Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A note on Scottish eats

If the 500-year-old stones and rolling hills don't give it away, any menu will quickly alert Edinburgh visitors to their whereabouts. Dishes like Cullen Skink (a creamy haddock soup), Scottish Meat Pie and "Haggis, Neeps and Tatties" (explanation to follow) frequent most pub menus. Full Scottish breakfasts are advertised in cafe windows. Whiskey bars pop up nearly everywhere on the Royal Mile. And, if you take as long as my friends and I did picking out wool scarves to bring home, you might find a piece of shortbread from the shopkeeper helps make the decision.

Read on for the delights (and surprises) of the Scottish cuisine I encountered this weekend in Edinburgh.

We started each morning with a full Scottish breakfast: scrambled or fried eggs, bacon (which resembles ham, more than the crispy bacon I'm used to back in the States), sausage, baked beans, hashed potato wedges, roasted mushrooms (which I could not eat enough of), toast, jam (I recommend the blackcurrant), yoghurt, fresh fruit and juice. And, before setting off for the day, we sat at the table for about another 20 minutes each morning finishing as many pots of tea and coffee as our waitress brought. Heavy on the protein, the meal stayed in my stomach well into the afternoon. Forget lunch.

We did manage a mid-afternoon tea and scone break (at the very same cafe J.K. Rowling frequents). Minor culture shock: in the UK, you do not order a cup of tea, but rather a pot of tea. Don't worry, drinkers can still choose a small pot or large pot. Drinking three small cups of tea versus one large paper cup-full keeps every drop piping hot. My scone proved the perfect complement: soft and sweet.

After full days of walking (both Friday and Saturday), we craved hearty suppers. Enter traditional Scottish pub fare. I sampled the Scottish Meat Pie, a pastry filled with beef, gravy and vegetables, served with a side of potatoes. I cleaned my plate, except for about two potatoes, and wondered how these filling meals became Scottish mainstays.

I found my answer the next morning climbing the hills in Holyrood Park to Arthur's Seat, which over looks Edinburgh. As my friends and I hiked up the steep green hills, runners jogged by. Others walked their dogs. And dozens of bikers zoomed up the road as we walked down back to the Royal Mile. Just-above-freezing temperatures and cloudy skies didn't keep the Scots from tackling the steep hills.

Each time I opened a menu over the weekend, my eyes stopped at "Haggis, Neeps and Tatties," a dish I had never heard of. After several attempts to ask shopkeepers and tour guides what was in the dish, we only found out it was a "traditional Scottish dish" made with some type of goat's organ and meat. Back home, I found recipes Online from the BBC calling for a mixture of meat, oatmeal and spices stuffed in a casing of goat's liver or sheep's stomach. I sampled a small portion of the Scottish specialty on Saturday morning (it was on the breakfast buffet) and will describe it as a rich meat casserole. It boasted a tasty flavor, but I could not stomach more than a few bites of the heavy dish. From my observations in restaurants and cookbooks, I think haggis is made in several different ways (depending on what the cook has in the cupboard).

A final tip about Scottish food: do not forget to try the shortbread. The simple butter cookie hit the spot shopping on the Royal Mile, recovering from our ghost tour and after dinner.

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