she looked me straight in the eye, with a look of utter disgust, and said “Because you are my son, I know that you really don’t like those, and you’re just eating them, pretending that you are enjoying them, to show off”.
I’ll admit that I was quite flabbergasted by that, and didn’t quite know how to reply.
To this day there’s just something about oysters that she utterly despises, despite having never tasted one in her life. It’s so strange… I often question if we are indeed made of the same genetic material, as I simply adore the glistening little things!
Chef John Higgins: Ahhhh, for me there is nothing better than fresh Scottish oysters… sitting back with a dozen and topped off with a nice pint of Guinness.
Jamie Drummond: That’s from Ireland though… I seem to remember a great Scottish Stout that was around in the 90’s, form Edinburgh I think… the name eludes me right now… maybe a Belhaven Stout would be apropos?
Chef John Higgins: I had the most wonderful Langoustines ever in the Orkney Islands, dynamite stuff. Did you know that most Scottish Langoustines are exported to Europe?
Valerie Howes: I also never had langoustines growing up. I first tasted them in Glasgow, on a press trip with five Canadian chefs, three years ago. The chefs poo-pooed all my favourite childhood dishes on that trip, and it hurt my heart a lot, but those guys ordered about 15 rounds of local langoustines on our last night, and I have to admit, they were better than mince and tatties.
The trip was sponsored by a distillery. I drank a LOT that night, and I beat out all the Canadians to win an expensive bottle of whisky at the end of our meal, by getting all Scottish and shouty in the quick-fire quiz.
After dinner we went dancing on Sauchiehall Street. The bar was playing all the same music as when I was a student at Glasgow Uni twenty years earlier, and it made me feel so young again. I wasn’t even surprised when this handsome whippersnapper half my age insisted I dance with him. By closing time, my friend Rebecca pretty much had to give me a fireman’s lift back to the hotel.
The next morning I woke up with a start, somehow aware my fancy whisky was GONE. I called the bar to say I’d left a really nice bottle of whisky and was wondering if anyone had handed it in to Lost and Found. The bartender laughed very hard. Piecing together my hazy flashbacks, I realized that the nice 23-year-old boy’s wingman, who had watched us all eagle-eyed from the sidelines, must have stolen it from my purse while I was twirling on the dancefloor. Those baby-faced bastards. Jamie might love langoustines, but to me, they are the taste of Robbery.
Jamie Drummond: The best langoustines I have ever experienced were from the Plockton Hotel, in Plockton, up in the north west of Scotland. They were fresh off the boat that had putted its way into the harbour in front of the restaurant… straight into the pot, and then onto your plate. So fresh, and so very, very delicious. Scottish seafood can be so special.
Valerie Howes: When I was living in Glasgow in the late 1990s, I used to get the 6 o’clock bus every Friday, to bring my son to his dad in Edinburgh. We did the handover, then I’d jump on the 7 o’clock bus home. By the time I arrived back at 8, every single person in the city was drunk. I’d walk home sober along Sauchiehall Street, feeling like an alien, while all these guys and girls, who hadn’t been home from work yet were pouring out the pubs yelling, singing, drinking (you could carry your pint glass from pub to pub back then) and popping into alleyways to pee (both sexes).
There was a chip shop at the bottom of Garnethill, where I lived on a street so steep it had handrails on the sides so you could haul yourself up–and I remember girls in super-glam make-up and little sparkly outfits coming out of the chippy with massive bags of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. They’d shovel down this big greasy, delicious mess, as they tottered daintily in drunken diagonals up the hill in their stilettos. It helped soak up the booze, so they could pace themselves for clubbing. Friday night in Glasgow holds a world of possibilities; and fish and chips is your secret weapon for making it to Saturday’s sunrise.
Deep-fried, battered and saltier than the Dead Sea, fish suppers taste amazing from the first bite to the last. Then the second you’re done, you feel like crap. But it’s worth it.
Chef John Higgins: Ach… I love a good fish supper. It just such good, tasty, regular food that fills you up.
It’s funny… every Scot knows the difference between a good fish supper and a crap fish supper. It must be in our genetics!
I’m from Bellshill in North Lanarkshire, so from the West, and I like ketchup and vinegar with my fish supper. None of that Brown Sauce stuff. That’s just pure sacrilege, so it is. When I worked in Sheffield I can remember thinking it really weird when I discovered that they had mushy pies with their fish suppers.
And for me the fish just has to be haddock.
Jamie Drummond: I’m with you on the haddock, definitely.
Fish suppers can be so very good, but can also be so very bad, and you are right John, I believe that every Scot knows the difference.
Once, in Edinburgh after a few too many pints, I picked up a terrible fish supper from a chip shop I didn’t know and took it back to my hotel room. In my infinite wisdom I decided to eat it in bed where, of course, I promptly fell asleep. Waking up hungover cuddling a rank fish supper puts you off them for quite some time, let me tell you.
Now my most fond memory of a fish supper was being taken to a place called The Wee Hurrie in Troon by my great friends Sharon and David. I was going through a bit of a low period at the time, and that fish supper lifted my spirits no end. The haddock was so delicate and fresh, the batter with just the right amount of give in its crunchiness, the chips chubby and crispy… although I seem to remember making the mistake of asking for brown sauce and getting some stern looks from behind the counter…
Jamie Drummond: Chip shop brown sauce is really just like sweetened and watered-down HP sauce, right?… I tried to make it at home once, without much success.
Valerie Howes: Whether my mum made us pies, beans and mash; homemade lasagna or trifle, my dad put brown sauce on it, much to her despair.
Chef John Higgins: Even though I wouldn’t put it anywhere near my fish supper, I’ve had brown sauce with every Scotch pie I have ever eaten. Lovely!
Jamie Drummond: My Mum is quite particular when it comes to her brown sauce, always stating quite firmly that she’d like brown sauce on her chips BUT NOT on her fish… cue terrified looks from the wee girl or guy behind the counter.
Valerie Howes: The poshest fish and chips I ever had was at the harbour, waiting for the ferry to the Isle of Skye. It was not on a white plate like Jamie’s, but it was made with really fresh fish and it was light and flaky and perfect, with a single pickled onion on the side. That fish supper didn’t even make me feel sick at the end.
Chef John Higgins: The best fish and chips I ever had were from Saltcoats, a small town on the west coast of Ayrshire… I was there with my Mum and Dad, and my wife after a wee holiday on the Isle of Arran. It was pouring with rain when we got there, and I’ll never forget ordering the “Special Fish”… it was almost a sin.
Jamie Drummond: So what’s that then? I’ve never heard of that.
Chef John Higgins: Well, you paid a wee bit more for it and it was this kindly of orange, mealy batter… kind of like ground cornflakes and an eggwash.
Jamie Drummond: Ah wait! I think I know what you mean now. My Mum used to cook fish at home in that. I don’t think that they ever served it in chippys on the East Coast though. Also, my Mum is from the west, Lanarkshire, so I guess that makes sense. It’s like Ruskoline, isn’t it? For me that’s bringing back memories of my Mum cooking us fish at home.
Chef John Higgins: Well, there I was, in the pouring rain, walking along the promenade at Saltcoats, eating my Special Fish Supper. I’ll never forget that.
Jamie Drummond: It’s so interesting that fish suppers can be so evocative of times past. Ethereal fish supper memories…
Valerie Howes: Those pies are great. They have a lot of black pepper in them. The lard-based pastry is melty and magic. There was a 24-hour bakery at the bottom of our street when I was little, and I sometimes snuck out in my pyjamas and slippers to get one in the middle of the night with my pocket money. (Sorry, Mum).
Chef John Higgins: Scotch Pies were invented for a Football game at Half time with a cup of Bovril… Scottish fast food.
Now we have gone all posh as the folk in Edinburgh call it a “grab and go”.
Jamie Drummond: Pie and beans were a regular feature of our tea (read: dinner), and to this day I still enjoy a good pie and beans.
It’s funny that when we were younger we never ever questioned the provenance of the strange grey meat found within. When then CJD or “Mad Cow” crisis hit the UK I can distinctly remember thinking, alright, I’m screwed here. I shudder to think how many of these I consumed between the ages of 5 and 20… perhaps into the thousands?
When in Glasgow last year, I popped into the ubiquitous Gregg’s Bakery and picked up a couple of pies, just to see what they were like these days. After scarfing them both down on the street (when in Rome!) my guts suddenly took a turn for the worse and I comically hurried back to my hotel room clutching my stomach… they really were pretty vile. Never again.
Chef John Higgins: I tell you, Stornoway Black Pudding would bring a tear to a glass eye. It’s hands down the best black pudding I have ever eaten. There’s a lot of this stuff exported too.
It’s interesting to note that black pudding used to be what poor folk ate as it was inexpensive and nutritious, and yet now you’ll see black pudding on the menus of many a Michelin starred restaurant.
Valerie Howes: When I was 14, our home economics teacher Mrs Gourlay showed us how to cook black pudding and told us it was good for girls when they had their period. In Scotland, school is not just about reading, writing and sums, it’s about LIFE LESSONS.
Valerie Howes: I used to cook up a nice bit of square sausage in my first job at a greasy spoon in my hometown in Fife. I was 14 and I got paid a pound an hour to run the joint with another 14-year-old, who was just as handsomely compensated. Our boss would unlock the front door for us in the morning, then we’d drop off the keys in his mailbox ten hours later. When there were no customers–which was most of the time–we ate 99s (ice cream cones stabbed with Cadbury’s Chocolate Flakes) and then put “Like a Prayer” on the jukebox, so we could perfect “The Pervy Dance”–a routine from my disco-dancing lessons that we upgraded with high kicks, pelvic thrusts and loud roars.
Jamie Drummond: I haven’t had Lorne sausage in well over a decade… I must remedy that on my next trip back home. Yes, I’d be putting some brown sauce on that too. Even looking at that picture above is making my mouth water… it’s getting close to lunch time!
Valerie Howes: I don’t remember eating venison as a kid. I think Jamie would have spat on me, in his junior tweed suit, back in the day, if we’d gone to the same school. But my uncle used to be some kind of a big deal in the Scottish deer world, and I think he got invited to Charles and Camilla’s wedding on account of his venison chops, so to speak. Take that, Jamie Drummond.
Chef John Higgins: The quality of the game in Scotland is second to none, although I’m not sure that north American folks would get it.
I remember when I had some properly hung grouse that I had brought in illegally to use for a dinner at the King Eddie… most of the kitchen thought that something had gone off, that something was rotten.
Jamie Drummond: Well, I guess that in a way they were right.
Jamie Drummond: I can recall someone telling me that the way to tell whether hung game birds were ready to eat was when they fell off the hooks they were mounted upon due to the flesh decomposing. Delightful. Properly hung game can be really special, although it’s probably an acquired taste…
I can still remember the first day I caught whiff of the hung wild duck dish at Edinburgh’s Atrium restaurant. I honestly thought that one of our older customers had shat their pants.
I cannot remember when my opinions turned the corner on this one, as today I find the aromatics of hung game, birds or venison, so very alluring… and such fun to pair with the stinkier side of Burgundy wines… my mouth is watering as I type.
It’s such a pity that we don’t get any of that over here in Canada.
Valerie Howes: I also never grew up eating wild pigeon. But in recent years I was taken to a Highland Estate to shoot clay pigeons. I am kind of wimpy by nature, so it was a nice surprise for me to discover I’m deadly accurate with a gun.
Jamie Drummond: I certainly never grew up on pigeon, but developed a taste for it whilst working in restaurants in Edinburgh after university. Again, it was always quite gamey, something that I now crave… if I see pigeon on a menu, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be ordering it.
I can remember quite a few customers breaking their dentures on the buckshot that one would find in about one in every 100 breasts from someone being a bit of careless shot… that was always a fun customer complaint to deal with…
Chef John Higgins: I was working at the Central Hotel in Glasgow, in the Malmaison restaurant, in 1976. The place had a Michelin star you know, and this was at a time that all of Glasgow thought that meant that the place was a garage. Anyway, I remember cooking grouse there, and it was quite a production for the one dish.. there were just so many components.
I’d have to take the insides out, make a jus, make a bread sauce, grill a tomato, a wee chipolata, a wee pastry basket, and pommes soufflées… and then you’d get six orders in at once…Awwww naw! and you’d just have to say “Yes Chef”.
Valerie Howes: I really do like haggis and it makes me sad when people diss it without trying it. My aunt makes Chicken Balmoral–chicken breasts stuffed with haggis and wrapped in bacon. This is a good gateway dish. Also, a side note on “neeps,” a.k.a. turnips. We never had pumpkins in Scotland when I was a kid, so for Hallowe’en, we used to have to scoop out the rock-hard insides of a turnip with teaspoons to make our lanterns. Our mums and dads cut out the features with knives. It was so difficult, that they could only do basic triangles for eyes and straight lines for mouths. #hardknocklife
Chef John Higgins: Ahhhh… Haggis… there are few things better, but it gets such a bad rap… but that’s more often than not from people who have never even tasted it. I love Haggis for special occasions, and sometimes for breakfast… cooked up with a wee fried egg on the top.
It’s interesting that back in the day our Mums would have one Butcher shop that they’d go to because their haggis was good, another for their link sausages (but don’t get your black pudding there because it’s crap), and another place for their mince, and so on…
Jamie Drummond: Yes, you are right there… that generation’s Mums were surprisingly discerning as to the provenance of their food, even although it was basic and inexpensive. Today, especially here in north America, most people would just go to one supermarket and buy EVERYTHING there. It makes you think…
Valerie Howes: Mince and tatties is nicest when the meat water dribbles onto the potatoes and makes them salty.
Chef John Higgins: I see Mince and tatties as being like Scottish Soul Food. I had it often when I was young and really enjoyed it as it was the only thing that my Mum could cook well!
Jamie Drummond: Even after 20 years in Canada I still catch myself using the term “mince” for minced beef. I do get some very confused looks…
Valerie Howes: I eat porridge nearly every day for breakfast. When I was a child, we got this brand with the strapping shot putter on the box quite a lot. I never paid much attention to him before today, but he is actually quite gorgeous. We switched things up for Christmas Day though, when tradition dictated either Sugar Puffs or Alpen Muesli. I used to love my Christmas muesli.
Chef John Higgins: I eat porridge every day for breakfast… even on the hottest of summer days. Seriously!
Ever since I started taking care of my weight it’s been a daily thing, a wee bowl of that in the morning and because of its high glycemic index I’m not hungry until lunchtime.
I’ll have it with just a touch of honey or maple syrup… pop some blueberries on top.
Jamie Drummond: I never quite understood my Mum making it with salt… even the thought of that makes me feel vaguely nauseous.
Chef John Higgins: Well I still season the water that I cook it in with salt…
Jamie Drummond: Oh no, that just wouldn’t work for me. Sorry.
Chef John Higgins: My favourite stuff is actually from Ireland… McCann’s Irish Oatmeal… and I was introduced to that by the actor Richard Harris when he was staying at the Sutton Place Hotel and he wasn’t in good shape because of his alcohol issues… and all he could eat was McCann’s oatmeal.
Valerie Howes: Cremola Foam was a flavoured powder you added to water to make a fizzy drink. If you put a big spoonful of the dry powder on your tongue and shut your mouth, it foams up so much that your eyes water. Trying this as a child was my first foray into substance abuse. Basically, this colourful drink is Scotland’s answer to KoolAid, only it was never used in any mass cult suicides, so there’s no point telling Scottish outliers to “Drink the Cremola Foam.”
Chef John Higgins: We used to have this stuff all the time as my Mum and Dad could afford it… and it was cheaper than buying “ginger”
Jamie Drummond: And by that you mean what we refer to in Canada as “pop”, right? Over on the east coast we’d call it “juice”… which is kind of weird when you think of it… a bottle of “juice” would mean a bottle of coke, Tizer, and the like. Which brings us rather neatly onto Scotland’s second national drink… Irn-Bru.
Chef John Higgins: Irn Bru is basically like Scottish Coke, isn’t it? and it’s travelled the world too.
Jamie Drummond: How would you describe the taste though?
Chef John Higgins: Well it’s kind of sweet and sugary, with a wee bit of bitterness… that sweet/sour thing, very much yin and yang.
The stuff is crazily addictive you know.
I also think that part of its success is to do with their great adverts… amazing.
Valerie Howes: Irn Bru reminds me of hangovers in Glasgow on Sunday mornings. It’s good with a bacon roll.
Valerie Howes: Tunnock’s Teacakes are best eaten by picking off the chocolate casing with your teeth, then biting off the marshmallow topping and letting it deflate in your mouth, and then crunching into the cookie layer on the bottom. I disagree with Jamie about the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony: The dancing Tunnock’s Teacakes made my heart sing.
Chef John Higgins: You know that these things, both the Tea Cakes and the Caramel Wafers are exported all over the world now? I’ve seen them in Hong Kong, Dubai, Trinidad… it’s amazing.
It’s still a family business too, in Uddingston, the next town over from my hometown. Old Archie Tunnock is a local legend too… he once had Marks and Spencer approach him about doing a private line for all of their stores, a huge contract, and so they came to his factory and told him that he’s going to have to knock down this wall here, move this machine there, switch this machine over as they didn’t like it… and he just looked at them and told them to kiss his arse!
Valerie Howes: I don’t know why people buy these. They’re crap.
Jamie Drummond: Oh, I’d beg to differ. I’d take these over those Tea Cakes any day. I love having these straight from the fridge with a cup of tea. I have been known to eat three in one sitting, which, now I think of it, is pretty disgusting. Anyway, they never last very long in this household…
Thanks for that Valerie and John, and we made it through all of that without one mention of deep fried Mars Bars. Fantastic!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he’s feeling utterly deflated after that disastrous result for the Yes campaign.