EDINBURGH, Oct 15 — Believe it or not, there’s more to Scottish food than the deep-fried Mars bar. Whether it’s traditional favourites such as “parritch” (which sounds heavenly when said with a Scottish brogue) or much-maligned curiosities such as haggis (to the extent many aren’t quite sure what this is, exactly), one’s taste buds — and belly — will never be left wanting.
We begin in the heart of Edinburgh, at the Scottish National Gallery. The national art gallery, first opened in 1859, resides inside a neoclassical building designed by William Henry Playfair.
But we’re not here to view works by Scottish painters; we’re here for breakfast and the Scottish Café & Restaurant offers just that: authentic, wholesome Scottish fare.
“Parritch”, we discover, is simply porridge with a Scottish accent. Oats have been farmed in Scotland since the medieval times, one of the few grains that could survive the harsh climate.
Traditionally, porridge was cooked using only oats, water and a pinch of salt, and stirred with a “spurtle” (a wooden stick). Superstition has it that porridge must only be stirred with the right hand and in a clockwise direction lest evil spirits appear.
We take the middle road and have ours with sliced bananas and peanut butter. Creamy, rich yet surprisingly not cloying.
The other great Scottish food is, of course, the haggis. Considered Scotland’s national dish, haggis is historically a mince of sheep’s pluck (the heart, liver and lungs), oatmeal, suet, onions and spices encased in a sheep’s stomach that is then boiled.
While that may not sound entirely appetising, the use of spices such as dried coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg makes haggis a savoury flavour bomb.
The best way to enjoy haggis — which, according to one survey, 33 per cent of American visitors to Scotland thought was a small Scottish animal with longer legs on one side! — is as part of a full Scottish breakfast.
High quality haggis from Findlays of Portobello is used here, pan-fried to get a crispy crust, and served with Scottish bacon, pork and leek sausages, organic eggs, black pudding, sautéed mushrooms and buttered toast.
For something warming, a pot of Scottish tea does the trick, as would some healthy, golden-hued turmeric latte. Craft beer lovers will appreciate their selection of local artisanal beers and ciders; the Thistly Cross Cider, in particular, is the essence of golden apples in a glass.
For lunch, we make a little road trip to Anstruther, a fishing village an hour and half’s drive from Edinburgh, to pay homage to the famous Anstruther Fish Bar.
Run by Alison and Robert Smith, the shop has been voted the best fish and chips in Scotland with starry clientèle such as Oscar-winning actors Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, as well as members of the royalty including Prince William and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.
Yet fish and chips isn’t glamorous food, far from it. Scots call it a fish supper — a nod to its modest origins as a cheap, sustaining and quick-to-cook takeaway fare — and Anstruther Fish Bar does a first class rendition.
The secret (other than the lighter-than-air batter, a well-kept family recipe) is fresh seafood sourced every morning through the Smiths’ other company — Argofish, a fish processing business.
Fish such as Scottish haddock, halibut, hake and lemon sole are hand filleted at Argofish before being delivered to the Fish Bar. Other seafood such as locally caught Pittenweem prawns and crabs are available; and, when in season, sustainably sourced Scottish lobster too.
Located on Anstruther’s harbourfront, the shop feels like a blast from the not-too-distant past. Nothing fancy about the décor and tableware other than napkins emblazoned with the signature fisherman mascot — the owners’ families has been involved in the fishing industry for generations.
Indeed nothing fancy is needed once we take a bite of the fresh Scottish haddock deep-fried in oh-so-crispy batter. This is honest food, good food. And for those who haven’t had enough of haggis, Anstruther Fish Bar offers this deep-fried in batter with plenty of crunchy chips, naturally.
Back in Edinburgh, we decide some caffeine will ward off the late afternoon slump. The best place for coffee in town is Artisan Roast. In case you’re wondering whether it is related to Kuala Lumpur’s Artisan Roast, wonder no more: Edinburgh’s is the original, as it was set up a decade ago by everyone’s favourite coffee guru, Michael Wilson, and his Chilean business partner, Gustavo Pardo.
Today Artisan Roast UK is an award-winning speciality coffee roastery with three cafés in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow. Once we enter, there’s a moment of vague recognition.
Yes, there’s the usual espresso machine and various coffee brewing equipment. But it’s only when we saunter further inside, into the backroom with its padded benches — all dark wood and red cushions — that we recognise Wilson’s signature space for lively conversations, the Mooch.
Filter coffee lovers will have an array of seasonal single-origins to choose from. The natural processed Ethiopia Shakiso coffee is deliciously sweet with blueberry notes. The popular Janzsoon house blend — a 7:3 ratio of Aceh Province (Indonesia) and Daterra State (Brazil) beans — is medium-bodied and chocolatey, making it a perfect base for flat whites. We can’t think of a lovelier pick-me-up.
Scottish food isn’t limited to humble fare such as haggis and fish suppers though. For a more refined dining experience, Edinburgh is home to several Michelin star restaurants including the curiously named 21212 opened by head chef Paul Kitching and his partner, Katie O’Brien.
Perusing our menu, the mystery behind the moniker “21212” is revealed: It’s simply the different choices for each course — two starters, one soup, two mains, one cheese course and two dessert options. Whether you’d prefer a light two-course meal or the entire five-course menu, 21212 accommodates a spectrum of appetites.
Chef Kitching’s playful flair comes through in his unusual pairings of different ingredients. Innocuous risotto is partnered with anchovies and macadamia nuts in our starter, the wittily named “It’s All Greek (Risotto) to Me” while “Cabbage Patch” features smoked haddock and fresh scallops. For dessert, our “S.O.L.” platter showcases Gouda cheese, curds and a berry coulis for a little bit of sweet, salty and sour in every bite.
As a treat, our server brings over some of Chef Kitching’s sweet porridge milk — inside adorable cow-shaped china vessels. The fun part? We get to pour the milk ourselves, into tiny paper cups to be drunk as shots. There’s that wonderful Scottish sense of humour — even at the dinner table!
The Scottish Café & Restaurant by Contini
Scottish National Gallery, The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL, Scotland, UK
Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; Sun 10am-5pm
Tel: +44 131 225 1550
Anstruther Fish Bar
42-44 Shore St, Anstruther KY10 3AQ, Scotland, UK
Open daily 11:30am-10pm
Tel: +44 1333 310518
57 Broughton St, Edinburgh EH1 3RJ, Scotland, UK
Open Mon-Fri 8am-6:30pm;
Sat 9am-6:30pm; Sun 9am-6pm
Tel: +44 7858 884756
3 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh EH7 5AB, Scotland, UK
Open Tue-Thu 12pm-1:45pm & 7pm-9pm; Fri-Sat 12pm-1:45pm & 6:45pm-9:30pm; Sun-Mon closed
Tel: +44 345 22 21212