In retrospect, I probably should have done this one way back in January around Burn's Night when the restaurants of Manchester were actually doing Scottish food on purpose. But my annual trip to the Highlands is coming up soon and it had me all excited, so here we are.
It isn’t that Scottish food has a bad reputation as such; it is more that it doesn’t have any reputation at all – unless you have close family or friends who live here. Most of the time, people cannot get past Haggis, shortbread and deep fried Mars bars, but there is SO much more to the cuisine of this beautiful country.
Granted, it is heavy on the meat, stews, broths and carbs – but the thing is – it has to be. The winters in Scotland are like the Ninth Circle of Hell- with sub-zero temperatures, snow, icy winds and days that can last but a few hours. Therefore, you need to keep your calories up with food and your spirits up with whisky – that’s the Scottish way.
We all know that the most important meal of the day would be breakfast, especially when you live in Scotland because you only have six hours of sunlight in the winter, and therefore less time to get shit done.
The Scots are made of stronger stuff, and most of that is with thanks to porridge. I’m sure you know the basics of porridge, but in case you don’t, it is a cereal dish which is made from boiling oats in water or milk. The result is a soupy concoction which will have you raring to go all day from its slow release of energy and will keep you off the cusp of hunger while you go about your business.
On its own, it is a bit tasteless, but can be pimped up with ease. The True Scot, who for the purposes of this explanation I would like you to imagine Angus- red-headed and muscular with a penchant for the free-feeling he receives from of a gust of wind up his kilt- would always take his with a crack of sea salt.
That is nice and all, but I always prefer mine on the sweeter side and if you agree I would have to point you in the direction of Ezra & Gil. Theirs is made with real organic oats and topped with blueberries, Greek yoghurt and pumpkin seeds. In short, it is a creamy, dreamy bowl of deliciousness that will keep you going all day.
Your other option at breakfast time would be a Full Scottish Breakfast. This traditionally consists of all the accoutrements you would predict with a Full English (bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms etc.), but with the addition of Tatty Cakes (potato pancakes), Lorne Square Sausage, Haggis and Black Pudding. It is a carby, meaty, heart attack waiting to happen, but it is so damn good.
You can get one of these at The Koffee Pot which is mega, but I only have one problem with the fact that they use Bury Black Pudding. I understand that it is local and one of Manchester’s most significant exports, but it isn’t Scottish, and when you choose to use it in place of the best black pudding in the world (Stornoway, hands down) it is safe to say I am more than a little miffed. Rant Over.
The clue is in the name with the humble Scotch Egg. Although Fortnum and Masons claim to have invented it back in 1738, any Scot will tell you otherwise and argue the case that it is, in fact, a Scottish peasant dish made from leftover meat and bread. They were easy to transport and therefore made the perfect thing to take along to work with lots of protein to keep you going.
I actually wrote an article about the best Scotch Eggs in Manchester a few months ago, but If I had to pick one (and it wasn’t an easy choice at all), I would go for the one from the small plates menu at The Bay Horse Tavern. It is traditional in the sense that there are no bells and whistles and extra bits – just a soft boiled egg and high-quality sausage meat which breaded and deep fried. It is precisely what it needs to be and a decent size – none of this quail’s egg bollocks at The Bay Horse Tavern.
Scots are also big into their soups because they are quick, cheap and heart-warming. Scotch Broth is the purest form, but the one I like the most would be Cullen Skink. This is a thick creamy soup (similar to a chowder) with smoked haddock, potatoes, onions and single cream which comes from the seaside town of Cullen in the North-East of Scotland.
I couldn’t find anywhere in Manchester that did this specifically (outside of Burns Night menus, of course), but the Bacon and Smoked Haddock Chowder from Albert’s Chop House is in the same ballpark.
It is safe to say that Scotland is pretty famous for its fish. Whether it is the trout from the many Lochs, salmon from the winding rivers or shellfish from the rocky shores – Scottish fish is considered some of the best in the world.
Salmon is something very close to my heart- and I am fully aware of how strange that sounds. It isn’t the slippery buggers themselves that I’m into per say (that would be weird), but rather the process of fishing for them in the wild.
Even though I have never taken to it myself, I come from a family of avid fly-fishers, and I have practically grown up on the banks of the River Spey, and I am well versed in everything you need ever know about Scottish salmon. Lame? Obviously, but it wasn’t exactly my choice. Subsequently, I have eaten a lot of wild salmon from this area, and I can say with confidence that the best way to eat salmon is to smoke it.
I could go on and on about what restaurants do great smoked salmon dishes- but I thought I would cut out the middleman and point you in the direction of The Manchester Smoke House. They take Scottish salmon, cure and smoke in oak right here in Manchester and the product is delicious. They provide many restaurants here with salmon, and you can buy it from them direct- well worth an order if you ask me. It just needs a squeeze of fresh lemon and a crack of black pepper- do not overcomplicate things, just let the fish speak for itself.
Come dinner time, Scots will be sniffing around for some meat and Scotland can boast some of the best game-meat in the world. Most notable would be Venison. The highlands of Scotland are absolutely teaming with wild deer (both Red and Roe varieties) and not only are they beautiful to watch galloping across the glen on a balmy summer evening, but they are also pretty darn tasty.
Venison is dark meat which is rich in flavour, low in fat and teeming with minerals like iron. The taste of game is a difficult one to describe- it has a strong, robust flavour to it that you just do not get from farm animals that can only indeed be described as ‘wild’.
You do not see heaps of venison around, but when I do, I go mad for it because it is probably my favourite meat by a long shot. I think the best way to eat venison would be to sear it and eat it rare with flavours of the forest – it goes well with berries, juniper, mushrooms and nuts (maybe this helps explain the ‘wild’ taste?)
Albatross & Arnold has a stunning venison dish on their small plates menu- served with blackberries, parsnip puree and a red wine jus. I think about it daily.
Aberdeen Angus is a word you have probably seen time and time again without really knowing its provenance. They are a breed of cattle that hail from Aberdeenshire (surprise surprise) which are large, black in coat and with a long, flat back which is signature to the breed. They are very hardy cattle and are built to survive the long, harsh Scottish winters without batting an eyelid or flapping a tail.
They are the most famous native breed of cattle, and their meat is delicious. Angus beef is typically hung for extended periods of time than regular cattle, which makes it incredibly tender and with a slight taste of game from its 30+ days of maturing.
Angus beef is everywhere if you look for it, but if you want the full experience, head on over to Alston Bar & Beef– all their steak comes from Aberdeen Angus Cattle which is sourced from the Gilmore family in The Tweed Valley on the Scottish borders. If you have some cash to splash, I’d recommend the 600g Chateaubriand for two to share- honestly, it cuts like butter and is a borderline religious experience to eat.
Trying to find Scottish sweet treats here in Manchester is a nightmare. I wanted to talk about Cranachan (raspberries, whiskey cream, toasted oats), Clootie Dumpling ( light as a feather fruit steamed pudding) and Tablet ( just like fudge only crumblier) – but all is redundant if I can’t tell you where to try it here in Manchester.
My solution? Either hang on in there until Burns night on 25th January or consider yourselves all cordially invited round to my mums for a Scottish pudding extravaganza sometime soon.
But after we have had something sweet, all Scots will be crying out for a drink to finish things off. The holy trinity of Scottish beverages would be Irn Bru, Buckfast and Whisky. I will let you in on a secret and tell you that I can only stand to drink one out of three of those without vomiting – you do the maths.
Irn Bru, if you do not know already, is made from girders- so if you are anaemic or a little waif of a man it might be the right drink for you. Irn Bru legitimately tastes better in Scotland, but here in Manchester, I would suggest the Pumping Irn cocktail from Junkyard Golf which mixes the bright orange liquid of the gods with Beefeater Gin, Martini Rosso and Campari to make a drink that will probably keep you up all night.
If that fails, a beautiful Scotch Whisky might be what the doctor ordered. The Whiskey Jar has an impressive collection of whiskies from Scotland, including the world famous Glenlivet and Glenmorangie. However, if you are big into your whisky and fancy blending your own personal Scotch, you can still catch the Chivas Blend Sessions at The Loft just off Deansgate which run until June this year.