It was midnight at Euston Station. The rain was pouring outside, slicking its way down the carriage windows of the Caledonian Sleeper train. I opened my compartment door, wheeling a hastily packed suitcase behind me – and then I dropped the handle, surprised by the cardboard hamper sitting smugly in the middle of my little bed.
Inside was a midnight feast of epic proportions: a salted caramel teacake, a cocktail in a glass jar, chutneys and pickles, and even a wild venison pie.
Now, it’s not every day that a train ride offers up such deliciousness – but then again, I wasn’t exactly heading off on the most typical of journeys.
To be fair, I should have known what I was in for when a box of marshmallows appeared through my letterbox a few days earlier. On every foamy little square was a colourful Instagram image: the red bricked facade of a Victorian building; a man gleefully riding a jet ski; the hazy blue waters and green hills of a Scottish loch from overhead.
All these activities and locations were part of my itinerary for a weekend spent in Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland – and the fact that they were all edible (at least for now) was a big hint for the overall theme of the trip ahead.
Spending a food-filled weekend in Glasgow
I always make a concerned effort to eat local food when I travel. This is usually a great idea (although occasionally an awful one – like eating tripe from a street stall in the Colombian barrios…), because I’ve found myself learning a great deal about a country through its cuisine; whether it’s chatting to locals about their favourite dishes, asking about where ingredients come from, learning why particular foods are so popular, or simply spending hours getting lost in local markets.
But I’ve never visited a country solely on the premise of its food – and that’s where my weekend jaunt to Glasgow differed. 2015 has been deemed The Year of Food and Drink in Scotland by the Scottish government, so Visit Scotland invited me and a group of lovely ladies to learn just why Scottish gastronomy is so unique.
Now, when someone mentions Scottish cuisine, I immediately think of slices of meaty black pudding, fresh shortbread glistening with sugar, or spiced haggis with a side of neeps and tatties (and let’s face it – I almost always think of whisky). But throughout our weekend in Glasgow, the predominant Scottish fare on offer was seafood.
I’ve always been a seafood fan. From visiting Japan at eight years old and eagerly eating all the sushi I could find to spending my family holidays devouring countless plates of calamari on the Turkish coast, I’ve loved eating fish of every kind.
Well, every kind except one.
A love of seafood, a hatred of oysters
Ah, oysters. These slimy, slippery, sea-salted creatures have remained my one nemesis of the seafood world, despite my best efforts. I made my first attempt to enjoy them at San Francisco’s Pier 39 at my dad’s suggestion, eyes scrunched tight at the unwelcome sensation of swallowing a mouthful of lumpy, gritty seawater.
Although my dad happily tipped shell after shell into his mouth, I was immediately overwhelmed – and I’ve had no more success on the few occasions that I’ve tried them since.
But when you’re in Scotland, being presented with the freshest and apparently the tastiest of oysters, there’s no refusing. Anyway, I’m older now. Surely this time would be different?
I wandered around the Loch Fyne Food Fair on a sunny Sunday morning, watching gloved fingers deftly shucking the glistening grey crustaceans. People piled their paper plates high with discarded shells, swallowing with evident enjoyment.
Yet sadly enough, the few raw oysters I tipped back simply didn’t do it for me. The taste was too foreign, too strong, and I couldn’t handle swallowing them whole.
Although it was much easier to indulge in the crispy oven-fried ones..!
Happily, there were plenty of other fish on offer, too: wooden boards shining with oak smoked salmon, sweet little capers and twists of lemon; whole trouts on serving platters; lobster claws and crabs legs draped over each other.
And we were lucky enough to dine in some truly ridiculous locations. Treehouse beside a Scottish loch, anyone?
This tree house, which sits in front of the Lodge on Loch Goil, quickly became my newest obsession. There’s just enough room for three arched windows, a small balcony, one long oak table and a wood burning stove. The whole structure moves slightly as the branches sway in the wind; from inside, you can look out at the rolling green hills shrouded in mist, or straight down onto the waters of the loch and imagine what could be hiding beneath the surface.
Or you can just sit back with a glass of wine, a plate piled high with fresh mussels, clams and lobster, and listen to the rain patter onto the wooden roof overhead.
Centuries of Scottish cuisine
Sitting somewhere like this made it easy to wonder how long all these foodstuffs had been popular in Scotland. How many generations of families had spent their time fishing on the country’s rugged coastline, building and working in smokehouses, and patiently stuffing salt, meat, oatmeal and spices into sheep stomachs for haggis.
Deep in the bowels of Culzean Castle, a clifftop castle overlooking the Irish Sea, is a Georgian kitchen which dates back to 1797. Standing in this space feels like you’ve been transported back a few hundred years: the rows of copper pans lining the walls; a huge fireplace kept continually stoked; joints of meat turning on metal spits; and a long wooden table running the length of the room, which would have been covered with food in various stages of preparation from morning till night.
Despite preserving such food-related places though, the people of Scotland also seem to be constantly experimenting with new, modern takes on food.
Over the weekend, we were lucky enough to experience various culinary masterminds flexing their kitchen muscles and whipping up extraordinary creations – in rather interesting settings, too.
Taking a ‘Dishcrawl’ through Glasgow
The concept of a ‘Dishcrawl’ was unknown to me until we arrived in Glasgow’s trendy West End on Saturday evening, air fresh and clean from the afternoon’s latest downpour. The plan was to visit three different restaurants and eat a dish in each; one for a starter, a main course and a dessert.
Plus a healthy amount of drinks, of course.
We bundled ourselves up the narrow staircase and into the second floor of the Hanoi Bike Shop, a Vietnamese restaurant filled with crooked tables, colourful paper lanterns hanging from the rafters and an undercurrent of happy voices from the diners already seated on plastic stools.
As the daylight began to fade outside, our servers placed endless dishes across the three tables we’d jammed together for our group; dishes of Vietnamese spring rolls and lemongrass tofu, sesame crusted chicken and chargrilled pork, and accompanied by a deliciously fiery Chilli Gin cocktail, thin slivers of red chili pepper floating amongst the ice cubes.
Next stop was the Ubiquitous Chip, a legendary Glaswegian restaurant serving seasonal Scottish fare since the 1970s.
Our menus lay waiting on each place setting, rolled into a scroll and tied with a tartan bow. Here, we dined on artfully presented plates of guineafowl, duck confit and minted peas under the fairy-lit trees snaking up into the conservatory.
Finally, we pulled ourselves through the misting rain to the basement space of Stravaigin, a place of wanderers, for a dessert of meringue, vanilla panna cotta & shortbread.
The Dishcrawl concept was both a delicious and extremely sensible idea, particularly if you’re eager to try a number of different restaurants in one place and don’t have much time. Yet I found that the most memorable moments of my weekend in Glasgow tended to be my interactions with people.
The passion behind food production in Scotland
Wandering through the Loch Fyne Food Fair, I couldn’t help getting into deep conversations with the stallholders about Scottish sweets and lavosh cracker bread, smoked halibut, cheese flavoured with whisky, oat cakes of different flavours, and venison chorizo.
Everything on offer was innately Scottish but with a modern twist – and every person I spoke to was clearly passionate about the food they produced.
Whether it was hand-reared trout or grass-fed deer, filled breads baked at 3am that morning and loaded into the back of the baker’s van or the Scotch Egg sign which the seller’s wife had painted the day before and given strict instructions to not let it get rained on. “Otherwise I’ll be in big trouble!” he said, offering us a platter of samples.
And then there were the three members of the Barrow Band, performing at the front of the marquee complete with their own kind of market stall which included a banana catapault and a row of singing kiwi fruits. I was overjoyed after listening to just a few of their songs (amongst such titles as Onions, Asparagus and Peaches, my favourite was undoubtedly Broccoli) and couldn’t help singing along – it was just too catchy!
The band are focused on promoting healthy eating and fresh fruit & veg consumption, particularly for children. The Barrow Band’s founder, Malcolm, even told me that the parents of children he’s performed to sing the songs in the supermarket aisles and ‘convince’ their parents to buy their favourite vegetables.
By the time we left Glasgow on Sunday afternoon, I felt like I’d got a real glimpse into Scotland’s culinary landscape. What is so wonderful about the country’s attitude to food isn’t just the food itself – it’s the people who grow, harvest, prepare and present it.
And it’s pretty great when you’re accompanied by a group of people who are just as happy to sample every single bite of it, too.
Have you ever been to Scotland? What food did you eat? And most importantly, where do you stand on oyster eating?!
NB: I travelled to Glasgow with Visit Scotland, but all the eating, drinking and vegetable-singing was most definitely my own choice.