My love affair with Scotland started 40 years ago when I went with the family to Pitlochry in Perthshire – not the startling and dramatic version of Scotland, but rather the genteel one – Scotland-lite perhaps.
There was nothing to scare the horses, no massive mountains, but a pretty town not unlike Windermere. What was unsettling was the food. It seemed impossible to find anything not deep fried (I know, it’s a cliché but it was true) and I recall the low point of our hunt for anything edible was being served Findus Crispy Pancakes in the allegedly smart but actually rather drab, dated hotel dining room.
Today there are few better ways to discover the joys of Scotland than follow the food map – it will take you to some of the most stunning parts of the country AND fill your belly. It’s Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink – and I’m happy to report that the doldrums that Scottish food previously languished in are consigned to history. A few days spent recently on the east coast – an area completely unknown to me until now – confirms what I think I’ve always known; Scotland is one of the most beautiful places on earth. And we can now add to that – one of the most vibrant, exciting countries to eat.
There are worse places to begin your culinary odyssey than Edinburgh’s landmark hotel, the Balmoral. It’s got all the trappings you’d expect, but one of the best things about it is the staff. They’re unilaterally cheerful and friendly, from the chatty doorman to the smiling waitress working a full room at breakfast (one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve ever had the pleasure of; go for the sweet, peaty Arbroath Smokies – they’re outstanding).
The Balmoral’s restaurant, Number One, has a Michelin star and reports are it’s well-deserved (though nose-bleedingly expensive). We headed for the less formal Hadrian’s Brasserie on the ground floor and had an exemplary “pre-theatre” dinner which is extraordinary value for money at under £25 for three courses and includes the likes of braised lamb, Arran mustard mash and haggis beignet; a simply stunning, faultless main course. You can walk in off the street of course; you don’t have to be resident.
Leith was Edinburgh’s port and dates back to the 14th century. Docklands have a universal reputation for nefarious goings-on and for years it wasn’t fit for a nicely brought up girl like me. Think Trainspotting. But times have changed and now it’s called the Venice of the North. Cool bars and delis proliferate and it’s the home of a number of top-notch eateries including Tom Kitchin’s eponymous restaurant.
The Kitchin opened in 2006 and just six months later Tom won his Michelin star. It’s bang on the waterfront, and on an early summer evening the Firth of Forth shimmers. In the chic converted whisky warehouse, flames flicker in the glass fires, reflecting the grey and teal blue décor. We enjoy a glass of champers and a glass of homemade bread sticks (honey and caraway, black squid and salt with a tiny pot of blue cheese mousse for the dipping) in a quiet corner of the bar.
There’s a huge amount of refinement in his French/Scots style and a significant emphasis on provenance – in fact we’re handed a cute map with produce marked – sweetbreads from Elgin, oysters from Oban – even sea salt from the Outer Hebrides. We’re here for the tasting menu with wine flight, and from the carrot veloute through to the coffee soufflé it’s a delightful, faultless dinner served by a platoon of young people who are respectful and knowledgeable, but not po-faced. Highlights include pig’s head and langoustine – a much more sophisticated plate of food than the name suggests, but for me the red deer served with a glass of Argentinean Malbec is dish of the day.
On the way back to the Balmoral we dropped in to VDeep, Hardeep Singh Kohli’s craft beer and curry emporium. The idea is ales from (mostly) local breweries paired with tapas-style dishes. I dive into a William’s Brothers Black Ball Stout (with a “robust bitter chocolate finish”); I’m too replete to eat but take a look at the offer; given who is in the kitchen it’s unsurprisingly pun-tastic. Who’s for Bangras and Mash, or Bubble and Sikh? There’s haggis and apple pakora too, and pork cheek vindaloo. It’s a great spot, full of folk having fun.
Next day we head north to St Andrews, the handsome university (and golf) town on the Fife coast, passing through Anstruther and Crail – achingly pretty fishing villages, Anstruther with the award winning fish and chip shop on the harbourside. The temptation to call in was almost irresistible but we had a date at another popular eaterie, the Seafood Restaurant in St Andrews.
Nothing can prepare you for the location; it’s a futuristic glass cube jutting out over the briny, a fabulously contemporary space filled with reflected light. You’d be mad not to order fish. Choose from the likes of sea bream sashimi, smoked haddock rarebit and wild sea bass, which is a winner. Accompanied with a potato and hazelnut salad, shrimps and capers, it’s as pretty as a picture and a distillation of the ocean. All that dancing light, and great food – it just makes you smile. And feel like you’re in a Bond movie.
Long gone are the days of luke warm, over-fried food. Scotland’s culinary heritage may be relatively short but they’ve made up for it – and how. Scotland’s growing and cooking its way into the best culinary traditions anywhere in the world.
• The Kitchin, 78 Commercial Quay, Edinburgh EH6 6LX. 0131 555 1755, www.thekitchin.com
V Deep, 60 Henderson St, Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh EH6 6BT. 0131 563 5293,
The Seafood Restaurants, Bruce Embankment, St Andrews, Fife, KY16 9AB. 01334 479475,
Balmoral Hotel, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH2 2EQ. 0131 556 2414, www.roccofortehotels.com
For general tourist information go to www.visitscotland.co.uk