This is the second of my weekly updates about my Scottish Food Challenge. I could easily write at length about the various ebbs and flows, all the highs and lows. But I won’t, that’s what my daily updates are for. If you would like more detail, with all my recipes and ramblings, please do pay my blog a visit.
I want to use this space to give you a broad sense of my experience eating only Scottish produce for a month. Last week featured several experiences worthy of mention. Some were great, like my Scottish salmon breakfast, sublime fish pie, and food trip to Fife. Some were less great, like my complete pie failure. Where to start? Let’s go for the middle…
"There was ketchup made using Scottish tomatoes and salt, burgers made using only Scottish meat and seasoning."
It was midweek. I was hungry. I was cycling home thinking about dinner. I decided to keep it simple and make a Scottish pasta. Just two ingredients: egg and pasta. Last time, it had gone so well, ending with silky tagliatelle and a creamy seasonal vegetable sauce. This time it didn’t go well. The block of dough became so solid I couldn’t roll it any flatter than really round, even with my full weight on top. I added more liquid and still couldn’t roll it pasta flat, only pastry flat.
That gave me a (bad) idea – use it like pastry! I took what was to be the pasta sauce – a mix of organic beef mince and vegetables - and put it in a pie dish. I put the rolled out pasta on top. I baked it for 30 minutes, hungrily looking through the oven window to the browning pie inside.
Once it was ready I started to slice it, which was when I realised my mistake. The pasta-pastry was like a roof tile. Even with my sharpest knife I could barely make a dent. I ended up cracking it into pieces and putting it next to the pie filling in bowls, assuming my family’s teeth would be strong enough to break through. They weren’t. It was a dismal failure. Dinner that night (for me anyway) was a small portion of pie filling.
Now, let’s go back to the start… Last Saturday to be precise, when a barbecue was held by some local friends in honour of my challenge. How nice to be invited somewhere safe in the knowledge that the rules of the challenge (nothing not Scottish) would be applied and where Scottish food was to be celebrated jointly, with music and drinking and singing. There was ketchup made using Scottish tomatoes and salt, burgers made using only Scottish meat and seasoning. The highlight for me was the baking. Alongside a cake made using only Scottish ingredients was a dozen perfectly proportioned rolls, made using Scottish bread flour and Hebridean sea salt:
I have, perhaps cheekily, commissioned some more of these delicious rolls in return for a few pints of ale. It’s the kind of transaction reminiscent of a bartering economy but in reality it is equal parts desperation and cunning on my part, knowing that this person is partial to a decent beer and is also extremely good at baking, unlike me.
Now, to fish… I tried to make this week less meat focussed. Although I love meat, I knew the start of my challenge had been particularly meat heavy, which is perhaps not the best way to celebrate the full range of great Scottish produce. After all, who notices the salad when there’s a steak on the plate? Remove the steak and, voila, the salad gets noticed.
So I focussed on fish and vegetable based dishes which included a beautiful piece of hake, which entirely took the focus away from the salad… Look, it’s not easy to celebrate salad ok! It was made easier though by ordering a vegbox from Bellfield Organics, which arrived with some delicious looking veggies including salad leaves and cucumbers.
Vegbox deliveries have been one of the main ways I have overcome the challenge of sourcing Scottish vegetables and it’s something I recommend to anyone wanting to eat more local and organic produce. Yes, it can be hard to cook some of the things (what to do with loads of fennel?) and, yes, there is often a bit more prep involved but these feel like small barriers to overcome to secure properly local, seasonal and organic produce each week at reasonable prices. The ones I have used to date all offer a 100% Scottish option.
I have been pleased to create a few standout dishes which I know will become part of my repertoire once the challenge ends. It’s one of the most pleasing elements of the challenge, being taken out of my kitchen comfort zone and being forced to develop new things. The hake dish above is just one. I also invented a salmon dish which I am proud of because it is simple to make yet very tasty. That’s right folks, it’s time for your weekly recipe:
Ingredients (all Scottish):
• Fillet of fresh salmon
• 250 ml Milk
• Butter & Flour (to make a beurre manié, see note below)
• Egg (poached)
• Salt to taste
1. Put the salmon, skin side down, into a frying pan with about 250 ml of milk and some chopped chives.
2. Cook over a low simmer for 5 minutes each side then take out the fish and put to one side.
3. Add a beurre manié to the milk and thicken over a medium heat for 8 minutes.
4. Separately, poach an egg for 2-3 minutes.
5. Pour the sauce over the fish and put the poached egg on top.
6. Serve with crusty bread (homemade, using Scottish flour of course!)
Note: A beurre manié is so easy to make and very useful. It's also quite good fun. If you don't know what it is, it's just a spoon of flour and a spoon of cold butter which you roll with your hands into a ball of dough. It's a foolproof way of thickening sauces because the flour soaks into the butter and doesn't form lumpy floury bits - which is what inevitably happens if you try adding cold flour to a warm liquid.
Another fishy dish I was pleased with this week was my all-Scottish fish pie, which I made using langoustines I bought from Eddie’s Seafood Market in Marchmont, Edinburgh. I was lucky enough to meet Eddie himself whilst in the shop so I asked him what was Scottish. His answer was “everything, except some prawns”. Brilliant. I also got to taste a Scottish sea snail he was preparing, as shown in the photo below. It’s well worth a visit. The langoustines added something incredible to the fish pie.
Finishing the week in foodie nirvana….On Friday last week I travelled with my family overnight to Fife – a great area for food lovers and also the home of the rather wonderful Fife Diet, started by Mike Small and his family about five years ago where they began to eat as much local food as possible. Talking to him about his experience spurred me on to try this challenge.
I planned my trip to Fife carefully because I knew the potential pitfalls of eating out, having not done so since the start of this challenge. I checked online that the hotel's menu had a number of dishes with Scottish produce. I double checked when I called to book and was told there would be no problem, with Cullen Skink and other highlights crammed full of Scottish ingredients. I was confident I could travel and stick almost entirely to the rules of the challenge.
After a long splash about in the hotel's very nice, very quiet pool we settled down for a drink in the late afternoon sunshine. I had a pint of MòR ale, made by a microbrewery in Dundee.
For dinner I chose the very Scottish sounding “Bothy Pie” which was made of venison topped with mashed potatoes. It was served with more potatoes plus carrots and baby sweetcorn. I didn't eat the baby sweetcorn. I had to assume the rest was Scottish. I recognise this is something of a leap of faith. The carrots could have been Dutch. As I was with my family, in a busy restaurant I couldn't quite bring myself to ask where they came from. I am still deliberating whether to email the hotel about this. Anyway, it was very tasty.
There's no doubt I failed the challenge at some level as there was mustard in the mash and pepper on top. It's also very unlikely the salt in the gravy was Scottish. It highlights the problem of how we can control what we eat when so often we are given quite limited information, especially when out and about.
I would have frankly felt like a food-obsessed weirdo to ask the waitress where each of the ingredients in my meal came from, yet it's information I really wanted to know. Isn't it information we should all want to know? The same thing happened at breakfast. I avoided the ironically named "full Scottish" because the menu failed to list where any of it came from, preferring to label the cooking method instead ("grilled bacon" etc.).
It wasn't just the origin of the bread flour and salt in the toast (which may be going too far) but also the bacon, eggs, sausages, black pudding and mushrooms. I suspect the eggs and bacon would have been Scottish, but who knows? Danish bacon is rife. As it turned out, I chose to eat some Scottish kippers all by themselves.
I'm not criticising the hotel by the way. It was clean and comfortable and the food was well cooked. There were local ales in the bar and the dram of Laphroaig at the end of the meal was delicious and transported me instantly to a house fifteen years earlier where an old friend opened a bottle and we talked and drank the evening away. Isn’t it funny how some tastes work like time machines?
The experience in the hotel was, I believe, indicative of what has happened to Scottish food culture. Collectively, we no longer seem particularly bothered whether our food originated in Scotland, even when it could easily have been sourced here. Why are we so apparently willing to miss out on a chance to enjoy our amazing food and instead eat "traditional Scottish food" made using ingredients that are anything but - made intensively abroad? Who wins from that situation other than food suppliers who can shave a few pence per kilo off imported produce? I think it's time we all demanded more.
After breakfast we headed to what I consider to be foodie nirvana, the magnificent Pillars of Hercules, just a ten minute hop across the Fife countryside from our hotel. What a place. Pillars, as it is more commonly known, should be a shrine for food lovers everywhere. I would urge everyone who hasn’t been there to make the effort to visit so you can experience fantastic Scottish food being produced entirely in harmony with nature. There are wooden framed poly-tunnels full of salad leaves, fields of clover and interesting crops, strawberry fields, chickens pecking under apple trees, orchards and more. Pictures don't capture the atmosphere - the sounds of the birds and the bees, the smells of the herbs, the feel of dew on the grass underfoot, the breeze rustling through the hedgerows. It is idyllic.
It's definitely a highlight of my year so far. It was made even more so as I was allowed to pick my own plums because the hard working team hadn't quite got round to picking the plums to sell in their shop. It was a proper food adventure for me and my family to pick the plums from the old trees!
As a result of the haul at Pillars, I didn't really need anything else and could have gone home happy at that point. But we decided to use the opportunity of being in Fife for a quick visit to Bellfield Organics, to see their poly-tunnels full of interesting veg. Finally we headed across to Cairnie Fruit Farm where, to be honest, we were mostly going so the kids could have a good time in the Mega Maze but I also grabbed some strawberries.
When we got back I prepared a really tasty salad with leaves, tomatoes and cucumber (all organic) and dressed it with a Scottish salad dressing (a whisky cider reduction mixed with herbs and oil) and served it with chard-stuffed mushrooms and a Scotch lamb leg steak. The salad was finally the star of the dish…
I also thinly sliced some of the organic potatoes that Bellfield delivered last week and rubbed them with oil, salt and herbs and baked them for 20 minutes. I was really pleasantly surprised how they came out - like thin chips!
So, despite the hurdle of eating out, the trip was entirely worthwhile and reinvigorated me for the next half of the challenge.
As always, thanks for your interest. I look forward to writing up my third and penultimate week.
Supplier of the week - Thistly Cross Cider
I know, I know, how could Pillars of Hercules not be supplier of the week? Well the reason is that they would be supplier of the week every week. They can’t be beaten. And also, the product I want to highlight is important because it has unlocked something I haven’t been able to make since the challenge began – salad dressing.
Without vinegar (I know you can make it at home, but it requires a starter culture which I don’t have) or lemon it is very hard to make a decent salad dressing. I discovered, purely by chance, that reducing Thistly Cross Whisky Cask Cider in a pan to a syrup and then mixing in mint, salt and oil makes a tangy, sweet, salty dressing which words really well for coleslaw, salads etc. It’s also a lovely cider to drink, so don’t use too much for your reduction, you only need an eggcup full…