There are two things every traveler to Scotland needs to know about the weather: The Fiction, and the Truth. First, the Fiction. When we arrived in Edinburgh, it was pouring. However, the nice staff at our hotel assured us that this was unusual for this time of year. In fact, every Scot that we spoke to for the next 3 weeks assured us that this was very unusual weather, and it is always nice and sunny in Scotland this time of year, and surely the weather will improve shortly. The reason for this is because of the "Great Scottish Weather Conspiracy". Scots, especially those who deal with tourists on a regular basis, such as hotel clerks, store clerks, people who work at historical attractions such as castles, policemen, bed-and-breakfast owners, schoolchildren, people who go out in the street, in short, anyone but hermits, must attend the intensive, sixteen week, compulsory course in how to lie to tourists about the weather. Don't get me wrong. The Scots are lovely people. Very friendly, very helpful. Mostly very nice. They have a problem though. They make a lot of money off tourism, but they live in a wet, gray place.
Now, the Truth. There is no rain in Scotland. There is Mist. They have many different kinds of mist. They have light mist, medium mist, heavy mist, downpour mist, torrential mist, cats-and-dogs mist, and "oh my God, somebody build an Ark" mist. We saw lots of mist. My wife thinks she developed mildew. During the three weeks we spent in Scotland and northern England, we had sun about 3 or 4 days, and even those days were only sunny part of the time.
My wife and I have traveled pretty extensively in Europe, and have been to England a few times. One interesting thing about England is the ubiquity of the local pub. Pubs in England are like fast-food places in the U.S. They are everywhere. There's at least one in every little town, and one every two or three blocks in a big city. The food of course, is a bit different. English people go to their local pubs for lunch, or after work, or during work, or before work, for a snack, or a pint, or a gallon, or something like that. Seriously, pubs in England are nice casual places with good food and good beers and ales, and are everywhere. We expected the same thing in Scotland. Nope. Couldn't find any real pubs. There are establishments that look like pubs from the outside, and they do have bars where they serve beer or ale or the main Scottish beverage, which is called "A Wee Dram", but there's something wrong with these places. The menu. They seem to serve traditional Scottish fare such as nachos, pizza, pasta primavera, enchiladas, etc. Also, there aren't a lot of Scots in them. I think these are tourist restaurants disguised as pubs. So where do the Scots go to have a drink? I have a theory. When reading tour guides and brochures, we discovered that there are lots and lots of distilleries in Scotland. One book said that there are over one thousand brands of scotch whiskey made in Scotland. Wow. That means that there is a lot of whiskey in Scotland! There are also a lot of stores selling the product of the distilleries. I think your average Scotsman buys a bottle of the stuff, and goes home and drinks himself into oblivion in the privacy of his own home. How civilized. No drunk driving. No fights in bars. Contributing to the economy by consuming a local product. Very patriotic, these Scots.
Most Americans have heard rumors that the food in the U.K. is terrible, bland, overcooked, and just not very good. This is incorrect. There is actually some pretty good food in the U.K. and Scotland. First, appropriately, we'll discuss breakfasts. There is something in England called the "Full English Breakfast". In Scotland, due to the traditional enmity with England, it's called the "Full Scottish Breakfast". They are the same. First, you are given a choice of cereals, muesli, yogurt, and fruit, tea or coffee, and some toast. I would call that breakfast for most people. Not in the U.K. That's just the prelude to breakfast. Then, the real breakfast arrives. It contains two eggs, either scrambled, fried, or sometimes poached, two or three pieces of "bacon", which is not what Americans call bacon, but is more like what we call "ham", sausage, mushrooms, and half of a grilled tomato. Then there are various additions. Some places included a "fried slice", which was a slice of white bread, deep fat fried. Other places offered "hash", which was a potato cake, sort of like a giant flat tater-tot. Other options included "Black Pudding", and "White Pudding". Black Pudding isn't anything any American would recognize as pudding. In fact, it's sort of a sausage patty, except the sausage is mainly made of dried blood. For those of you who haven't fainted and are still reading this, it wasn't bad. White pudding is a white sausage without any meat -- oatmeal and spices, I think. It was very tasty.
Notice a trend here? Except for the mushrooms and tomato, the rest is loaded with FAT. No cholesterol fear in the U.K. Now, you probably think that you only get this breakfast if you go into some restaurant for a big breakfast and order it. Not so. Every place you stay in Scotland requires you to eat this. The hotels, guest houses, inns, and B&B's all include breakfast in the room fee, and the breakfast was always the "Full Scottish Breakfast". If you declined it, you were paying for it anyway. Now, in reality, except for the silly heart-attack thing, the breakfasts were damn good. The food was always fresh and delicious, and obviously there was plenty of it. You didn't just get a cup of tea or coffee, but a whole pot. You didn't just get one or two pieces of toast, but a "toast caddy" full, which is a little rack that holds 8 or 10 pieces of toast. Now, you might be thinking that this breakfast is really only for tourists, since nobody could eat that much every day. Nope, I saw natives eating it in restaurants, and even in a fast-food coffee joint!
What about other foods in the U.K. There are two foods you can get in every single town in the U.K., no matter how tiny the town. Every town had a "Fish and Chips Takeaway" shop, and a "Chinese Takeaway" shop. Some towns had little else. Some little towns had several. Not quite as ubiquitous, but almost, was the "Indian Takeaway". Now I won't talk about the Chinese Takeaway shops, because Chinese food is probably pretty similar in the U.S., and we didn't actually have any on this trip. Every time I suggested it, my wife gave me her "are you nuts" look. Fish and Chips however, is a U.K. institution. We had it many times. Everywhere you go, if it is lunchtime, or dinnertime you'll see somebody either in the "Fish and Chips Takeaway" ordering it, or somebody sitting at a bench eating it. Not just tourists either. The locals "queue up" at the Fish and Chips shop at dinnertime, instead of cooking dinner themselves. The quality of the Fish and Chips varies, but mostly it was quite good. I do have to tell you about one "Fish and Chips Takeaway" that we went to in a little town in Scotland. It was like your usual fast-food place, in that there was a big sign over the counter listing all the items on the menu. The impressive part was the sheer number of items. The items included...
Fish and Chips
Haddock and Chips
Cod and Chips
Deep Fried Sausage and Chips
Chips and Beans
Chips and Cheese
Chips and Chili
Chips and Curry
Deep Fried Pizza and Chips
... and lots more
There were probably 100 items on the menu. Virtually all of them were deep fried, and included chips. I kept looking for the item "Chips and Chips", but I didn't manage to find it. I was tempted to try the "Deep Fried Pizza and Chips", but my wife gave me her "no way" look, so I just had "Fish and Chips".
There were some other unusual items on these menus, like a "Chip Butty". Would you believe this is a French Fry sandwich? How about a "Deep Fried Mars Bar"? Yup -- Take a candy bar, dip it in batter, and deep fry it. Nope -- Lovely wife frowned on that one too, so I never had one. Aren't there some things that are worth a measly heart-attack?
Now on to more traditional Scottish food. There is one uniquely Scottish food that many people have heard of and fear... Haggis. What is Haggis? It's a mixture of oatmeal, onions, spices, and chopped-up bits of the organs of a sheep that most Americans would never eat in a million years, all cooked in another sheep organ that should not be mentioned to Americans. My wife has an attitude about eating things like this in foreign places. She says that when you travel, and don't recognize a particular item on the menu, try it anyway, but never ask what's in it. She refers to these as "mystery meals". Haggis is not nearly as bad as it sounds. We had it several times, and my wife actually enjoyed it. I tried it a few times, and my enjoyment varied. Sometimes it had too strong a livery taste for me, and other times it didn't. In all cases the spices added a great flavor. It's not served inside the "sheep organ", if that's what worries you. At least, in the places we had it, it comes on a plate, sort of looking like a thick, round slice of a sausage, about an inch high and maybe 3 or 4 inches in diameter. The consistency is looser than a sausage, as the granules tend to separate and you sort of scoop it up. It was not fatty at all. Traditionally, it's served as a main dish with "neeps and tatties", which are mashed turnips and mashed potatoes. My wife loved it this way. You can get it a lot of ways. We had it served at breakfast. We even saw a little paper sign in the door of an Indian Takeaway in Edinburgh that read. "Good News. Haggis Samosas are Back!". Good news indeed! They even have something called Vegetarian Haggis. We never tried it, but I suspect it had something like mushrooms, instead of the unmentionable sheep parts. Haggis was available in a lot of places, and I think that it isn't just eaten by tourists.
Let me describe the first time we tried Haggis. We were in Edinburgh, so naturally it was misting. About a medium mist, I'd say, so it was pretty wet out. It was dinnertime, so all the shops and many of the restaurants were closed, and the streets were virtually deserted. We were walking back to our hotel, looking for a place to eat dinner, and my wife remembered a little place she had seen earlier that had big signs advertising Haggis, which she was dying to try. We found the place and went in. Now when I say a little place, I mean little. It was really a Pub or Bar. It had a bar on one side, and 3 booths on the other, with another 2 small tables near the front. We sat down and the woman behind the bar came over and gave us menus. The menus were interesting. They did have Haggis, with "neeps and tatties", and other U.K dishes, like "Steak and Ale Pie", and "Bangers and Mash", but there was a section of "House Specials" that included such traditional Scottish fare as Pirogies (I'm being sarcastic here. For you non-foodies, Pirogies are eastern-european dumplings and are definitely not traditional Scottish fare). My wife ordered the "Haggis with Neeps and Tatties", and since I was more of a coward, I figured I'd taste her Haggis before ordering it myself, and I ordered the "Steak and Ale Pie". She then went upstairs to use the rest room. While she was gone, I noticed some interesting features of the place. Behind the bar was a sign reading "Why not try some of our Polish Liqueurs". Above us, a large, wide-screen, flat-panel TV set was showing a volleyball game. I wondered about that, since I figured that in Scotland the bar TV sets would all be showing Soccer, or maybe Cricket, or possibly even Rugby. Then I noticed that the two teams playing were from Poland and the Czech Republic. The TV station turned out to be a Polish satellite station. Finally, it dawned on me. We were ordering Haggis in a Polish Bar in Edinburgh. That explained the Pirogies. I informed my wife when she returned, and we shrugged, and lowered our expectations a bit. No Need! When the food came out, it was elegantly presented, and was fantastic. The "Haggis with Neeps and Tatties" looked like something from a high-end nouvelle-cuisine restaurant. On the plate, was a tall cylinder, about 6 or 8 inches high, consisting of 3 layers. The top layer was brown, and was the Haggis. Under that was an orange layer, which was the mashed turnips, and the bottom was the white mashed potatoes. The plate was garnished with a circle of pesto sauce around the rim. My Steak and Ale pie was equally impressive, and both were delicious. In fact, probably the best we had on the trip. Don't let appearances fool you. The little Polish Bar on a side street in Edinburgh had a gourmet chef.
Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Kravitz