Inspirational Food Ideas From Scotland

I am almost coming home.  It’s been a great business trip but my body and mind are growing tired after being away for almost 2 full weeks (the third-such stretch since early November).  There have been lots of great and interesting discoveries – many of them related to food and drink.

Some of the discoveries have come through local grocery stores.  The closest to my hotel is a very urban store – and very small.  It’s selection is tiny but I did manage to find a few things that I thought may be of interest here.  Some are simply because they are local to Scotland and the UK, one because it will inspire future preserving projects that you will see here (or perhaps already do) and one because it was none of that but it opened my eyes to a simple pleasure that I haven’t thought of in all my years of business travel.

Younger of Alloa – Sweetheart Stout (Glasgow, Scotland)

Inspirational Food Ideas From Scotland

I found this in a different small grocery store – the only can or bottle of local beer that I found for sale for ‘take away.’  I learned very quickly that Sweetheart was more than a simple name – this stout tastes more like candy than the traditional dark beer I am accustomed to by this name.  I adore the packaging and thought it was simply wonderful.  I even missed that it was a 2% stout.  Unfortunately this isn’t a beer for my pallet but if you like super-sweet things, you may love this lass.

Pimm’s and Lemonade

Inspirational Food Ideas From Scotland

There is a lot of alcohol on this list.  It’s tough to cook anything when in a hotel room and you are lacking so many things (like a fridge, oven, pan, fire pit or utensils) so booze is simply portable – and it keeps cold between the layers of glass that insulate your room from the outside world.  Pimm’s is simply a UK staple and finding a single-portion ready-to-drink can makes this all the more accessible.

Small bottles of Wine

This was the eye-opener.  I don’t know of Scottish wine so these were imported but I’ve never paid attention to single-serve wine bottles before (except for cooking and even then I’m more likely to open a full bottle to have something to sip).  Despite multiple business trips a year I’ve never thought of buying 1-2 small bottles for the room should I fancy a wee dabble.  This will likely be a discovery  that will continue on future voyages.

Lazy Red Chillies

I don’t know what makes these pepper flakes lethargic but I’ll take that at face value.  I couldn’t believe I was buying these as they’ll be so much easier to make than to transport 3,000 kilometers but I thought they were worth sharing.  Chilli flakes stored in white wine vinegar.  Why have I never thought of this?  It just seems to obvious – the longer they sit, the more they rehydrate and plump slightly and they will impart more flavor – as will the remaining wine to things such as stir-frys.  My hot peppers may never be the same again.  These are similar to oil that we see in many Asian cuisine but take a whole new dimension by adding such an acid to them.  I look forward to experimenting and making my own (I’ll just store them in the fridge).

“Golden Shredless” Sweet and Smooth Marmalade

I need another jar of jam – especially commercially made – like I need another hole in my shed (thought I was going to say something else, no?)  This is definitely inspiration for later.  It is an orange jelly.  I am sure marmalade purists (and I do know several) will argue that this atrocity is not at all a marmalade but I love the idea and I think this could covert a lot of people to citrus spreads who avoid the rind.  I’m just fascinated by the idea and don’t think I’ve run in to such an idea before.  I am very curious about adding this to things I wouldn’t add the chunky stuff to – like tea.

I suppose my bounty isn’t legendary this time but I do love to visit grocery stores when travelling (ironic because we barely ever shop at them at home) – and there will be one more stop before I leave for my obligatory bottle of Scotch.

Have you ever found something that inspired or excited you while travelling through distant grocery stores?  I’d love to know…

Driving Through Farm Country in the Spring

I feel like I’m in the movies and the lights have just gone dark – it’s as if my eyes are just getting adjusted to the new dark while simultaneously being exposed to the bright lights and loud sounds of the trailers.  The last 24 hours have seen me driving between Glasgow, Scotland and Manchester, England – and back.  We didn’t stop for any photos but raced a vertical line between two places which are both together and apart.

Most everyone here agrees that we are in the UK but many struggle to tell me if England and Scotland are the same country.  All have an immediate answer but a few quick questions quickly gets them thinking and the conversation becomes all the more fascinating.  The most extreme example was a 2 hour debate where an English friend debated himself for the entire time before deciding he would have to think longer about it.

Driving in the country never gets tired for me – no matter where that country is.  The roads here are closer to my Acadian roots in Nova Scotia.  The views are much different from Ontario farmland – but there’s no mistaking that we’re in farmland or that we’re in the starting days of Spring.  I wish I could express – or even understand – the emotional connection that I feel (and I’m sure many here share it) when you have the chance to explore the countryside – and see the cows.

The first drive was blanketed in a deep fog which the sun eventually tore a hole in before opening a brisk spring day.  Todays was an evening drive which cutting to the North and take us through rolling hills and open pastures through a semi-clear day.  Patches of blue let the eye of the sun occasionally peak down and toss a wink at as.  Most of the day will be a bright day with a sullen sky.

It’s not the heavens the excite me on this trip.  It’s the ground.

Scotland doesn’t get as cold as home and it doesn’t see the amount of snow we do.  Spring has started to tease its way into the consciousness of this part of planet already.  Flowers are starting to show and fields are green.

There are many sheep and some cattle between the North and the South.  They graze in open fields and perched on craggy hills which are often scarred with patches of exposed rock.  These small piles were often formed over hundreds of years as Farmers made piles of nuisance rocks so they could concentrate on growing wherever else that they could.  This led to giant pastures of grass all filled with cattle – in many cases I see varieties of Beasts that are unknown to me but draw my curiosity.

The hills look as if a Giant walked through this place while dragging his shovel.  The land goes from smooth to treacherous in moments – and returns to tranquility just as fast.

The only proof that Giants didn’t create these rich pastures for local livestock are ancient stone fences which were built by placing a single rock at a time until a wall for livestock or property limits was carved across the land.  I find these walls fascinating as I tie them to my own food shed – our hunt camp which is over 3,000 kilometers away and contains similar walls built through the heart of our forest near Algonquin Park.  “Our” walls were built for similar purpose - they were a requirement for settlers to create in order to claim the land for their own.  Our walls remain hidden by the darkness of the forest as our settlements weren’t able to master the elements and the forest ate these structures – and the Settler’s who built them.

I’m almost half a world away from home.  Nature used her brush to paint a similar canvass to home but the differences are tangible.  However, it is the hand of men and woman – particularly hundreds of years of farmers – who have bathed this land in a surreal familiarity to me.

I only hope symbols of farming like these survive in the next 300 years.  I would hate to think that a drive through the country in 2412 would be a tour of abandoned factories – I far prefer a good stone fence.

Stranger in a Strange Land – Heading Back to Glasgow

I’ll be heading to the UK again shortly.  My day job takes me there a few times a year and I’m looking forward to going back to Glasgow, Scotland – a city I’ve grown to know and love.

I spend 3-4 weeks a year in Scotland every year.  I’ve been going there for the last 3 or 4 years and a trip overseas is no longer a thing of novelty.  Extended trips away from home take a toll on the mind and body – as well as those who are left behind from the trip.  Of course these trips also have their perks as well.

My last trip to Scotland was in the early winter.  Work has been exceptionally busy and I took a few nights to work quietly in the hotel (instead of going out with many willing hosts).  On those nights I found myself walking through the downtown core to grab a bite for dinner or to simply stretch my legs.  These walks were made somewhat eerie by the giant pile of snow that had been covering the UK and closing most of the country down.

My last visit was different from those previous.  Glasgow now feels familiar.  I know what’s around the next corner, know where to find a favorite pint, bookstore or a bottle of Scotch that the airport might not have.  I have a few restaurants that greet me by face (if not by name) and know a few out-of-the-way places to grab a quiet pint or bite to eat.

Most of the places that make the city feel familiar are food or drink related.  It’s amazing how the comforts of food and drink are bonds which make a distant land feel so familiar.  Almost all of my landmarks are food or drink related and almost all of my spending there will be related to the two (one of the benefits of business travel is that I walk everywhere and have no need for gas or other expenses that would be common at home).

It’s bizarre to be half-a-world-away and feel so familiar.  It’s comforting and a reminder of just how affected I am by what I consume.  It’s easy to forget how many of the bonds with my own city and community are based in the same common denominators.  My connection to my community – both here and there – are often in very similar situations.  These bonds allow me to find a piece of home – no matter where I am in the world.

Can you relate?  Where do you feel familiar in a far-away place?

Any recommendations for Glasgow and area (I’ll have a day or two for some quick discovery)?  I’ll share some of my fave spots when I return.

A Real Football Pub…in Glasgow…

I had the absolute privilege of seeing a Glasgow Celtic (`sell-tick`) game on my recent visit to Scotland.

We started the day with a civil bite in a pub before walking to the stadium and stopping at a local pub for devotees of the home team on our way to the stadium.  This was beer-drinking country (there is none in the stadium).  It was fascinating to see cask conditioned ales (amiably described by some as warm-flat beer) as readily available as your standard bar rail.

We were allowed to wear our home-team scarves to this bar as it was a supporters pub.  Other bars which are neutral do not allow team colors of any sort (as I later learned and had to remove my scarf before pulling up to the doors of the pub.

While these pictures aren`t local to here – they are a slice of local there.  One I thought would be worth sharing – and one that is at least loosely tied to food or drink:

A Real Football Pub...in Glasgow... December

A Real Football Pub...in Glasgow... December

A Scottish Take on Genetically Modified Food

Imagine opening the menu in the lobby bar of your local hotel and reading the following message:

Our hotel policy is not to utilise GM foods.

However, we are currently unable to guarantee the origin of some foods, therefore, some of our foods may arise from genetically modified maize or soya.

If you have queries, please contact a member of our staff.

Welcome to Scotland.

I was a little surprised at first – perhaps even a little affronted.  I`ve had 9 days in the hotel to consider it and have drawn the conclusion that such a warning is actually rather fair and I found it somewhat comforting.  It was nice to be informed of such a fact that allows me to make an educated choice over what I choose to consume and I think it takes a certain confidence to share a fact that may hinder their business in plain view.  I actually found myself more empathetic to them using GM food and found myself justifying the facts for the hotel.

My comfort was a little premature – when I asked my host about the menu it turned out he had never read it or been asked about it.  In fairness he kindly offered to get someone who would have more answers and I don`t suppose it claimed that he was specifically trained in it and his genuine offer was enough to excuse his lack of personal knowledge.

I find the UK is very sensitive to the origins of their food.  It`s not uncommon for them to name the farm that supplies their food on a menu (even in fairly `regular`restaurants).  The difficulties with mad cow disease has developed a mistrust of parts of the food system that has forced a transparency of ingredients.  This transparency creates unique offerings of price vs. perceived quality which can create it`s own troubling dynamic (the more affordable food can be seen as less safe).

I certainly don`t know enough about the food system here to draw any conclusions at all – simply thought that being informed of the ingredients on my menu is a delightful experience – one that could easily be replicated without legislation or force.

Beer and Sports – a Difference in the UK

As I am currently in the UK I am enjoying checking my `norms`around food and drink and learning about a different perspective that comes from living half a world away…

I might make it to my first Football (known as `soccer` in North America) match (known as `game`) in a few hours from now.  It`s my fourth or fifth visit to the UK and I haven`t been able to catch one yet for many different reasons.  Today`s game is in doubt because the referees are on strike (their issue is that one team is complaining too much for their liking) and a few inches of snow has crashed the nation.  It`s a combination that leaves the best plans in peril.

Our dilemma will soon be resolved.  We`ll be meeting our crew of singing revellers around noon to get ready for the 3.30 match. `Get ready`is indeed a code word for drink beer at a local pub and eat a little lunch.  The 3-hour head start is pragmatic – the stadiums do not sell alcohol in them.  The North American tradition of sipping (or siphoning) an ale while watching your favourite team compete for your pleasure does not translate here.

I am told that, in theory, the alcohol bans come from an effort to stop mischief amongst rival fans.

My experience in the UK is limited but I have walked the streets of Scottish cities before several matches and my observations have been consistent: the elimination of beer in the stadium appears to increase the activity and sales in local pubs.  It doesn`t seem to matter when the match starts; a lunchtime match in Edinburgh was preceded by packed bars of partying fans at 9.00AM.  My impression is that the number of drunken fans is higher here than home as a sense of urgency in the bar creates rapid consumption as the game approaches.

I suppose the next time I complain that a stadium is selling me a $12 beer, I`ll have to reflect on the cheaper alternative here…

Heading to Glasgow, Looking for Tips

I will be heading across the ocean shortly – a trip for work that will be dominated by actual work but have some time mixed for food and drink.  I do get to go to Glasgow almost twice a year so I’m a little spoiled like that.

I do know that I will have several mandatory food stops:

  • Marks and Spencer.  Checking out this giant retailer and it’s unique product offerings (always with a flare for design) is an absolute must for me.
  • TESCO.  Whenever I travel I have to visit a supermarket.  I adore comparing what is there to here and seeing what’s different – and what’s the same
  • A small Whisky shop that I don’t know the name of.  Yes, the Scottish refer to Scotch as Whisky.
  • A pub I don’t know the name of but sat in the night that Obama won the nomination to represent his party.  It’s down a bit of an alley and off the main strip.  It’s an honest drinking establishment that I look forward to.
  • Haggis.  Have to have my fix.  Honestly forget everything you’ve been told – it’s essentially Sheppard’s Pie and is fabulous.
  • Stravaigin.  I have eaten here once and it’s the place the people from all around the world continue to refer me to going when asked for a tip.
  • Haggis Pakoras.  I haven’t had this fusion yet and really think it’s time I try it.

Anything else I’m missing?  Would love tips – even if it’s tupes of food vs actual places.  Will report back on what is found!

Rabbie Burns Day!!! Haggis and Scotland on a Sunday

Sunday was my only day off during this 12 day trip to the UK – I’m scheduled 10-12 hours per day and it’s a fairly busy trip.  I woke up early and lazed about until noon when my associate, pal and host brought me out for a tour.

A typical Scottish winters day – cool, rainy, damp followed by sun and back again.  The straight cold of home is frigid but less chilling if that makes any sense.  It was raining at first and Kenny brought me to a place that he is very passionate about: the Glasgow Museum of Transport.  It was fascinating (including a sample of what looked like a trolley/streetcar that was actually pulled by horses).  There were a few food-related items, including a truck from Robert Wiseman Dairies which is one of the oldest dairies in Great Britain.  The truck had some wonderful hand-lettering that I paused to admire:

Rabbie Burns Day!!! Haggis and Scotland on a Sunday January

From there we were off to beautiful Loch Lomond and the Duck Bay Marina for lunch:

Rabbie Burns Day!!! Haggis and Scotland on a Sunday January

I had asked Kenny to go for lunch and wanted Haggis as it was Rabbie Burns day (today would have been his 250th birthday).  At home we spell it Robbie – they spell and say it with a heavy A as opposed to our version.  I’m changing my pronunciation from now on!

My first experience with Haggis was in Edinburgh with Dana.  We went to a small (“wee”) restaurant that was also a butcher shop.  This family restaurant had been in the same family for 3 generations.  We ordered it to share as an appetizer, scared of all this talk of heart, lung and other organs cooked inside the stomach of a sheep.  Ugh.  We thought we’d try – the whole “when in Rome…” thing.

Our biggest disappointment was that we hadn’t ordered it as a main.  It was fabulous!  A Haggis dinner is so close to what I grew up as Sheppard’s Pie that I’m not sure I’d know the difference after enough beer.  The scariest thing is the description – a proper Haggis Dinner with Neeps and Tatties (mashed turnip and mashed potato) is a very easy-eating dish.  I believe that even those with conservative tastes would enjoy this meal if they didn’t know the contents.  The tastes are anything but offensive and the entire dish is usually accompanied with a lovely gravy.  Here’s my lunch from today:

This was a lovely restaurant, overlooking a fantastic Loch and great service.  The Guinness was a nice touch and the company was great.  My only disappointment?  Kenny confirmed that Loch Ness is really just for tourists and no one (well, no one sensible) actually believes it could exist.

Burns day celebrations continue through town – television shows highlighting local talent, folk music and stories, dinners and festivities abound.  It’s not as rowdy (so far) as we turn St Patrick’s day into – more similar to Canada Day; a day where this country is even more proud than it typically is to simply be itself.  I am thrilled I was here to see it!

Saturday Night Laughter (and not); Glasgow

Had a lovely evening last night (damn, starting to speak like them).    This is a short post because it is very loosely tied to our focus here – food and drink.

I got taken out by a colleague and friend named Martin.  He took me to a comedy club named The Stand.  I was somewhat nervous – comedy is so often based in cultural subtleties and colloquialisms that it can leave an outside behind.  At home there’s comedy based on Hockey, Toronto being uptight, the west coast being high, people drinking beer, “rednecks” and so forth.  An outsider can be left behind very quickly.

I was surprised by how passionate people are here about their stand up. I spoke to many people through the day about it and they were naming off comedians like we go through hockey players.

I understand there are two places to see it – a fancy place that is part of a chain and this one which is more the hole-in-wall variety.  It’s a small place and designed for drinking.  Half the crowd gets seats and the rest of us didn’t.  For those who stand, the wall has a small shelf that people line their drinks up on.  You are asked not to speak and the bar closes during the comedy.  As Dana and I observed 2 years ago, it’s truly amazing that Scottish People (and particularly women) can carry 4-5 drinks at a time without a tray.  I am not speaking of the staff – it seems like every patron has such talent!

The comedy was very accessible – I understood about 80% of it.  Many of the jokes would have worked at home – jokes about the Scotts liking to drink beer, about the evil big city Edinburgh, the hicks in Fife – remove the Scottish town names and insert ones from Canada and you’d be off to the races.

One of the 4 comedians came out really flat.  He came out with a short pink mohawk, covered in tattoos – kind of looked like the stereotype of the British Hooligan hanging around a football match.  His jokes about tattoos, being a non-racist skin head, living a hardcore life and now growing older and slower were very funny to me – however most of the audience did  not understand them.  He was from England – apparently comedy is generational as much as it is regional.

A great night, good fun and lots of beer consumed.  More about that and an in intriguing beer story coming soon!

Friday night in Glasgow

A quick post before heading to work this morning (after just writing a considerably long one for the ongoing series in making your own jam).

I have learned that, especially on weekends, good food in Scotland often requires a reservation.  Without a reservation you will be limiting your options significantly.  I did not have reservations.

I started by heading to the West End and a very popular cobblestone street named Ashton Lane.  It’s a small, romantic street with about 10 or 12 restaurants and pubs.  It can’t be much more and 100-200 feet in length and is a pedestrian only area.  It was crawling with people.  It was too busy for a single bloke without a reservation though I tried to get in a few places.  I almost waited 90 minutes to get into Ashoka- an Indian restaurant featuring haggis pakoras!

I had difficulty finding a place that would take me that didn’t cook everything with a deep fryer.  I do love my fried food; tonight wasn’t the nigh.

I settled on an Australian owned restaurant named North of Bondi – it offered a fusion of Australian and Asian food.  The decor is fabulous and the building has a whole charm unto itself.  Staff was super friendly and I was impressed with my first impressions.

I started with an order of shrimp chips which I wished were lighter as opposed to dense – however I ate an entire small steamer of them so my overall impression was not overly negative.  From there I moved to dumplings and was pleasantly surprised that they appeared to be made by hand with fresh ingredients.  They were light, tasty and fabulous.  From there I moved to a red curry with beef and found it contained peas and a flat bread much closer to a roti wrap than what I would have associated as Naan.  It was warm, hearty and full flavored.  In short, a real quality meal that showed an authenticity to ingredients and a confidence of innovation.  It was enjoyable.

My waiter turned out to be the owner and the usual chef.  Helluva nice guy and he sent me on my merry way with a few recommendations for pubs.

He sent me to Cottiers- and old converted church which is now a drinking hole.  It’s in the middle of a quiet neighborhood and appears to have an unbelievable patio for the summer time.  It was like stepping back into time and was a great place to have a Guinness.

Friday night in Glasgow January

From there it was time to come home, head to bed and now it’s off to work!