by Kerry Dexter
When you hear Scotland and food mentioned together, what comes to mind? Porridge made with oats, perhaps, whisky fudge, shortbread, that mysterious dish called haggis? Certainly you’ll find all of those things readily available for you to taste while in Scotland. I’ve suggestions for four different things well worth your time to try, though.
Though I’m not going to suggest you eat haggis — that’s up to your own sense of adventure — understanding just a bit about this iconic Scottish dish will help you appreciate my first recommendation. To be quick about it, haggis is a dish made of the leftover bits of a sheep mixed up with oats and onions and cooked. As you might suspect from those ingredients, through history it was a dish common to those who hadn’t a lot of money to spend on food but yet needed something hearty and warming. For that reason, rather than for its gustatory excellence, back in the eighteenth century Robert Burns, the ploughman poet whose poems have lived on through the centuries, chose haggis as a metaphor for the rough and ready and resilient character ot Scotland’s people. Follow this link to read more about haggis and Robert Burns, should you care to explore.
It’s easy to find haggis if you’d like to try it, and there are vegetarian versions available, with lentils and other beans standing in for meat. Many Scots do not eat it all, though, or only have it around the celebration of Burns Night at the end of January, so no need to have it if it does not appeal.
What I would suggest you try, though, are haggis flavored crisps (known to many travelers as potato chips). For one thing, they are quite tasty, and for another, doesn’t the very idea of haggis flavored crisps make you smile? You may also try this adventure inexpensively — a small bag of crisps usually goes for around fifty pence or less.
You’d be doing a favor to the economy and sustainable agriculture of Scotland, too. The company which makes these, Mackie’s, takes pride in using Scotland sourced potatoes from growers they know, and using other locally and regionally sourced ingredients, too. Until recently, you really had to be in Scotland to taste Mackie’s crisps, but they are getting into international distribution a bit these days as well. What do haggis flavored crisps taste like? Imagine the taste of North American barbecue flavored crisps or potato chips, then replace the tomato taste with a beef flavor with a slightly smokey edge. Not quite there, but that gives you a bit of an idea. Side note: Mackie’s makes a number of other flavors of crisps, as well.
Another thing you’ll want to eat in Scotland are strawberries, or something made from them. As it sits far up in northern Europe, the berry growing season in Scotland is short. By all means have fresh berries if you’re there when they are on offer in the market. Fortunately, the Scots have learned how to take that intense taste of their berries into jams and preserves, which are available year round. You may buy them on export, as well, although perusing the grocer’s shelves while you’re in Scotland will give you a wider range of choices and prices.
Water, from loch to river to sea, is an integral part of the geography of Scotland. In the course of their lives, Scottish salmon traverse each of these, being born in freshwater lochs, heading down rivers to the sea, living much of their lives there, and then returning to the lochs to spawn. Scottish salmon have a distinct clean taste well worth trying. It’s fine to have a sit down meal of it in a bistro, a pub (where you might find salmon in the form of fish cakes), or at an upscale restaurant, but there’s a way to have a taste that’s quite bit more inexpensive: check out the fish or prepared food section of the grocers (upscale Marks & Spencer is especially good for this but other grocers work well too) for salmon flakes. These are packets of salmon chunks, often smoked (look for hot smoked — those are cooked, cold smoked are not), which are quite tasty on their own or perhaps in a roll from the bakery as a do it yourself sandwich. You may also find salmon over greens in the prepared salads section, another way to taste this Scottish fish.
Oats grow well in Scotland’s climate, so they turn up in all sorts of ways. One of the things Scots do with them is make the crackers known as oatcakes. They are light and crisp, come plain, with a taste of cheese flavor, flavored with herbs, and in different sizes and textures. Orkney Oatcakes and Nairn Oatcakes are the brands I like best, but there are others, so have fun trying several. In addition to eating them out of hand as is, oatcakes are fine topped with cheese, or with that strawberry jam, or some chunks of salmon — or if you are feeling especially adventurous, perhaps all three together!
Kerry Dexter is one of five writers who contribute to Perceptive Travel’s blog. You’ll most often find her writing about travels in Europe and North America in stories that connect to music, history, and the arts, including such things as meeting the Lewis Chessmen and the music of Scotland.
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