“They’re nothing like the ones you get in Ikea”, says Nell Nelson, food columnist, editor and television presenter.
We’re currently in Sweden. Not literally. Instead, we’re dreaming of Stockholm in Scandi pub, Joseph Pearce’s, where we eat bowls of meatballs with lingonberry jam and mashed potatoes.
We’re here as part of Nelson’s new walking tour, Edinburgh Food Safari’s Eat the World: Leith Walk, which runs as part of the Edinburgh Fringe until August 29, £49pp. From the starting time of noon, there will be six stops, minimal walking and quite a lot of eating over the course of two hours.
As well as all the food chat, about Swedish cuisine, for example, she covers the history of the neighbourhood. For example, Nell tells us that the elm trees on Elm Row, which once extended further down Leith Walk, were planted for their tolerance of salty sea-winds. I’m the only Edinburger on today’s tour, but this is news to me. I suppose you’re allowed to be an ignoramus, when it’s your own city.
The others are Fringe-going holidaymakers, variously from Wales and Manchester. We all love the meatballs, with their salty gravy, though they’re rather filling. I regretfully hide one under a pile of green beans, so I can pace myself. I wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.
We obediently follow our leader, who is conspicuous thanks to her safari shirt with leopard print epaulettes and a faux-fur coat (which she tucks under her arm, on a hot August day). The next stop is 356 Leith Walk, which we get to despite the tram works making the pavement a narrow squeeze. Nell points out the Bier Hoose, which marks the boundary between Edinburgh and Leith. We cross over, and anything goes. We’re in Leith now, pals.
The only downside to having been The Scotsman’s restaurant reviewer for 14 years, is that I’m always focusing on new places and the more established joints get forgotten about. Thus, my mind is blown at Kukina - a small Turkish street food space, mainly takeaway but with about six seats.
Despite the neon sign, I’ve probably walked past it a hundred times. We’re trying their boreks - as Nell says, “the word comes from Persian ‘burak’, which means to twist”. Under the counter, there are lots of varieties of these cigar-shaped pastries, but we try the ones that are filled with feta and a thin layer of black olive tapenade. There’s also a blob of garlicky hummus and cacik on the side. Honestly, I think we may have hit our peak early. I have zoned out from Nell’s knowledgeable lessons, and am completely focused on what’s on my plate. (Sorry Nell).
Even more so, when we try the baklava, which is like an exercise in how much syrup one slice of pastry can possibly absorb. I will remember you, Kukina. Forever. Once we’re done, Nell herds us up for a stroll, pointing out various landmarks along the way, until we reach number 294 Leith Walk and seven-year-old Casa Amiga. I’ve heard lots about the Portuguese pasteis de nata at this place, who also supply to other Edinburgh businesses, including the new coffee bar, Santu, but I’m ashamed to have never tried them. I no longer need to feel embarrassed about this, or the fact that I once queued for an hour at Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, only to give up. These are beauties, with flaky pastry and cold burnish-topped custard. Gone in four bites. Better than Pasteis de Belem (I imagine).
Onto number 166 Leith Walk, and a new addition, Knight’s Kitchen Cafe, which serves East African food, with a focus on vegetarian offerings. We sit outside and try their Kenyan-style bhaji, samosa, plantain, salads, including a beetroot-based one, and hot chilli sauce.
This is the heartiest feed so far. It’s sunny, so the group is going into full holiday mode. Mercifully, no taps come aff.
However, this place is BYOB, so a Mancunian rebel slips across to the supermarket and buys beer. Everyone is now on go-slow, and our tour leader has to cajole us away from this spot, where we’re now adhered to the seats, baking ourselves like cats on a radiator.
We’re heading to 102 Leith Walk and the sweet shop, Candersons, which opened in 2012. (Another one I’ve passed by many times, probably on my way to a new place, like Bundits or Heron). As well as new-fangled sweets, it offers Moffat Toffee, Berwick Cockles, Soor Plums, violet creams, Edinburgh Rock and Saltire-emblazoned boilers. We get a poke to take-away, and have patriotically blue tongues when we reach the bottom of The Walk.
Nell points out the building that was once Leith Central Station, where us trainspotters cross over, so we can head back up the other side of the street.
We haven’t eaten for approximately three minutes, and are feeling weak. I consider asking Nell to carry me.
Our destination is Greece, and Qupi Cafe Bistro, at 171 Leith Walk, which has its own alfresco terrace on Smith’s Place. The final dose of sugar is a slice of their magnificent orange cake, along with a strong Greek coffee.
As part of this safari, not only does Nell reveal some of the best places to eat on Leith Walk, she’s obviously also heavily trialed the menus, so you always get The Best Thing. Although the tourists seem to have enjoyed the experience, I feel like I’ve got the best deal. While they’re away home, I’ll be heading back to Kukina.