It is not unusual for people to travel to France, or perhaps Italy, “for the food”. The food reputation of these countries helps to attract tourists. Scotland has no such reputation for exciting and high quality food, and food tourism as such has not yet developed.
I emphatically predict that this will change. Whereas some countries have a reputation for great food which in practice they do not always deliver, Scotland is the reverse. In the last ten to fifteen years, there has been a dramatic awakening of the quality food industry in Scotland but the tourist agencies have been slow to identify and promote that fact.
Towards the end of each tour that I carry out, I always ask my guests “What have been your biggest surprises during your time in Scotland?”. The most frequent response has been “The quality of the food”. Indeed, that response has always been the first, second or third response I have received to that particular question.
It would be fair to say that for a very long time Scotland has been the source of the very best of food products, but these have not always been turned into the best of food on the plate. The change we have seen is to do with the awakening of a food culture – both the awareness of quality food among consumers and the pride in being able to serve quality food among the restaurateurs.
Take our seafood industry, for example. For the last forty years we have seen the export of large quantities of shellfish to Spain and Portugal, enabling them to put “scampi and chips” on the menu for the British tourists flocking there, while at the same time it was difficult to find seafood on the menus of the west coast ports in Scotland, where these glorious products were landed and traded. That has all changed. Oban is now the “seafood capital of Scotland” and there are some seven specialist restaurants in the town. Crabs, langoustines, scallops and mussels are presented to the table in a mouth-watering array of dishes in restaurants up and down the West Coast.
On a recent tour, I took a group to the Island of Skye. We went to Talisker distillery. Just up the road from the distillery, we found a fabulous no-frills seafood restaurant that was set up as an add-on to a business that trades in locally-caught seafood. We all agreed that it was simplicity on a plate – and really excellent thanks to the quality of the raw material.
Another example of Scotland having the finest of ingredients is to do with the availability of high quality venison and game. Not long ago, a large part of the game produced by our estates was sold to Germany. Now there is a strong internal demand, fuelled by local restaurants serving an increasingly demanding local consumer. Even at the level of “pub grub” it is now normal to find game and venison on the menu. The rise in awareness of the foods on our doorstep has been dramatic, and I would be certain that Scotland’s reputation as a quality food nation is in the course of being created.
The quality of local ingredients is by no means limited to the wild foods that have been mentioned so far. Scotland’s farms have for a long time produced very high quality produce, with lamb and beef in particular being exported to England and elsewhere in Europe. Today, more and more our chefs are able to capitalise on this high-quality local food. My wife works as part-time Chef in our nearby Poppies Hotel and Restaurant. Only yesterday she prepared a medium-rare Aberdeen Angus sirloin steak for a very well-travelled American gentleman – he declared that it was the best steak he had ever eaten.
Even the humble haggis has been caught up in the drive for innovative dishes based on high-quality ingredients. Haggis is a dish with a slightly mixed reputation – there is definitely good haggis and bad haggis! However, the dish has been known for well over 2,000 years, and as well as being famous in Scotland it is still found in Scandinavia. In times gone by, if a sheep was slaughtered the first part of it to be eaten was the heart, liver and lungs, since these parts had the shortest “shelf life”, and this developed the dish we now call haggis. Each family had its own recipe for haggis, but always there was the inclusion of oatmeal, onion, suet, salt and spices. The ingredients were prepared and stuffed into a sheep’s bladder to be cooked. Nowadays, of course, synthetic sleeves are used instead of the sheep’s bladder. It was in 1787 that Robert Burns gave the humble haggis an enormous and lasting publicity boost with the writing of his “Address to the haggis”, in which he humorously described it as “Great chieftain o’ the pudding race”. However, it can be said that the presentation of haggis as a dish did not advance very much until the last years of the 20th century – traditions were strong, and haggis was invariably served with “neeps and tatties” (i.e. swede and mashed potato) . How that has changed! Nowadays, chefs are keen to come up with innovative combinations, and quality haggis is used as the basis for a range of canapés, starters and main dishes, including the Flying Scotsman, which is chicken breast stuffed with haggis, and Balmoral Chicken which is similar but with the addition of a covering of crispy bacon. The Larousse Gastronomique describes haggis as follows:- “It has an excellent nutty texture, and delicious savoury flavour”.
Come and give it a try!
Alasdair and Barbara are originally from the west coast of Scotland and have wide-ranging hospitality experience. They recently returned to Scotland after living full-time in France for 10 years and hosting tours on a converted barge in the Garonne Valley. They are now sharing their love and knowledge of the Scottish Highlands through Highland Host, offering personalized tours in this beautiful region.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France, the UK, and other European countries.