Monday, September 8, 2008

Edinburgh, Scotland

I am speechless. I must have started this writing over ten times. I was searching for some witty introduction to the spectacular and wonderful adventure I am in the middle of but I cannot find the words to describe the breathtaking, awe inspiring vision that is Edinburgh Scotland. I haven’t alluded to the trip that has been fast approaching nor was I thinking much of it other than another work related trip. My plan was to fly into Manchester, England then drive a couple of hours to a rather inauspicious town called Scunthorpe for a business related trip. Scunthorpe sits in an industrial area of central England and if you’ve never heard of it, there’s a good reason. Its one of those towns that exists out of necessity. The steel industry feeds the working class economy and the opportunity for growth and advancement are somewhat limited here. Yet there is a cross section of wonderful people that I’ve met that support this necessary town and my first week was rather uneventful.

If the week was unremarkable, the weekend was as adventurous as any I have ever been on. After work on Friday, I headed to the train station in Doncaster and jumped a rail north. It rained miserably the entire way making it easy to understand why the countryside was lush and green. Every hill is dotted with sheep and cattle. Skirting the coast, the North Sea waves crash against the rocky coastline and gigantic smooth stone islands arise from the ocean floor with a terrific majesty. I stared out the window simply amazed at how beautiful it was. 3 hours after boarding, I emerged at Waverly station in the Scottish capitol. Immediately upon leaving the train station, Edinburgh Castle is in full view perched atop Castle rock, an extinct volcano in the city center. It is clear why this site was chosen over a thousand years ago. It is the highest point in the city and has a 360 degree view of Edinburgh. About 180 degrees or so are sheer stone cliffs rising hundreds of feet making it much less vulnerable to attack (although the history of the castle includes several successful sieges). This is the oldest structure on Earth that I have personally witnessed and the immediate feeling of being thrust into history is overwhelming. I’m sure this feeling goes away if you stay in town long enough but after two days, it never left me.

My plan was to meet up with an old high school friend who now resides in Edinburgh. A short time later, I was ringing the bell at her flat. Apart from seeing her and catching up, she knew there was something on my agenda that was quite high on the list. She was more than happy to oblige. Across the street from her place, there is deli with a lovely restaurant downstairs. The décor is as I expect in a modern European restaurant: wave shapen high backed booths covered in bright red fabric with stainless steel tabletops. But my reason for being here sits on the menu in front of me. I found Haggis.

Haggis in an elegant presentation

You can buy Haggis in the deli and cook it at home...YUM!!!

Haggis is a Scottish dish born of necessity and available ingredients. Now before you rush to judgment, as I would too, let me begin by saying much effort went into making this product palatable in the early days. People of less fortune needed protein too but simply could not afford the more desirable cuts of meat. This has since evolved into a culinary masterpiece and truly enjoyed by most Scots I spoke to. OK, let’s just get this part out of the way. Haggis is ground up organ meat (can be from any animal really but traditionally sheep) that is generally stuffed into a sheep’s stomach with oats, onions, spices, suet (animal fat) and boiled for about 3 hours. I agree with you, just typing that made me a bit nauseated. It sounds gross. But folks, if that stops you from trying Haggis then so be it, but you are missing a treat of epic proportion. There is nothing gamey or unappealing about the texture, aroma or taste of Haggis. In fact, if I had to liken this to something else, I would say a spicy breakfast sausage has a somewhat similar flavor and even texture. My only disappointment with the whole meal was that I was hoping for a more traditional presentation. I have seen where the Haggis is brought to the table still in the stomach casing about the size of a small melon. There it is cut open revealing a dark and mealy contents that somewhat resembles cheap taco meat. In this instance, the presentation reminds me of a Sheppard’s Pie. The portion of Haggis is topped with mashed potatoes and a rich white gravy. The entire meal is hearty and, in fact, the term “hearty” would sum up most Scottish cooking. After a plate of this, I’m ready to put the kilt on and run into the street with my sword and swear allegiance to the now extinct Jacobites. Either that or go get some sleep. It’s been a long day.

The next morning a good Scot’s breakfast was in order. Meeting my friend Kristi and her husband Matt at their flat, we headed to a neighborhood favorite of theirs. While Kristi ordered a beautiful looking Salmon and scrambled eggs, Matt and I had the traditional breakfast. This consists of one sunny side up egg, bacon (which is really a piece of ham but still quite delicious), sausage, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato wedge, baked beans, toast, a potato waffle and black pudding. The potato waffle was this 1st bit of unique gastronomy on the plate. I’m not sure if it begins as a batter or some type of pressed product but it is shaped as a waffle and tastes much like a hash brown. As with most things fried there are only good things to say. The inside has a moist and willow like texture while the brown crispy outside has a deep flavor. Quite delicious.

I saved the most unique part of breakfast for last. Black pudding does not look, feel or taste anything like any pudding you’ve ever tasted. It comes in a patty form but is darker; black in fact. Texture wise, it is a bit dry but this was combated by eating the sunny side up egg with it. The richness of the yolk blended exquisitely. Flavor is rather easy to describe. It tasted a bit like Haggis making me think a similar oat and spice combination goes into the mix. What ingredient makes black pudding black, you ask? Blood. I ate it, I liked it and I’d eat it again.

Hearty Scottish breakfast

Black pudding and potato waffle

There, I said it. Ultimately, admitting British food tastes good is almost like being “outted”. There is no question the foodie community shuns the food of the UK. Mostly for reasonable reasons. Often things are boiled to oblivion and the few great things are traditionally battered and fried requiring a constant dose of Lipitor to prevent instant blood pooling in the heart. The “mushy peas” served with many English meals is reminiscent of a green colored elementary school glue that might hold the cut out construction paper eyes to the paper plate face. But Scottish food is different than its lower UK cousin and dining in Edinburgh proved a tremendous experience.

The rest of Saturday was spent being a true tourist. Kris and I went to the castle and then down the “Royal Mile” to Holyrood House. Holyrood is the royal residence that is currently in use when the royals are visiting Edinburgh. The attention to royalty that the folks of Britain and Scotland pay is difficult to grasp for us Americans. The idea that fame is a birth right that transcends generations is just beyond us. Our attention span doesn’t allow for that. Even the most famous Americans are lucky to pass even one generation of fame to their heirs (Kennedy’s for example). We just can’t keep up with all of the goings on but those Brits are damned good at it and have been for centuries.

In front of Edinburgh Castle

Well, I’m now on a train out of Scotland. If I stay on, I end up in London in about two hours but my stop at Doncaster is 45 minutes or so away. The sky is finally turning a mix of clouds and sun. In the 8 days I’ve been in the UK, I saw sunlight for a few hours the other day but otherwise it has been overcast and rainy. Perhaps we’re in for a break.

This has truly been as exciting as any journey I have embarked on and I can’t believe I have another week and a half in the UK. I will keep you posted on any new adventures and I will hope your open mind allows you to enjoy the thought of these meals.


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