It was a mollusc that marked my introduction to Scottish food. Orkney scallops, in fact – plump and drenched in thick reduction of white wine and butter with a scattering of sea herbs – that tasted of nutty sea mist. It was fresh and light, a world away from the comfort food that Scotland is perhaps better known for.
If you were to search for pictures of ‘Scottish food’ online, you’ll find a collage of beige and brown: battered everything, porridge, stovies, shortbread, haggis. “I hate that our food is often associated with fried foods and pizza,” says Mark Donald, head chef of Number One at The Balmoral. “Scotland has some of the finest produce in the world”
Donald’s menu is a tour of the finest local foods: sweet langoustines, Highland wagyu beef and a raspberry sherbet soufflé, made using Scottish berries which are, according to him, “are the sweetest I've ever had.”
Local chefs, like Donald, are rejecting “dated” concepts of regional cuisine, creating menus using international techniques to showcase the very best that Scotland has to offer, which are being celebrated during Scottish food and drink fortnight, starting tomorrow. “I would be a fool not to take inspiration from my travels for my menu, but I wouldn’t want to open up a restaurant anywhere else. Chefs may come and go, but they always come back,” he tells me.
A wave of ingredient-led restaurants (see The Lookout by Gardeners Cottage, Grazing by Mark Greenaway, and Ox and Finch) have put Edinburgh and Glasgow firmly on the culinary map, while The Kitchin – the eponymous, Michelin-starred restaurant in Edinburgh, run by Tom Kitchin – is a love letter to Scottish produce.
“I felt a real sense of pride when I worked with chefs like Alain Ducasse and they were speaking highly of the food from back home,” says Kitchin, “Traditional cooking is my jam. I’ve noticed that a lot of young chefs are very influenced by Denmark and Sweden, but I have a duty to make sure that these foods don't die out, and that is very important to me.”
Roberta Hall, owner of the intimate, critically acclaimed The Little Chartroom in the leafy port district of Leith says, “one of my fondest food memories is of the west coast: we used to sail across a choppy stretch of sea, about an hour from Port Logan, in a dinghy to reach a hotel on the hills. There we would have a pint of the freshest prawns that tasted so sweet, you could tell they had been caught that morning.”
Hall finds it frustrating when people come to Scotland and expect junk food. “There is so much more to the food of Scotland than fatty comfort food, and it needs to be shouted about," she asserts. "For the restaurant, we use local stone fruits, and have incredible game producers who will go out and hunt monthly, as well as our own forager, Ben, who brings us new-season funghi like prince mushrooms and saffron milk caps. Everything is on your doorstep!”
Historically, Scotland's food traditions are a of mix Celtic and Viking influences: it was the arrival of the Picts, along with their Celtic descendants, that began the tradition of game hunting in the wind-swept valleys; fishing in the Atlantic ocean and native lochs; and the eventual farming of sheep and cattle in the grasslands. The arrival of the Vikings brought smoking and salting to Scottish shores – traditions and techniques that inspire contemporary dishes.
Scottish food and drink fortnight – an annual event taking place one the August 31 to September 15 – aims to celebrate this rich culinary history. With over 200 events on offer to encourage people to eat local produce, ranging from cookery demonstrations to festivals, farmers' markets and tasting events. We’ve rounded up a taster of events to come throughout the period, so you can experience the joy to be had in modern Scottish cuisine too.
Three events for a taste of Scotland
Scottish Wild Food Festival
Saturday September 14
This gorgeous festival is set in the bucolic surroundings of Cardross Estate, Port of Menteith. A first of its kind, there will be feast of wild food and the opportunity to try hands-on foraging workshops, wild walks, plant folklore and long table dinners.
£8.80 per adult ticket ; foragingfortnight.co.uk
Great Perthshire Picnic
Various places in Perthshire, September 2019
This month-long festival including over 60 events, taking place across Perthshire, makes up the Great Perthshire Picnic and in the past have included foraging forays with Errol wine producer Cairn o’ Mohr. This year includes Aberfeldy Farmers Market, Scottish food and wine nights, and an open workshop and chocolate tasting at Charlotte Flower Chocolates.
Exclusively Highlands Autumn Food & Craft Festival
September 14-15, Drum Castle, Aberdeenshire
Set in the gorgeous settings of one of Aberdeenshire’s oldest and most striking castles, this food and craft festival is host to a myriad of local producers and exhibitors. The food fair is held in the castle courtyard, where guests can watch crafters at work, try some tasty street food and enjoy the stunning surroundings.
£4 per adult ticket; exclusivelyhighlands.co.uk