Saturday, April 21, 2012

Scottish Food: From the Braw Bangers to the Bellywashers

(Braw = good, Bangers = sausages, Bellywasher = pint of beer)

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
-Robert Burns, Address to Haggis

Ah, Scottish food. Where to begin? It is the subject of so many myths that perhaps it is best to first lay a couple of those to rest.

Myth 1: Scottish food is the same as English food (i.e. terrible). Now that’s just untrue and unfair. Scotland has historical ties to France and therefore the Scottish people have long been exposed to fine sauces and lovingly prepared roasted meats. That they completely missed the French cooking lesson on green vegetables is the fault of the climate. While pub grub in Scotland shares many a dish with pub grub in England, Scottish cuisine has its own unique style. Perhaps most importantly, Scotland has top notch seafood and beef to rival the best the in the world!

Myth 2: It’s all haggis all the time. I don’t know anyone here who eats haggis on a regular basis. Apart from Burns Night (the birthday celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns, which includes haggis, neeps [mashed turnips], tatties [potatoes], a lot of Scots verse and an energetic albeit drunken chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”), I have never once seen a Scottish person eating haggis. Haggis is comprised of unsavory bits of meat spiced in such a way as to conceal their origins. This traditional poor-food sustained the penny-pinching, poverty-ridden Scots through the centuries. But just like chitlins and liver in America, prosperity brought with it better tasting foods that are now the norm. Is haggis easy to find? Sure, tourists eat it all the time. You can even buy it canned at the supermarket (gross!). However, you’ll find it about as common as Rocky Mountain Oysters in the American west. Does everyone know where to find it? Sure. Does everyone eat it? No way . . . unless it’s stuffed inside a chicken breast, as in dish called “Balmoral Chicken”.

Below are some lists of my favorites, least favorites, and local treats only to be trusted at quality establishments. If you find yourself venturing to Scotland any time soon, I encourage you try some of the good stuff!

The Good Stuff: Scotland Does Lots of Food Very Well

Fish – salmon and haddock. These are locally sourced and the best I’ve ever had. Salmon in America is flown in from Alaska or (surprise, surprise) Scotland. Before I moved here I didn’t know what salmon (or lovely, white haddock, for that matter) was supposed to taste like. I was missing out!

Summer Berries - I did not know the taste of Heaven until I tried a Scottish summer strawberry. And blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries - oh my! I like these with a little cream cheese on top of a toasted crumpet. To die for.

Baked goods:
Scotch Pies – These can contain meat, veggies and even pasta. Thain’s bakery in Aberdeen is famous for the best pies in the city. My favorite is the lasagne pie (strange, I know, but good). It’s full of macaroni, meaty red sauce and cheese. Delish! The macaroni pies (full of macaroni and cheese) are also quite nice. While many Americans find carb-on-carb a little strange, pies make very handy fast food when you’re on the go.

Pastries, scones and butteries – They just love baked goods in this country. Fresh scones with butter and jam are very popular. One local favorite is a flat scone made with more butter than you want to know about called an Aberdeen buttery. I prefer regular scones, but both are very tasty.

Cheese – Scottish cheddar, particularly from Orkney and Shetland, is to die for. Yes please!

Macaroni and Cheese – Imagine the best mac & cheese you’ve ever had in America. Now try to imagine it with the best cheddar you’ve ever tasted instead of Kraft flavorless orange shreds. Mac & cheese is very popular here and considered a proper dish at pubs and cafes. It’s a great choice for vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Roast beef, chicken and pork – The Scots, like the English, love a proper Sunday roast, sometimes called a carvery. roasted chicken, beef or pork is often accompanied by stuffing and roasted potatoes, carrots, parsnips and Brussels sprouts. It’s like Thanksgiving every Sunday!

Sausages - As a Texan, the only sausages I’ve really been exposed to are Louis Rich summer sausage and Jimmy Dean. The Scots eat more sausages (sometimes called “bangers”) in more flavor varieties than you could ever imagine. Last weekend at the farmers market a local butcher was selling sausage flavored with Iron Bru, a popular Scottish soda (see my “avoid” list). We bought pork & apple and beef & tomato and had a dinner of bangers and mash (mashed potatoes). Both were excellent. I think Paul could eat sausages for dinner every day for a month.

Steak – Aberdeen Angus beef is popular even in America. The Angus cows are plentiful in the Scottish countryside and make for one tasty steak. But don’t ask for any A-1.

Oats – Like oatmeal? The Scots invented it! Porridge, as they call it, is lovely here and oats also feature in baked goods like the popular oat cakes eaten with cheese and deserts like cranachan, a sort of oat parfait with ice cream and fruit. Granola is called “oat crunchy” here and is very good, especially with honey and yogurt.

Whiskey and Beer – Do I even need to explain these? Whiskey, called “uisge beatha” (the water of life) in Scots Gaelic, is plentiful, with well over 100 distilleries in this small country. I suggest trying it, even if you don’t think you’ll like it. A little water helps me appreciate it a lot more. Popular beers made in Scotland include Belhaven, McEwan’s and Brew Dog. Brew Dog is currently the favorite of young hipsters in northern Scotland, as it is made in Inverness.

Foods which are safer in nice restaurants:

Cullen skink – a creamy haddock soup similar to chowder. This recipe is named for the town of Cullen on the north coast of Aberdeenshire and it's done really well in good restaurants.

Stovies – an Aberdeen specialty, this is a meat and vegetable mash. Imagine you took all your leftover roast meat and veggies after Sunday dinner and made it into a paste, then pluralized the name for no good reason. If the original ingredients that went into the stovies were good, so too will be the stovies. If you’re at a chippie or a dodgy pie shop, don’t bother.

Black pudding – I only recommend trying this blood pudding when prepared by a chef and nicely spiced. It can be tasty or terrible. It’s all about where you have it.

Haggis – never eat this in a touristy place.  As with black pudding, only trust a good chef! It tastes even better when kilted men are present.

Foods to Avoid

Vegetables at pubs – if it’s colorful then it’s frozen and flavorless. You’re better off sticking with potatoes at pubs and enjoying quality veggies at a nicer restaurant or cafe.

Scotch eggs – Some people love scotch eggs, which are boiled eggs wrapped in limp bacon and greasy breading. I think they’re gross.

White pudding – If you’ve heard of black pudding (made from blood), perhaps you can imagine what goes into white pudding. It’s made from marrow and fat leftover after butchering meat. No thank you.

Kebab/Chinese/Curry/Burger/Pizza Takeaway Shops & “Chippies” – These are ubiquitous. If 5 international cuisines served in one dingy storefront doesn’t trigger red flags for you, check out the grease leftover at the bottom of your takeout container. There are genuine, lovely restaurants where you can get gyros, shwarma, fried rice, curries, hamburgers pizzas and fish & chips, but never all in the same building. When I want takeaway here I get it from a proper restaurant. Drive thrus are not common in here. I can only think of two in Aberdeen – McDonalds and Burger King, both of which I avoid even in America.

“Bar-be-que,” and “Tex-Mex” – Both these cuisines (often confused with each other and with Cajun) are popular here and there are British chain restaurants selling foods that claim to be American BBQ or authentic Tex-Mex. Take it from this Texan: Run for your life! That is unless you enjoy Cajun-spiced duck burritos with sugary salsa. My general rule (one I copied from Anthony Bourdain) is to stick with the local specialties wherever you are. There are plenty of good things to eat in Scotland, and when I’m homesick for BBQ or Tex-Mex, I make it myself.

Iron Bru – A Scottish soft drink banned in the USA for it’s harmful chemical ingredients. It tastes like Mountain Dew with fat added and looks like orange toxic waste.

Scottish cuisine has a lot to offer and I suggest you get yourself a plane ticket and come check it out!