Scotland Feature

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Flavors of Scotland

Locally Sourced, Seasonally Inspired

A new focus of culinary interest, in Scotland as elsewhere, is on local and seasonal foods. Whether restaurants are riding the green wave or just following good food sense, they are trying their best to buy from local suppliers; many proudly advertise their support. Farmers' markets, too, seem to be popping up on every other street corner.

From meats and fish to fruits and vegetables, most urban and many country restaurants are now designing their menus around seasonal foods. In winter, look for Angus beef, venison, rabbit, and pigeon on menus; in spring, summer, and fall, langoustines (small lobsters with slender claws), crab, halibut, and trout appear. The rotating array of (often organic) blackberries, brambles, raspberries, strawberries, apples, and rhubarb offers choices so fat and flavorful that the fruits themselves could make any meal memorable. When in season, asparagus and green beans are tender, but fresh enough that you can actually taste their snap. Scottish pies, puddings, and jams are also inspired by the land and time of year.

Superb Fish and Seafood

Some of the most coveted fish and seafood in the world lives in the rivers and lakes, as well as off the coasts, of Scotland. Fortunately, restaurants and markets all around the country showcase this local bounty. Treats not to miss include wild salmon, trout, haddock, mackerel, herring (often served as cold-smoked kippers), langoustines, scallops, mussels, oysters, and crabs.

Fish is prepared in a tantalizing variety of ways in Scotland, but smoked fish is the national specialty—so much so that the process of both hot and cold smoking has developed to a fine art. Scots eat smoked fish for breakfast and lunch, and as an appetizer with their evening meal. The fish is often brushed with cracked pepper and a squeeze of lemon, and accompanied by thin slices of hearty bread or oat crackers. Places like Arbroath as well as the isles of North Uist and Skye have won international praise for locally smoked haddock, salmon, and trout, which are synonymous with delicacy.

Other seafood to try includes the traditional fish-and-chips, the Scottish favorite not to be overlooked. The fish is either cod or haddock, battered and deep-fried until it's crispy and golden. Another classic preparation is Cullen skink, a creamy fish stew thick with smoked haddock, potatoes, and onions. It's perfect on cold winter nights as a tasty hot appetizer. For a special treat, grilled, sautéed, or baked langoustines offer the ultimate seafood indulgence, succulent and tasty.

Tempting Baked Goods

The Scots love their cakes, biscuits, breads, and pies. There's always something sweet and most likely crumbly to indulge in, whether after a meal or with a nice cup of tea. Bakeries are the perfect places to sample fresh goodies.

Some of the local favorites range from conventional butter-based shortbreads, empire biscuits (two shortbread cookies with jam in between, glazed in white icing and topped with a bright red cherry), whisky cake, mince pies (small pies filled with brandy, stewed dried fruits, and nuts), and scones. Treacle tarts, gingerbread, butterscotch apple pie, and oatcakes (more a savory cracker than a sweet cake) with local cheese are also popular as late-morning or early-afternoon temptations.

Not to be missed are the many treats named after their place of origin: Balmoral tartlets (filled with cake crumbs, butter, cherries, and citrus peel), Abernethy biscuits (cookies with extra sugar and caraway seeds), Islay loaves (sweet bread with raisins, walnuts, and brown sugar), and Dundee cake (full of cherries, raisins, sherry, and spices). Home bakers are much celebrated, and the catering tents at Highland Games are worth seeking out to sample a community’s finest.

Traditional Scottish Fare

Food in Scotland is steeped in history, and a rich story lies behind many traditional dishes. Once the food of peasants, haggis—a mixture of sheep's heart, lungs, and liver cooked with onions, oats, and spices, and then boiled in a sheep's stomach—has made a big comeback in more formal Scottish restaurants. If the dish's ingredients turn you off, there's often an equally flavorful vegetarian option. You'll find "neeps and tatties" alongside haggis; the three are inseparable. Neeps are yellow turnips, potatoes are the tatties, and both are boiled and then mashed.

Black pudding is another present-day delicacy (and former peasant food) that you can find just about everywhere, from breakfast table to local fish-and-chip shop to formal dining establishment. It's made from cooked sheep's- or goat's blood that congeals and is mixed with such ingredients as oats, barley, potato, bread, and meat. Black pudding can be grilled, boiled, or deep-fried. The Scottish prefer it for breakfast with fried eggs, bacon, beans, square sausages, toast, and potato scones. These fried, triangular-shape scones have the consistency of a dense pancake and are an intimate part of the Scottish breakfast, aptly called a fry-up because—apart from the beans and toast—everything else on the plate is fried. Another popular breakfast dish is porridge with salt instead of sugar, cinnamon, or honey. Sweet porridge doesn't go down well in Scotland.

Whiskies and Real Ales

"Uisge beatha," translated from Scottish Gaelic, means "water of life," and in Scotland it most certainly is. Whisky helps weave together the country's essence, capturing the aromas of earth, water, and air in a single sip.

Whiskies differ greatly between single malts and blends. This has to do with the ingredients, specialized distillation processes, and type of oak cask. Whisky is made predominantly from malted barley that, in the case of blended whiskies, can be combined with grains and cereals like wheat or corn. Malts or single malts can come only from malted barley.

The five main whisky regions in Scotland produce distinctive tastes, though there are variations even within a region: the Lowlands (lighter in taste), Speyside (sweet, with flower scents), the Highlands (fragrant, smooth, and smoky), Campbeltown (full-bodied and slightly salty), and Islay (strong peat flavor). Do sample these unique flavors; distillery tours are a good place to begin.

Real ales—naturally matured, cask-conditioned beer made from traditional ingredients—have arrived in the United Kingdom. These ales are not, at present, as popular as whisky, but are quickly making their mark on the Scottish beverage scene. Good brews to try include Arran Blonde (Arran Brewery), Dark Island (Orkney Brewery), White Wife (Shetland), Duechars (Caledonian Brewery), and Red Cuillin (Skye Brewery).

Updated: 2014-02-24

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