ABERDEEN Angus beef, whisky, Cullen skink and salmon fishing on the Dee all enjoy a high profile when it comes to Aberdeenshire’s culinary attractions.
However, it’s fair to say that not all of the region’s signature foods enjoy such immediate recognition.
Take the buttery or rowie, the breakfast roll which is practically a legend in the North East but almost unknown elsewhere. On a recent trip to the region, I had the pleasure of watching two Irish journalists being introduced to the delicacy. The claim that rowies were Aberdeen’s answer to Paris’ croissants was met with initial disbelief followed by tentative tasting and then a humble request for seconds. It wasn’t quite Saul on the road to Damascus but you get the idea.
The region is currently embarking on a drive to promote more culinary converts and encourage holiday makers to view Aberdeen and the surrounding countryside as a rewarding destination for food-themed holidays. It has plenty to offer the gastro-traveller.
Aberdeen Angus beef, the region’s most famous namesake, makes a good appetiser for a food tour. Developed from cattle native to Aberdeenshire, the cattle breed is now popular all over the world and its well-marbled meat is prominent in most of the region’s restaurants.
Pride in locally produced beef is taken to its logical extreme at the glam Malmaison in Aberdeen, a hotel which has given age old Scottish emblems such as kilts, tartan and whisky a very 21st- century polish. Not content with giant portraits of assorted livestock, their brasserie features a walk-in glass meat locker where huge cuts of beef are displayed like museum exhibits before being sizzled on their very covetable Josper charcoal grill.
While Malmaison customers’ plates may be the end of the line for Aberdeenshire beef, the current big buzz in foodie circles is to get as close to the original producer as possible. One way to do this is through farm visits which do much to demystify how the food we eat is produced. The Howies of Cairnton Farm and the Booths of Westfield and Stavock farms both organise farm tours; special beef dinners and, in the case of the Booths, butchery courses. All the events are organised through the Howies’ Deeside Activity Centre and The Store farm shop and restaurant, run by the Booths.
If you would rather not get up close to dinner while it is still breathing then Nick Nairn’s new Cook School in Aberdeen is just as hot on local produce but considerably more bling than coo byre. Set over two storeys of a converted church hall, the upper floor offers cooking courses in a beautifully kitted-out teaching kitchen.
While the upstairs space is dedicated to those keen to sharpen their dinner party skills, downstairs is the more casual Quick Cook Bar where customers can book in, cook, learn a new technique or recipe, eat their research materials and be out again in two hours. Nairn’s vision for it is a place where people can drop in during a long lunch hour or after work.
If a drop-in cook school seems a very modern phenomenon, then other areas of Aberdeenshire’s food economy have strong links to the past. The fourth generation, family-owned Mitchells grocery shop and cafe in Inverurie started life as a market garden business in 1928. In the 1970s, the shop switched from being an over-the-counter grocer to a self-serve, supermarket format, a concept so novel that staff had to show the customers how to choose their own food.
These days, Inverurie is not short of big-name, national supermarkets but Mitchells continues to defy modern retail convention by focusing on locally produced goods. From Great Granny Mitchells’ oatcakes, which are still made by hand on the premises, to Cambus O’May cheeses, Alford oatmeal and fruit and veg grown just down the road, it is the sort of local food shop which is greatly admired when we stumble across something similar in France or Italy but, inexplicably, is less appreciated at home.
For a more recent entry to Aberdeenshire’s food scene, swing by Formartine’s, Tarves. A partnership between the Haddo Estate and John Cooper, an evangelist for Scottish produce, smoked food and sustainable buildings, Formartine’s is a food hall stocking local, artisan products, including some from Cooper’s nearby smokehouse; a network of woodland walks; a play area and a rather fine, all-day brasserie.
Try the black pudding which is mixed with port and hazelnuts, hand-tied and then cold smoked over whisky casks for 18 hours. At just under a fiver for a 150g mail-order portion, it’s understandable that Cooper bills it as the world’s most expensive black pudding, but it’s worth every penny.
If a gourmet tour of Aberdeenshire seems an unexpected concept then, along with the rowies that had such a Damascene effect on our Irish friends, the black pudding would also make a very convincing argument for a rethink.
• The Facts For more information visit www.visitscotland.com/surprise Rooms at Malmaison Aberdeen start from around £89; www.malmaison.com/hotels/aberdeen
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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