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A Food Tour through Scotland

A Food Tour through Scotland

Fish at Inver

Glasgow-United Kingdom

Erin Skahan

Scotland's cuisine is not one of its most prominent cultural exports. Rather, this is a country that has been identified through cinematic images of stocky warriors in kilts, playing the bagpipes through rain-soaked green hills. Whether it be the kilt-wearing, the whisky drinking or the still regular consumption of the uniquely Scottish staple haggis, adherence and respect to centuries-old traditions remain strong. Thus, it’s easy to find traditional foods all over Scotland. It’s a place that has been influenced, but not overtaken by, modern culinary trends, which can often absorb traditional recipes, depriving a culture of its uniqueness. Thankfully, culinary tradition is alive and thriving, with an overwhelming array of opportunities for visitors to taste both traditional and modern Scottish fare.

With tourism deservedly on the rise in this beautiful island-rich nation, there are many excellent tour guides available to help you find your way amongst the top-rated restaurants. A truly unique experience awaits as you head west of Glasgow, to the Isle of Argyll and Bute. In the quiet lochside village of Cairndow, nestled in the shadows of the Old Castle Lochlan, there hides a tiny culinary gem.

Inver

A modest white building is a home to Inver, rated one of the top 100 restaurants in the UK. This farm and sea to table restaurant has a notable Scandinavian influence, but is uniquely, rurally, Scottish. As you enter, the warmth of a fireplace welcomes you to a cosy seat on comfortable couches, overlaid with fluffy white sheepskins. Of the Faviken and Noma ilk, the modern and minimalist decor also represents what you’ll find in the food: simplicity and elegance. Flavours are clean and fresh, sourced locally with attention to every detail.

Langoustines

Seafood is abundant, with Scottish waters providing an estimated 70% of the UK’s total catch. Surprisingly, archaeological evidence indicates that early inhabitants subsisted on diets mostly of land animals, such as wild boar, and foraged fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t until Vikings arrived, around the year 700, that waters brimming with herring fueled the creation of a successful fishing economy. Prior to the Scottish Reformation in 1560, the adherence to the Catholic faith required meat-free periods, which further supported the sea-based economy. Thus, the popularity of seafood in Scotland today is largely due to invasion and religious influence, not necessarily the will of the early inhabitants.

Smoked SalmonThe smoked salmon is famous and sold all over the world, with its signature peat-smoked flavour. Oysters have also gained popularity in recent years, with Oyster farming becoming increasingly popular. Loch Fyne Oysters is a family-owned establishment that began in a modest shed in 1978. Marine Biologist Andy Lane first saw the possibilities of shellfish farming, forming a partnership with landowner Johnny Noble. Today, the company continues to expand on that early idea, currently operating 25 restaurants in the UK. Their farm restaurant location is unique in that it’s within view of the marine operation, and you can hire a tour guide to discover how oysters and mussels are farmed and how their legendary smoked salmon is processed. Dining in their recently renovated, window-filled restaurant offers stunning panoramic views of the coast. If you decide it’s impossible to go home and live without these delicacies, you’re in luck. 

Cullen SkinkFollowing along the seafood path, there is traditional Scottish chowder to try called Cullen Skink. This is made with smoked haddock and mussels, as well as a colourful array of fresh herbs.

Smoking foods over a fire is very common in the Scottish tradition. The smoking process is thought to have first been brought over by the Vikings, and this influence is prevalent in both historic and modern food preparation from meat to fish.

Smoked HaddockArbroath Smokies are a staple fish to try, a smaller variety of haddock. These famed fish originated in the coastal village of Arbroath and are traditionally wood-smoked and very flaky. The best way to serve them is in a rich tomato-based stew or dip with a side of bread for dipping. According to local legend, a fire in the community fish storehouse charred the barrels of preserved haddock. After the fire, villagers opened the barrels and tried them, and have been hooked ever since.

Fish CakesModern food trends and international influences are popping up with increasing regularity across the country. Michelin-starred experiences can be enjoyed at local source focused The Kitchin, and the high-end Restaurant Martin Wishart, both in Edinburgh. Glasgow boasts local favourite Cafe Gandalfi, equally known for food as for the hand-crafted wood furniture inside. The tables and chairs were handmade by Glaswegian artist Tim Stead over 30 years ago. It creates a soft and rich natural ambience, contrasting the industrial feel of the city outside.

HaggisMany Scottish food traditions stem from the necessity of preservation through the seasons and the requirement that foods be easily transported. This is the theory behind one of Scotland’s most puzzling traditional culinary affections, the infamous haggis. Dating back to medieval times, people travelling needed sustenance for long journeys. The intestinal remains of various animals were boiled together with oats to bind the mixture, then everything was stuffed into the bag-like stomach of a sheep. Today’s versions are likely to be made using sheep liver, heart and tongue, and usually include onions, suet, and various herbs and spices. The contents are encased in a sheep stomach, boiled and then cut open to reveal a savoury meat pudding. This is traditionally served alongside mashed turnips and potatoes, or what the Scottish endearingly refer to as neeps and tatties. Haggis is the official dish of Scotland and is served every year on January 25th, when parties and festivals are held to celebrate their National poet, Robert Burns.

The Aberdeen Angus is the beef cattle of choice throughout Scotland, and much of the world agrees. Thought to be the descendant of a small breed of a cow of Scandinavian origin, this beef is notable for its natural, clean flavour resulting from a grass-fed, non-antibiotic diet. Beef from Scotland accounts for over a quarter of the beef produced throughout the UK.

Oats have played a very important role in Scottish food historically. Easily cultivated, highly versatile and inexpensive, they were widely eaten in Scotland. They work for dishes both sweet and savoury, as a filler in dishes like haggis, or on their own with a bit of milk. Today, oatcakes and oat porridge are still common breakfast foods, the oatcake being fairly synonymous with Scottish food.

Book a food tour in Scotland, especially in cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh, and you will be introduced to some of the more modern inductees of Scottish food culture. The first will undoubtedly be rather outlandish fried foods. This trend began in the early 1990s in a fast-food chippie in Aberdeen. The shop owner froze and then deep-fried a Mars brand candy bar, which quickly became a favourite after-school indulgence for children. The media got wind of the indulgent creation, sparking a trend. Due to the popularity of this phenomenon, chip shops began to deep fry even more outrageous things. Today, you can find deep-fried pizza slices called pizza crunch, and even hamburgers, battered and deep-fried. These are popular and tempting choices for people on late nights out after the pubs close.

Soor PloomsSweets are much loved in Scotland and tend more towards small candies rather than cakes. There are exceptions, like Cranachan, a layered dessert with raspberry, oats, cream and whiskey, which becomes especially popular when berries are harvested. Scottish Shortbread is a soft and crumbly cookie or biscuit, commonly served with tea or coffee. The most popular sweet treats, however, are to be found in sweetie shops such as the famous Glickman’s, located in Glasgow. This is the oldest sweetie shop in the city, dating back to 1903. Well known for hard candies such as Soor Plooms (or sour plums, the spelling cleverly making you try on a Scottish accent), and Scottish Tablets, the very sweet fudge-like squares made of sweetened condensed milk and sugar.

A proper Scottish food tour wouldn’t be complete without sampling the nation’s favourite soft drink since 1901, Irn Bru. This bright orange, sweetly tart carbonated beverage proudly outsells Coca-Cola and has become part of the national identity.

WhiskyDistilleries are dotted across the country and booking tasting tours is a must. Scotch Whisky, or Scotch as it is commonly referred to, is a distinct type of spirit, a formula which is regulated by law. In Scotland, barley grains are dried for varying periods of time over a peat fire, which determines the level of characteristic smokiness in the final product. If you plan to tour one area, head to Speyside. This region sits to the north of the beautiful Highlands and is home to nearly half of the total distilleries in the country. Distilleries operating in this region are fed by water from the River Spey.

Heather Ale is a must-try, as it’s been brewed in Scotland since 2000 BC. Potentially the oldest known beer in the world, the craft production has enjoyed a renaissance among brewers and beer enthusiasts. Fraoch is a version to sample produced by Williams Brothers, located just north of Glasgow. When you visit, ask for a bottle of Leann Fraoch, wash down your haggis, and embrace the flavours of the hearty but simple mainstays of Scottish cuisine.


"Erin is an experienced solo traveler, interested in how food shapes culture. She cooks and writes her way through cities and villages, primarily focusing on Western Europe."

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{Photos of Inver Fish, Inver, Langoustines, Smoked Salmon, Cullen Skink, Smoked Haddock, Fish Cakes Haggis by Erin Skahan; all rights reserved}