EDINBURGH, Scotland – As the mist rolls in from the North Sea over the Firth of Forth, the pubs of Edinburgh provide shelter against the near constant schpritz from the sky. I know it sounds as if I were writing the opening lines of a novel, but that’s what the place does to you.
There’s a lot of pint-hoisting going on seven days a week, from fairly early in the morning until closing time. Ales and beers, local and foreign, flow almost continuously from the taps and each pub seems to have its own set of regular characters who consume their beverages into what have to be hollow legs.
I went to Scotland for a family event and turned it into something of a “busman’s holiday,” as I thought I’d surely find fodder for this column, based on the jokes and legends about Scottish food.
What I found was a vibrant community of serious cooks with a huge array of influences from the cuisines that came to the British Isles from so many former colonies. That includes pub food, although seeing nachos on so many of those menus kind of threw me. What passes for guacamole there, we’d sniff and push away. It’s just not very good.
But if you like food from the far flung corners of the world, even the smallest villages have curry-style foods from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many other Asian countries. Wherever imperialist Great Britain hoisted its flag, you’ll see immigrants from those countries and their descendants rolling out the welcome mat at restaurant after restaurant. So there was no lack of variety or choice. American fast food joints have penetrated the place as you might guess, and they’re plenty busy, too.
I confess I was on sort of a mission as many of my chef friends from around this country and several others challenged me to eat the national dish of Scotland, haggis. Behind the challenge were snickers and guffaws because haggis is one of those traditional foods that has its origins in making do with whatever you had on hand.
Haggis in its original form was the stomach of a sheep stuffed with leftover pieces of mutton (including the remnants of other organs from the sheep) along with oats as a filler and spices. The stomach was then tied at both ends and boiled in a cauldron. Here’s where I may burst a bubble or two: Modern times have taken over, and so I must inform you that most of the haggis in Scotland now comes in boil-in bags.
Nearly every pub I visited offered haggis. It is traditionally served with “neeps” and “tatties” which is slang for mashed turnips and mashed potatoes. There’s also a side of whiskey sauce, and it just depends on the sauce maker how strong it is. I had one that was relatively mild, though the redolence of strong drink was noticeable. Another just about knocked me off my chair.
Some creative chefs in Scotland are also doing riffs on haggis, including one I sampled made with venison and topped with turnip risotto and a carefully laid line of cranberry sauce. I also sampled Scottish beef at this same restaurant that came with what the chef called “haggis cream.” I could make this place, The Wedgwood Restaurant, a regular stop if I were resident in Edinburgh.
And if I were a resident of Edinburgh I don’t know if I could spend as much time in the pubs as so many people obviously do. I must also report an improvement since the last time I was in a pub in Great Britain, which pleases so many visitors, me included. Many of them now offer cold beer, as opposed to the room temperature stuff of pub legend.
This was one trip where I accomplished all of the goals I set out for myself: I ate (and enjoyed) haggis; I played golf on one of the premier courses in Scotland; I hit more pubs in four-and-a half-days than I would in three months here (that wasn’t a goal, just a coincidental occurrence); and I drove on the other side of the road and even managed to shift with my left hand without hitting anything. Of course, my wife clenched her teeth and reared back in fright most of the time while the double-decker buses came within an inch of our car. By the time I turned in the car I was really good at it.
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