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A Wee Shift in Cultures

October 6, 2010
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This past weekend took our study abroad group out of our London home to the drastically different Edinburgh, Scotland.  Originally not expecting to find much of a difference, I was surprised by the general change in atmosphere as I entered this new city.  The people were welcoming and friendly, the streets, narrower and curving and meandering about.  A quick glance of my surrounding revealed not obstruction by buildings but gave way to beautiful landscapes of cliffs, castles, and the coast.  As always, I was also very interested in seeking out the differences in the food.  And, I was very pleased at the outcome of this endeavor.

My Traditional Scottish Food Finds


These little biscuits, so simple in ingredients and presentation, can, if made right, really be quite a treat.  Originally starting as a biscuit that the Scots made from hardened, leftover bread dough, shortbreads were then turned into more of a dessert, saved for special occasion and well-like by Mary, Queen of Scots.  While in Scotland, I was tempted to pick up a tin of the traditional Walker’s Shortbread from a souvenir shop, but its mass-production and tourist quality deterred me and sent me looking for something a bit more homemade.  I found my prize at The Elephant House, and amazing café, with great, hearty food and coffee, and well known for being the place where J.K. Rowling first starting writing Harry Potter.  There in the display case, sat a mountain of shortbread biscuits, shaped like elephants, waiting for my consumption.  They were so delicate and crumbly, just as shortbread should be, so that every bite fell apart in my mouth, dissolving into sweet, buttery goodness.  My intention was to save half for later, but as soon as I wrapped the elephant’s behind in a napkin, I couldn’t resist from immediately unwrapping it and gobbling down the remains.

2. Whisky

I was quick to discover that the Scots are very fond of their whisky and amongst the rows and rows of wool goods shops, I found just as many devoted to the sale of single-malt Scotch whisky.  Curious about its history, I decided to take a tour and tasting at The Scotch Whisky Experience.  The tour started with a little ride in a barrel-shaped car and I learned about the entire production process where nothing but water, barley, and yeast, (Scotland’s available resources) go though a tumultuous and lengthy process to become whisky.  The source of the ingredients, the shape of the distilling bottles, the wood used for the casks, the amount of time spent aging, and so many more factors play into creating distinct whisky flavors.  The process is one of science and art requiring patience beyond belief and tedious precision.  I was then told about the different regions in Scotland and why the whisky from these different regions differs in flavor.  For our tasting, we had to pick one of these regions (I chose the Highlands whisky with notes of vanilla and heather).  It tasted okay and the vanilla flavor was slightly detectable after I got over the initial burning sensation but Scotch whisky, as I learned, is not for those with delicate tastebuds.

3. Haggis
So now I get to the one you’ve probably been waiting for, Scotland’s most renowned, traditional dish.  For those of you who may not know, haggis is the result of resourcefulness when food availability was low and people had to use every last scrap.  Essentially, haggis is minced sheep’s innards, like the heart, liver, and lungs, combined with oats, suet, spices, and onion, and traditionally cooked in the sheep’s stomach lining, although it is now usually cooked in a casing for sanitary purposes.  The cooked meat is traditionally serve with “neeps and tatties”, aka turnips and potatoes, and a gravy of some sort.  It was popularized and turned into a Scottish national dish after Robert Burns wrote the poem Address to a Haggis.

So, after some convincing, I rounded up a group to accompany me in a giant haggis tasting.  We chose a small but well-respected pub called The Royal Mcgregor for our feast and anxiously awaited our meal.  The dish was prepared as a “tower of haggis”, layered with the meat on the bottom, the potatoes in the middle, and the turnips on top.  I thoroughly inspected this foreign spectacle before finally skewering a sample of all three layers with my fork and taking the first bite.  And it was delicious!  The most notable part was the meat’s texture.  The best likeness I can conjure is meatloaf, but the haggis was much creamier.  The oats turned it into an almost glutinous paste, which I found appealing.  The meat itself was a little more gristly and chewy, rather than tender, and was speckled with these little crunchy bits that were slightly nutty.  I’m not quite sure what they were, but I enjoyed the all the same.  The spices were strong, but not overpowering, and complemented the gaminess of the meat.  

The neeps and tatties, prepared to still be a little chunky, nicely accompanied the rich meat and toned down the spiciness.  And, perhaps the best part of all was the rosemary and onion gravy, which actually carried a very nice hint of lime that cut through the heaviness of the dish.  All of us loved it and cleared our plates with gluttonous haste.  We proved that if we go beyond the misconceptions that lesser used meat is gross, we can find a real delight and can start to change the way we cook and eat, to be more economical and outgoing.  We finished off the meal with a traditional Scottish dessert called cranachan, a pudding of whisky scented whipped cream, berries, and oats, and waddled back to our hotel, pleasantly stuffed.

So that is Scottish food in 2 days.  I covered the basics, tried something new, and enjoyed the little break from my London food exploration.  

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