It seems a lot of people will remain in the UK for their holiday this year. We did, travelling to the Outer Hebrides via the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh, The Trossachs and The Isle of Skye. The deciding factor of where to holiday is usually the weather, with more people booking holidays abroad in the years that follow a poor summer here, but cost is also important and holidaying in Britain is not cheap, but this year comparatively cheaper owing to the weak pound. For me good food is an essential element for a good holiday and whilst I find it necessary to research this more carefully at home than in many places abroad, provided I do this there is much to be enjoyed.
Scotland demonstrated a sense of place that is far less evident in England. If you had time for only one meal in Scotland to provide a snapshot of their produce it should be at The Kitchin in Edinburgh. A slice of boned and rolled pig’s head served with roasted tail of langoustine and a crispy ear salad is a signature dish that gives you an idea of what to expect. I can’t think of anywhere in London where I have eaten as well.
Langoustine (or prawns as they are modestly described by the Scots) are the ultimate Scottish ingredient. Half of the world’s langoustine catch comes from the cold seas around Scotland (and most of the rest from Iceland). The biggest markets are Spain and France – I bet more people have eaten them there than freshly landed off the west-coast of Scotland.
There are plenty of untamed places in which to forage for wild food, the first Girolles were just appearing when we visited and seashore foraging has become very fashionable. Shooting, stalking or fishing for this wild food is often what attracts people to holiday in Scotland, although sadly fishing for salmon is now more like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are several theories about the reasons for the dearth of wild salmon, including the impact of salmon farming – see http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/aquaculture-risks/ . Whatever part salmon farming played in decline in wild salmon, I hope that Scotland has learnt lessons about the importance of valuing and protecting their precious wild habitats. It is also a salutary lesson about what happens when someone decides that a food is too “elite” and must be made cheaply available to all – no-one cares whether they ever eat it again.
Somerset Maugham opined that “to eat well in England, you should breakfast three times a day”. When in Scotland you will eat so well at breakfast that you will barely have room to eat twice more! As we were travelling quite long distances on many of the days of our holiday we took full advantage of this by eating enough at breakfast to skip lunch. You may think that you would soon become bored but the variety on offer ensured this never happened. In addition to the “Full Scottish”, at its very best on the Isle of Lewis and Harris where both Black and White Puddings from Stornoway were included, there were plenty of fish options – kippers, haddock or smoked salmon, for example. Berry fruits, especially raspberries, thrive in Scotland and were usually on offer at breakfast – with porridge (of course) but also homemade bircher muesli, granola or pancakes. Scotland shares with the rest of Britain a fine baking heritage; grains, particularly oats and barley, are prominent in the Scottish diet, and good bread was baked almost everywhere. Should we feel peckish on arrival at our next destination and still a good few hours away from dinner, there was often a slice of homemade cake to accompany tea or at the very least homemade shortbread. If I could eat only one biscuit for the rest of my life shortbread would be the one!
In fact, the choice at breakfast was often far greater than that offered for dinner, but I’m not complaining. This limited or no-choice menu, served to all at the same time, has largely been abandoned in England, but it is what enables the Scots to continue serving fine home-cooked local and seasonal food. Beef and lamb were popular for main courses but the one thing they struggle to obtain here is vegetables, although everyone was trying to grow what they could. Those vegetables we had were always nicely, if fairly plainly cooked, but it was the one thing that was sometimes supplemented with imports. You would struggle as a vegetarian here. But there is no point yearning for what there is not when there is so much fine produce to compensate. I would far rather this honest striving to serve local food than when the food of the world is imported to your doorstep – as in most big cities.