Jonathan Newton, head chef
Creelers, 3 Hunter Square, Edinburgh
(0131-220 4447, www.creelers.co.uk)
Shops at: Edinburgh Farmers' Market, Castle Terrace, every Saturday from 9am-2pm
The early bird catches the worm at the Edinburgh Farmers' Market. If you're out of your nest early enough on a Saturday morning, you might just bag fresh scallops and langoustines at Creelers' stall. Arrive at 1:45pm and there may be nothing left but a pile of ice. That's why Jonathan Newton, head chef at the capital's most famous fish restaurant, gets to the market first thing, just before his weekend shift. As his boss, Tim James, co-owner of the Arran Smokehouse and Creelers, runs the stall, Newton gets a first look at some of the day's west coast-caught stock. Any crabs, squat lobsters, langoustines or mussels that aren't sold at market will be in somebody's fish stew in the restaurant come dinner-time.
The range is impressive, but it's quite intimidating to imagine trying to cook any of it.
"The secret is to not muck around with the products because they're so good already," says 27-year-old Newton.
"You could blanch the langoustines in boiling water and serve them with a little mayonnaise and bread. I'd simmer the brown crabs for longer. Then I'd take the meat out of the claws and add it to a salad."
The thought of actually dispatching any of these poor beasts, all of which are creel-caught (which means they're still alive) fills me with horror. Newton suggests we stick them in the freezer before delivering a coup de grce to the head with a sharp knife.
If seafood isn't your bag, Newton is happy to recommend a few other stalls at the market. One favourite is Piperfield Pork, which supplies Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant with meat from its Middle White breed of pigs.
"We use this beautiful pork in the restaurant," says Newton. "At the moment we're serving the loin – we marinate it in thyme and garlic. You can tell by the deep colour that it's quality meat. If you buy pork from a supermarket it's white and insipid."
I try a sample of the air-dried sausage and can confirm the meat is flavoursome and delicious. All I need now are some carbs to go with it. So, Newton and I follow our noses to the yeast-scented Falko Konditormeister patisserie stall, which is laden with golden brown cakes and breads. "I'm always buying their pretzels to snack on, they're delicious," Newton says. "I'm also a big fan of the rye bread – have it on its own with some butter and a sprinkling of rock salt."
I'm getting the distinct feeling that Newton is a chef who likes simplicity. In fact, he thinks that practically everything at the farmers' market can be prepared beautifully, with barely any added ingredients.
"A few years ago people were over-complicating food, for the glory of it," he says. "Scotland has some great produce, why do anything else but cook it in a simple fashion?"
Other market items ripe for simple preparation include the rhubarb and asparagus at David Leslie Fruits, a Perth-based business. These colourful bunches make me feel like summer is coming. Hopefully Newton's dish designed for Creelers' first appearance at Taste of Edinburgh will have the same effect.
"We don't want any of our days at the festival to be a practice day," says Newton nervously. "One of our dishes is going to be hot smoked salmon with potato salad, garlic, capers and lemons.
"If the weather is warm it'll be the perfect dish."
IN THE BASKET
Creelers' creel-caught langoustines (19.50/kilo), scallops (24.50/kilo); Arran Smokehouse smoked salmon (6.60/220g); David Leslie Fruits rhubarb (1.40 a bunch), asparagus (2 a bunch); Falko Konditormeister pretzel (1), rye bread (2.30 a loaf); Piperfield Pork loin fillet (15/1.260kg), air-dried sausage (4 each).
Mary Contini, co-owner
Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh
(0131-556 6066, www.valvonacrolla.co.uk)
shops at: Hing Sing Chinese Supermarket, 310 Leith Walk, Edinburgh (0131-544 4333)
It seems a bit surreal that the capital's queen of Italian cooking chooses to take me to Hing Sing Chinese Supermarket. However, it soon becomes apparent why. "A lot of Italians like Chinese food because the style of eating is very similar – it's all about big families sitting around a table," she explains.
In fact, when I pick up a pack of delicious soft-shell crabs, a Chinese delicacy, Contini points out that she was munching these deep-fried just a couple of weeks ago, in the Mediterranean sunshine.
"I was eating those in Venice," she says. "Lots of regions in Italy have dishes influenced by the East – the Middle East especially. There are many ingredients that were integrated into Italian dishes when Marco Polo discovered Constantinople."
Maybe that's why Contini seems so confident in the supermarket, picking up items that look totally alien to me and dropping them into her basket. She hands me what looks like a giant grapefruit – a pomelo – "these are used to make candied citron in Italy" and points out a staple of Chinese supermarkets – a kohlrabi – "we sold a Milanese variety of these at Valvona & Crolla but stopped because they weren't selling, nobody really knew what to do with them".
Contini visits Hing Sing once a month, mainly to buy bits and pieces to cook up at home. On Thursdays they get a delivery of boiling fowl – Contini's primary ingredient for homemade wonton soup.
However, it's not just a supplier for personal items. Her chefs always run out of Italian chillies round about this time of year, so replace them from the Chinese supermarket. "These are so good," she says, pointing to a bag of dried birds' eye chillies, and adding, with a sharp intake of breath: "So hot – they could just kill you."
Although Contini isn't buying any of these today, she's picking up a whole bundle of other things – spring greens, spices, a tin of lychees for her 13-year-old daughter Olivia, frozen dim sum and spring rolls. Then there are all the ingredients for Peking duck, which she plans to cook for a family meal after the Taste of Edinburgh event. She buys a whole vacuum-packed duck for this – "it's so easy, you just stick it in the oven" – along with some pale, floury pancakes, a jar of hoisin sauce and a bunch of spring onions. This duck feast will be a completely contrasting taste sensation after her Italian feast at the event.
"We'll be serving Venetian prosecco and lobster ravioli with a home-made tomato sauce," she says. "There'll also be Milanese ice-cream – vanilla, chocolate or pistachio flavour."
IN THE BASKET
Hoisin sauce (1.40); coconut milk (58p); ground cumin (1); sesame oil (1.70); soy sauce (80p); young boiling chicken (6.90); pancakes (1 for six); wontons (3.40 for six); pak choi (1.83); spring onions (46p); a whole vacuum packed duck (8.30); red chillies (90p); a tin of lychees (65p); spring greens (46p); frozen dim sum (6.20 for six); spring rolls (1.50 for six); a pomelo (3.75).
Jeff Bland, head chef
Number One at The Balmoral, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh (0131-557 6727, www.thebalmoralhotel.com)
shops at: Clarks Speciality Foods, 202 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh (0131-656 0500, www.clarksfoods.co.uk)
"Would you like to try some of our new Anster cheese? It's from a small Scottish producer," offers Pierre Leger, sales director of Clarks Speciality Foods, a haunt of local chefs. I pop a chunk into my mouth – it's deliciously creamy. Alongside me is Jeff Bland, head chef at Number One at The Balmoral. He tastes a piece too, but shrugs his shoulders. "It's OK," is his lukewarm verdict. Wow, this man is hard to please.
Still, when it comes to the baskets of grotesquely shaped funghi in this wonderful shop, he's happy to wax lyrical.
"The morels are amazing," Bland says. "The season used to be very short but mushrooms now are so popular and grown globally – morels and cepes have even been coming from South Africa."
He often uses these on their own as starters, or in salads, and suggests we buy a small handful if we want to upgrade any recipe. It's obvious that Bland could talk mushrooms all day, but when it comes to cheese, he could rattle on for weeks. He points out that, in Scotland, we still tend to go for the "known varieties" and the Clarks staff concede.
"Customers are careful when buying cheese," says Leger. "They'll come into the shop, buy a tiny piece and then come back and buy a bigger bit."
However, the golden rule when experimenting, according to Bland, is to make sure we let it ripen.
"Look at these cheeses," he says, pointing to some discounted wheels. "They're having to be sold off because they're at their best before date. In France they'd be at their peak – sold and eaten in a flash."
I can smell them from here. Of all the artisan cheeses stacked up on the counter, Bland decides to invest in some Durrus from West Cork. "The texture of this is just perfect," he says, pinching it between his finger and thumb. "In the UK we usually find this type hard to get right."
There are other products that Bland insists we switch our allegiance to. He swears by "very fashionable" beans and pulses, good-quality mustard and, most of all, unsalted butter. In fact, he buys Clarks' Lescure brand of butter in bulk for his restaurant.
"The only reason for buying the salted variety is that it lasts longer," he says. "It obscures the flavour of your food. It takes a while to acquire the taste of unsalted – it's like not having sugar in your tea. If you spend a little extra on quality butter, you'll see a difference in your cooking."
Other basic items Bland can't do without are organic free-range eggs. He orders 12 crates of 360 dozen eggs (you do the maths) per week from Clarks – which has a warehouse at Loanhead.
Although Bland is a big advocate for investing in quality staples, he also thinks we should try to be a bit more sophisticated in our eating habits. He's hoping his recipes at Taste of Edinburgh, one of which is a lamb dish, will challenge our taste buds.
"You have to educate your palate. For example, it took me about 20 years to like black olives, I had to keep on trying them," he says. "One day I got it. The public try something once and think they don't like it, they need to try things again and again."
IN THE BASKET
Morels (4.45/100g); Durrus cheese (1.60/100g); Lescure butter (1.45/250g); Il Pesatore cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (4.90/litre); free-range eggs (1.95 for six); Brisinda butter-beans (6.45); moutard de meaux (6.60); Italian roast ham with rosemary (1/100g). sm
n Taste of Edinburgh is in The Meadows, 29 May-1 June. Visit www.seetickets.com for tickets, from 12.