Our cuisine and spirits trades prosper, says Gavin Hunter
In the 18th century, Dr Johnson, whilst ridiculing and later confessing to deliberately vexing the Scots about their oat-based diet, still had praise for other aspects of our cuisine.
He did say that”…if an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped, he would breakfast in Scotland” So he found something good! Indeed, today 40 per cent of tourists following in his footsteps buy “traditional” Scottish products to take home, among them whisky, shortbread, tablet, Scottish jams, honeys and marmalades as well as tinned haggis.
Today in Scotland we are getting it right more and more when it comes to our food and drink, not just in the quality of the produce but also in the service and ambience in our pubs, restaurants and hotels. Waiting staff are so much better informed and trained than previously and pompous “professional waiters” are rare nowadays.
“The joy of food isn’t one that ought to be restricted to those who can afford it”, stated food expert Raj Patel. Ten years ago, critics of our food and drink industry argued that, whilst the top-end restaurants were good, the less expensive ones left a lot to be desired. That has changed. On a walking tour of Edinburgh recently, I was able to recommend clients a variety of different menus and venues. Some featured simple soups, broth and Cullen Skink; the ubiquitous haggis, neeps and tatties, steak pie and mash but ranging up to sophisticated and upscale seafood restaurants along with restaurants offering Scottish ingredients cooked in exciting and innovative ways. There is something for all our visitors, in restaurants, pubs and cafés, irrespective of budget. There will always be places less in tune and it can also be argued that many hotels on the tourist routes could offer simple, economic but tasty “traditional” Scottish food even when visitors are on a strict budget. Many tourists ask why they see so much lamb in the fields, but lots of turkey on the hotel menus!
That said, Scottish food is ringing the changes, taking classic ingredients and dishes and using less well-known foods to create exciting dishes. (Haggis Nachos, sampled recently at MacSween’s HQ have to be tried before passing judgment!)
Recently, food stylist Simon Preston helped local UK communities, including Huntly, Inverness and Peterhead, create unique dishes representing the essence of each place, its terroir if you like. Evolving over days rather than decades, this is a brilliant idea, allowing tourists and locals to discover a distinct terroir manifested as a food. Why be a poor relation to Cullen Skink when you’re not that far along the same coastline and can enjoy Peterhead’s (‘brand noo’) “Blue Toon Bree” with cod, mussels, coley, vegetables and langoustines?
It isn’t just in Glasgow and Edinburgh that good food can be found. The Highlands and Islands have a reputation in many places for their delicious, locally sourced meats, cheeses and seafood. Not only Inverness, Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth but also places such as Applecross, Gairloch, the Borders and Tobermory all have high-quality places to eat.
If Scottish food is evolving and improving all the time, it is often with a nod to the past but an eye on the future with inventive cooking and food production. Our burgeoning whisky industry continues to be a jewel in our crown with many permutations in styles, finishes and editions.
Scottish beermakers, it could be argued, are taking things that one step further by embracing a wide palette of flavours and ingredients to produce new beers which are varied, delicious and fun. Some link innovation with history; Fraoch Heather Ale is based on an ale drunk more than 2,000 years ago.
Traquair House at Innerleithen still turns out highly rated beers, some recipes dating from the 18th century. Brewers such as Brewdog have set new standards, and just as the long-established distillery tours have been a mainstay of visitor experiences, a new generation can follow beer trails to enjoy individually crafted beers of great and varied character.
Tourists and locals with increasingly sophisticated tastes can enjoy not only tours but hands-on experiences of brewing at the Allanwater Brewhouse in Bridge of Allan. And just as restaurant staff are becoming more knowledgeable about the food they are serving, so are the bartenders serving the ever-changing range of micro beers, often, like wines, paired with foods in special tastings.
We have in Scotland a very good traditional food culture and we also have a world-class larder with beers, whisky, cheeses, game, venison, beef, fish and seafood. Traditional food has evolved and continues to evolve. We are not stuck in the past. Still drawing on our traditions certainly, but we are also keen to develop what we have and create inspirational food and drink. 2015 celebrates the year of Scotland’s Food and Drink. Here’s to it being something very special.
• Gavin Hunter is a blue badge guide with the Scottish Tourist Guides Association www.stga.co.uk