(This post was originally published in August 2019, and has been reposted now due to technical issues).
I like to think of myself of being moderately (gastronomically) well-travelled. I’ve sipped bubbles in the reflected gleam of Sydney Opera House, sampled the culinary delights that New York, San Francisco, and even Las Vegas have to offer – check out Hot and Juicy Crawfish, it’s splendid. And I’ve had some fantastic meals across much of southern and western Europe.
However, there’s a gap in terms of pins on the dining-related world map of places JML and I have visited. For, until recently, I was someone in their 50s who has never visited Scandinavia. A shameful omission, I know. Yet thanks to a surprise birthday trip I am Scandi-deficient no more, as this July  JML and I spent a wonderful, wonderful (sorry) long weekend in Copenhagen.
Not having visited the Danish capital before, I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of the quality and range of food and drink that would be on offer. Well of course it is THE place that started the Nordic food revolution thanks to the establishment of “the world’s greatest restaurant” there, in the form of Noma, and the subsequent inventive fine dining eateries it has inspired. However, irrespective of it being a birthday visit we couldn’t secure a place / afford to dine there – we did inadvertently walk past it mind, resulting in my going a bit weak kneed.
I’m happy to report however that Copenhagen has a captivating culinary scene, with a few components I wasn’t expecting. For anyone else planning a visit here’s what we discovered and enjoyed about eating and drinking in Denmark’s capital.
Delicious Vintage Vibes Cosy Cupcakes, raising funds for a good cause.
Late autumn is always a busy time of the year for food and drink-related activity, as we zip towards the festive season, and there’s been a lot going on in Edinburgh of late. So here’s a wee monthly update of what’s new and what’s happening that might be of interest to foodies in and around Scotland’s capital.
Edinburgh Craft Beer Revolution Festival returns
There is no denying that there has been a revolution – see what I did there?! – or some might even say an explosion in craft beer production and consumption in the UK over the past decade. Reversing years of brewery consolidation, in 2016 alone some 300 new breweries opened, taking the total to over 2000.
Personally speaking, I think this is thing of wonder. So if, like me, you are a lover of craft beer too you will certainly be delighted to hear that Edinburgh’s celebration of artisan ales that is the Craft Beer Revolution festival is returning for another year. Taking over the Assembly Roxy from 23 to 25 November, the festival features 60 beers on tap originating not only from Scotland – such as the lovely ales produced by the likes of Alchemy, Pilot, and Fierce Beer – but brews from Wales, Ireland and across Europe, such as the terrific, Berlin-based Stone Brewing.
For those not keen on beer – I mean, really! – there is also a range of ciders, wines and cocktails to sample, as well as scrumptious selection of street food to ensure the stomachs of those supping are thoroughly lined. What’s not to like, frankly?
Loco Diablo’s new arrival and changing menus at La Favorita
Sometimes the changing seasons are mirrored by a revision in the culinary landscape. This is certainly true of Edinburgh at present. As the weather turns chilly, chilli also arrives on the menu in the capital’s Southside. For what used to be the real ale combined with BBQ – though not in the same glass, obviously – joint that was Clerk’s Bar has metamorphosed into a tequileria that is now Diablo Loco.
Mexican food and drink seems to be very much in vogue at the moment, and according to the publicity it would seem that Diablo Loco doesn’t disappoint in this respect, boasting a myriad of tequilas and mezcals. These assumingly get incorporated into the intriguing selection of Margaritas on offer, ranging from those flavoured with smoked paprika to ones featuring pineapple and cardamom, which sounds delicious. A concise menu of traditional classic Mexican dishes and street food is also on offer, to ensure all that tequila doesn’t result in punters becoming too ‘loco’. I hope to visit soon!
All too often Friday nights in Scrumptious Scran Villas follow a familiar script. Me: “I know I said I would cook tonight, but it’s been a frenetic week at work, and all the ingredients will keep until tomorrow night.” JML: “You want a La Favorita, don’t you?” Me: “Am I that transparent?” JML: “Yes… do you want your usual?”
Except, things have become a bit ‘unusual’ when it comes to our favourite purveyors of Italian scran – whether takeaway or dining at La Favortia’s smashing sit in restaurant on Leith Walk. So I was gutted to have recently been invited to the launch of the restaurant’s new menu, only to be unable to attend as a result of work commitments. La Favorita’s new offering focuses on ‘the best pizza in Scotland’ as well as including a new range of pasta and vegan dishes. Fear not if you want to learn more however, as even if I wasn’t able to try the new menu in person, top notch Scottish food bloggers Boys Eat Scotland were, and you can read their excellent assessment of the new menu here.
Cupcakes supporting a festive Vintage Vibe
The festive season is nearly upon us once again. Yet did you know at this time of supposed coming together Edinburgh is the loneliest city in the UK for people over 60, with 11,000 being always alone and two in five only having their TV for company this Christmas period?
Vintage Vibes is a city-wide Edinburgh project that sets out to tackle such loneliness amongst senior members of our society by inviting folk to reconnect VIPs (lonely over 60s) who are isolated with their communities by sending them Vintage Vibes Christmas cards. This smashing initiative is being supported by Cuckoo’s Bakery not only through stocking said cards in their Dundas Street and Bruntsfield Place branches, but through also producing a dedicated ‘Vintage Vibes Cosy Cupcake’, which will directly raise funds for the charity. Scoff a cupcake, send a card, help re-connect our communities. Food, friendship, festivities. It’s good to share!
Lobster ice cream and roasted cockroach, anyone? (edfoodfest).
The sound of torrential rain clattering off the roofs of Edinburgh in late July can only mean one thing. Yes, it must nearly be Edinburgh’s festival season again… Yet seriously, I hope we have a modicum of good weather during late July and August, because as well as the world’s greatest arts extravaganza making camp in Scotland’s capital there are also some very alluring food and drink-focused activities and events taking place during the festival period…
Culinary debates and celebrations at Edinburgh Food Festival (Assembly, George Square)
Located at the famed Edinburgh Fringe hub that is George Square, Assembly’s acclaimed (and free to enter) Edinburgh Food Festival makes a welcome return for a third year. Unlike some other food festivals, this initiative isn’t just about tasting tempting morsels and drams, although there are plenty of those to be had too. It also features a range of engaging and thought provoking events that encourage visitors to devote some consideration to what they are consuming, and why/how they are doing this. Highlights from amongst the varied programme include:
Eating insects: buzzy, buggy or grubby? – Entomophagy – that’s the human use of insects as a food source, to you and me – has become very much in focus in recent years, as this animal group has been hailed as a cheap and readily available source of protein. Millions of people across the globe regularly eat insects, but they barely make an appearance in western diets. So can they really be the food of the future, or are they just too terrifying to be tasty? (Saturday the 29th of July in the Piccolo tent).
Hipsters and Hobos: Urban Foraging – Certain high end eateries such as Denmark’s – temporarily defunct – Noma, together with TV cooks such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have shone a spotlight on how gathering ingredients from the wild – as opposed to the aisles – can result in some superb dishes. Yet you don’t necessarily need to the trek to the countryside to forage interesting and nutritious additions to your cooking, as this event demonstrates. (Saturday 29 July).
Jannettas Gelateria – Back in the day ice cream was, well, a little bit predictable. Sure, it’s nice to nibble on a rum and raisin cone, or spoon up a tub of raspberry ripple. But maybe you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted parmesan and Vegemite gelato, as I find out on a recent trip to Australia. So if you favour savoury over sweet why not join these leading ice cream makers as they demonstrate how umami-laden ingredients are pushing the boundaries of frozen foodstuffs. (Thursday 27 July).
The Great Gin Debate: Part II – Over the last few years artisanal Scottish gin distilleries seem to have sprung up like thistles on a sunny brae. However, are these iconic new Scottish gin brands all they appear, and indeed are some of them even really “Scottish” at all? Find out as gin experts, brand owners, and distillers debate what makes our gin truly Caledonian (Friday 28 July).
And if all that chatter about food and drink makes you hungry and thirsty the festival offers a super array of stalls, serving the likes of “raw soda” on draft, (as well as prosecco for the more mature consumers), spicy Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, and the best of Scottish seafood, to identify but a very few.
Checking out Checkpoint’s new cocktails (Bristo Place)
Draft prosecco on wheels – what’s not to like?!
Here at Scrumptious Scran Villas we love a nice cocktail – innocent or alcoholic. Well, mostly alcoholic, to be quite frank. So I was naturally intrigued to receive an email informing me that Checkpoint was putting together a special cocktail menu to mark this year’s festival happenings. Situated an ice cube’s throw from the Fringe nexus that is Bristo Square, this airy and laid back, yet trendy, restaurant and bar – think Berlin via Brooklyn – has a really nice vibe to it, which might explain why The Times has named it one of the ’25 coolest restaurants in Britain’.
Whilst still featuring classics such as an Espresso Martini and Negroni (one of my personal favourites) their new menu also celebrates festival time with a batch of specially created offerings designed to provide something a bit surprising and unique in terms of flavour profile. Notable amongst the 18 drinks featured on the list are:
Smoke In The Grass – Zubrowka Bison grass vodka, smoked chai syrup, yellow chartreuse, Peychaud’s bitters, lemon juice, soda
Red Eye – Absolut Vodka, tomato juice, beer and a whole egg
Grow A Pear – Tequila Blanco, pear & black pepper syrup & lemon
And if the ‘Red Eye’ sounds a bit too much like a hangover kill rather than cure, as part of their ‘day break’ menu Checkpoint also offers three inviting variations on the classic Bloody Mary, based on either vodka, gin or mescal. When hanging at the bar do say “Heavy on the smoked chai syrup in my Smoke In The Grass, thanks”. Do not say “Hey, I’d love a Babycham”…
Toasted Radish – “‘Come, Watson, come!’ he cried. ‘The game is afoot….'”
Festival time in Edinburgh is not merely about drama, music and comedy, oh no. As part of the season’s multifaceted artistic offering the city also host’s the world’s largest literary event in the form of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Perhaps somewhat fitting then that Toasted Radish supper club is paying homage to one of Scotland’s literary legends that is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a Sherlock Holmes-inspired event taking place in Edinburgh New Town’s historic Arthur Conan Doyle Centre.
Hosted in such a grandiose setting, it isn’t only the architecture that seems set to impress, as the evening’s food is being billed as being “worthy of a crime fiction heavyweight”. And given Toasted Radish’s ethos of using, wherever possible, ingredients sourced within thirty miles of Edinburgh, as well as ensuring meat and vegetables are organic and fish responsibly sourced, all clues suggest this has the potential makings of a highly enjoyable culinary thriller. (Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, 12 August 2017).
If you have any other foodie or drinkie (is there even such a term?) highlights associated with the Edinburgh festival season let us know and we may let our readers know about them too.
When writing about food I don’t tend to be overtly political, unless there is something directly important to say that’s relevant to the politics of food itself. Sometimes though, food, drink, and the enjoyment of these can be overtaken by events that are ‘political’ in the very broadest sense. Events that simply cannot be allowed to pass without comment.
On Saturday 3 June 2017, My partner JML and I spent a blissful few hours wandering around Borough Market. It’s a place we almost invariably make time for whenever we travel from Scotland to visit London. I even remember it from when I worked in the metropolis in the late 1980s, when it was still one of the capital’s main wholesale fruit and veg markets, but experiencing decline and under threat of closure and demolition. It remains important as a wholesale venue even now. Yet it has transformed itself so that many people – and especially those of us considered to be ‘foodies’ – would now certainly equate Borough Market as being one of the best places in the UK to sample an almost incomprehensibly wide range of fine food and ingredients drawn and inspired from across the globe.
That Saturday morning and afternoon, wandering Borough Market we encountered Spanish and Croatian delicatessen delights, charcuterie and cheese from France and Italy, casseroles from Ethiopia, Pakistani spiced lamb, and mezze from Turkey. There was the best range of dried Mexican chilies – all beautifully described – that you could hope to encounter, well, outside Mexico. There was coffee so good that people were prepared to queue for over 20 minutes, just for a flat white. And possibly somewhat unusually for London, whilst they were waiting folk were chatting; not just to those they knew, but to other random, fleeting acquaintances with a similar and shared passion for food and drink.
And that’s what food and drink does. It’s a universal leveller, a shared language. We all have to eat. The gastronomic dialect might vary a bit, but that is what makes it so joyous. As a child, I remember encountering the exoticism of lasagne for the first time, the acid unfamiliarity of limes, the alluring alieness of fresh chill. Effectively all new terms in my gastronomic vocabulary. And I now realise that what I was experiencing was a sort of culinary conversation, an exchange of food driven-passion and ideas. I think it’s something practically everyone experiences one way or another, and it’s a dialogue that reaches beyond single cultures and nations. Why else would we Brits be lovingly referred to as “Le Roast Beef” in France if it wasn’t for an understanding of, and passion for, food?
Borough Market has grown from its ancient, wholesale, origins to become something that superbly nourishes and facilitates this wider culinary conversation. It brings together Londoners of all types and backgrounds, draws in people from across the rest of the UK – frequently including we two lads from Scotland, and also attracts umpteenth visitors from across the world. At every stall, shop, bar and restaurant that now resides there, each enjoyed by a superbly diverse clientele, you can hear the flavoursome chatter, both actual and metaphoric, that constitutes this gastronomic conversation.
On Saturday 3 June, just a few hours after our visit, people with a dreadfully warped sense of humanity purposely chose to try and silence this culinary conversation, with horrific consequences. Understandably the stalls, shops, bars and restaurants of Borough Market have been forced to pause for breath. Rightly, there is a need to contemplate what has happened in this usually exuberant part of South London, and the reasons why anyone would seek to so brutally curtail, even to try to temporarily destroy, what folk across the planet have and do in common – they come together to bond over shared food and drink. Yet it is a pause.
For this joyous cacophony of gastronomic voices that are harmonised by Borough Market, and a multitude of similar venues globally, will never fall silent. The people who run and frequent the place have a common, passionate language when it comes to food. It is a universal tongue. Wandering around the railway arches of Southwark that Saturday, it could be heard everywhere, yet I didn’t need a translator to work out what was being said. I only needed to look at what everyone’s faces so clearly exhibited. The message they conveyed was clear:
[Other committments have meant posts on Scrumptious Scran have been a bit scant of late. Apologies, as normal service is about to be resumed.]
Cullinary action-packed Savour festival.
I do like a good food festival, hence – as I mentioned in my last post – my excitement at attending the recent Savour festival in Edinburgh. So did the festival warrant my enthusiasm? Well, initial signs were promising, given that JML and I were issued with our own sets of cutlery and a wine glass each, as soon as we stepped through the entrance of Summerhall. Guided up the labyrinthine venue’s stairs, we emerged in to the bustling part of the venue that housed Savour’s “Main Course” area.
It was immediately apparent that this wasn’t going to be a bog-standard food event. Summerhall’s Dissection Room (don’t fear, this was once a veterinary school) resembled a cross between a continental market and a banquet, with a plethora of inviting stalls positioned around the periphery that were, quite literally, feeding the rows of tables occupying the centre of this cavernous space. The premise was straightforward: peruse a stall; select your food or drink of choice; find a seat, consume and contemplate. So what proved a hit with our collective palettes?
To be fair, there was so much to choose from it was difficult sample everything. The ham hough and black pudding terrine from Field restaurant was subtly divine, and packed with meaty flavours. Union of Genius – Edinburgh’s finest purveyor of freshly-made soup, in my opinion – provided a piece of culinary theatre with their cullen skink, which as well as being packed with lovely smoked haddock and sprinkled with dried seaweed, was also given a second blast of hickory smoke in a bell jar before serving. A taste of Mumbai and East African street food was provided courtesy of Bindi, which served a range of fresh and spicy vegetarian tapas-style dishes. Everything on their stall was mouth-wateringly good, but I shall definitely be visiting the restaurant for a second sample of dhokra – savoury semolina, yoghurt and chickpea flour cakes with green chilli and coriander chutney.
Savour Festival – hanging hams.
The Main Course area wasn’t all about scoffing, however. There was some super quaffing to be had. The charming and knowledgeable people from Vino wine merchants were on hand to provide a range of reds and whites that were the perfect accompaniment to the food that was on offer. I shall certainly be purchasing a bottle of the excellent picpoul de pinet I sampled. Samples of the excellent Pickering’s Gin – the first such spirit to be distilled in Edinburgh for over 150 years – were also on offer. Distilled at Summerhall itself, this is a beautifully smooth gin flavoured with a smashing blend of botanicals. I’d be keen to join one of the guided tours of the distillery to see exactly how this smashing drink it made.
It was also a case of “all hail to the ale” in the “Beer Lab” section of the festival. Curated by students from Queen Margaret’s University’s MSc in Gastronomy, this truly provided a multi-sensory journey into the world of beer, combining brewing history, encounters with ingredients and tastings of the finished products. And whilst talking of tasting, I was delighted to be identified as a potential “super taster” during my visit to the lab. Biting on a cotton bud soaked in the chemical propylthiouracil resulted in my experiencing an almost excruciatingly bitter taste. JML, by contrast, didn’t taste a thing, which is odd given his ongoing aversion to the heavily-hopped beers I adore.
Campbell’s smashing smoked fish.
We finished off our tour of Savour with a visit to the “Cheese Lounge and Larder”. Organised by The Edinburgh Larder, this turned out to be more of a pop-up delicatessen, featuring shelves groaning under the weight of produce. I certainly wasn’t complaining however, as the place was packed with sensational chutneys, cheeses and artisan bread. After availing ourselves of numerous free nibbles we left laden with some delicious goats’ cheese brie, caramelised onion chutney and freshly-baked sourdough.
I have to admire the organisers of Savour for trying something a bit different in terms of a culinary festival. It was certainly popular – so much so that the sell out crowd made manoeuvring around the various venues a bit of a challenge at times. It was also both inventive in its approach and admirable in its championing of local producers and suppliers. Here’s hoping there will be something just as inviting to savour at Summerhall next year.
Fancy tasting some top Belgian beers? Oh, and the tasting is guided by a highly accomplished Belgian brewer. A brewer who used to work in Scotland. And he’s also the chap behind a new, and truly splendid, interpretation of a Belgian abbey-produced lager. To be honest, accepting such a proposition presents little in the way of cerebral challenge (the expression “it’s a no brainer” is one I hate).
So last week I, together with a clutch of other food writers, assembled at Edinburgh’s The Devil’s Advocate bar to share the pleasure of supping some of the finest beers Belgium has to offer. We were guided in this venture by Joris Brams – a Belgian brewer who is the creative genius behind Heverlee, a fantastic lager available at selected venues across Scotland.
The story of how Heverlee came about is as engaging as the beer itself. Involving an ancient abbey, monastic advice, and brewing forensics, it could almost form the plot of a best seller. In brief, Brams has managed to recreate a “lost” beer that was once brewed during the Middle Ages by the monks who inhabited the Belgian town of Heverlee‘s Abbey of the Order of Premontre. I, for one, am very glad this once Scottish-based brew-meister has gone to so much trouble. But more on Heverlee in a wee while.
It is evident that Brams is a man who is passionate about brewing, and the beer of Belgium in particular. So it was a pleasure to hear him wax lyrical about the qualities of six of his favourite brews that hail from his homeland. Here is what we sampled, and what I learned.
A splendid blond beer to kick of the tasting, and one I had always thought had a long history. Yet no, it only came to be in the early 1980’s. This golden-hewed brew undergoes its final fermentation in its gnome-adorned bottle, imparting to it a natural, yeast-derived cloudiness. It smacks of coriander, as well as a subtle, clean, almost grassy, hoppiness. And it has a splendid, long-lasting head.
Now this was a bit of a surprise. An IPA from Belgium? Surely some mistake? But as Joris elucidated, of late there has been much cross pollination between the craft brewing scene in the USA (where IPAs predominate) and a new wave of Belgian beer making. This has resulted in a refreshing light-amber ale that has a definite, yet subtle, hoppy character, achieved through cold hopping (adding hops whilst the beer ferments, rather than when the barley is being warm mashed) as well as peppery and citrus notes. With an alcohol content of 6.9% it’s strong for an IPA, but a bit of a lightweight compared to some of the other beers we sampled!
This is another relative newcomer to the world of Belgian beer, as the Brouwerij Musketeers (Musketeers’ Brewery) that produces it was only established in 2000. Troubadour Magma could best be described as a bit of a hybrid, as it combines the intense hoppiness of an IPA with the malty-fruitiness of a Belgian “Tripel” beer. Deep orange in colour, this is a smashingly good beer that marries well-developed, deep notes of bitter hops with the malty-sweetness of plummy fruit and caramel flavours. At 9.3% alcohol, it is most definitely a beer for sipping, as opposed to glugging.
This was the first Belgian beer I ever sampled, during a work trip to Amsterdam in the 1990s, and it remains one of my all-time favourites. Coincidently, it is also a favourite of Joris and I was intrigued to learn from him that it has a Scottish connection. Apparently, in the early days of Duvel there were issues with the yeast that was used to finish it (the beer undergoes final fermentation in the bottle), which was only solved when a highly suitable strain, used in ale production, was sourced from Scotland. The production process for the beer – the name of which translates as “devil” in Brabantian Dutch – is complex, meaning 90 days pass before it is ready to drink. What is produced is a light straw-coloured “blond” brew, with a citrus hint, a dash of spiciness and a pleasantly bitter undertone. And if you like your beer on the yeasty side, you can swirl the last third as you pour, to release the yeast that accumulates at the bottom of the bottle.
Brewed by the monks of Westmalle Abbey, this is a gorgeously rich brown ale. Ruby-brown in colour, and producing a dense, dark cream-coloured head, it almost resembles a UK porter. Its aroma and taste is not a million miles away from a porter either, exhibiting a fruit-laden nose and tastes that include toasted nuts, caramel and raisin. Containing 7% alcohol, it’s on the lighter side compared to other beers in the tasting, and despite being dark in nature would actually be a quite refreshing quaff on a summer’s day. And according to Joris, it benefits from being drunk at room temperature as opposed to being chilled, as is recommended for many other Belgian beers.
Now there is a lot of chatter these days in the food and drink press about naturally fermented wines, where grape juice is left in contact with grape skins resulting in fermentation taking place via the natural yeasts that reside on said skins. Yet this form of spontaneous fermentation can also be applied to beers, through something called the Lambic process. This is true for Mort Subite – a cherry-flavoured beer which ferments after being exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are native to the Belgium’s Zenne valley, where it is produced. Think of it as the brewing equivalent of producing a sourdough starter culture, and you are on the right track. Ripened in oak barrels and steeped with fresh cherries, what results is a uniquely fruity, yet sour, cherry-red brew which is both complex in flavour and simultaneously refreshing.
We concluded our tasting with some excellent food courtesy of The Devil’s Advocate – try the haggis bonbons! – and a pint each of Heverlee: the forgotten Belgian pilsner that Joris has recreated using ingredients and techniques from hundreds of years ago. It’s a beer that comes as close as possible to the light, fresh-tasting lager that the monks of Heverlee (which now forms part of the municipality of Leuven) once produced, but were forced to stop brewing when beer production became commercial.
Chatting with Joris, it became clear how emphatic he is that beers should not pose as being authentically Belgian when they are in fact brewed elsewhere. That is why, even though available on draft in Scotland, his beer will continue to brewed in Leuven, using a malt and maize mash and Saaz – the world’s most expensive variety of hop.
So what is the beer like? Well it attractively very crisp and clean with a subtle sweetness (much subtler than that encountered in some other “reassuringly expensive” lagers hailing from Leuven) which is perfectly in balance with the smooth bitterness from the hops. It’s poured and presented exactly how you would expect a Belgian beer of this quality to be. We are lucky that Brams’ Scottish connections mean that Scotland is one of the first countries to be supplied this little bit of Belgium in a glass. So if you haven’t tried it already, be sure to seek out a heavenly pint of Heverlee.
Many thanks to Joris Brams, Wire Media and The Devil’s Advocate for hosting such a great evening of beer tasting.
Unbelievably, well for me at least, tomorrow will mark the first birthday of Scrumptious Scran. It is a cliché I know, but it simultaneously seems like five minutes since, and an age from when I decided to try my hand at food blogging. So, to mark this, personally sweet, anniversary I thought I would share a few things I have learned during my first year as a food blogger:
I am still learning. I’ve been reviewing restaurants, devising recipes (for print) and writing about food and drink stuff in general for 12 months. Yet I still feel like I am finding my feet – or my “voice” as it is often referred to. Being the columnist, sub, and editor combined can be tricky. But I think it’s going in the right direction. Blogging is brilliant, but sometimes it is challenging.
I’ve met some fantastic people; fellow food bloggers, writers, producers, chefs, campaigners, activists… It’s inspiring how many people share my passion for all things culinary, on every level. I simply didn’t have the confidence to interact with them in the same way, until I started writing about food on the blog.
Always be fair and honest in what you write. Enthusiasm and disappointment make for great copy in equal measure, but they are dishes that need to be served cold. Allow a couple of days of cooling off, or warming up, before you decide to publish that review or recipe. Oh, and if you have eaten somewhere for free – often at the behest of PR agencies – make sure you tell your audience. It should never influence opinion, of course, but always be up front about a freebie.
Food photography is hard work. Even with swish smart phones and digital SLRs, food pictures might not do justice to the dish. Food bloggers increasingly get sucked into what is described as “food porn”. I, too, like taking and sharing great pictures of what I eat. Sometimes in Scotland, in the middle of winter, these aren’t always as pretty as I would wish…
If you are passionate about food, use social media to find likeminded folk. Used properly, it is the best blether about food and drink you could wish for. By way of example, a tweet from a fellow foodie last week led me to the most amazing coffee I have had in an age. Ideas fly and news spreads. And – this might sound a bit trite – sometimes you even get to have a chat with some true food heroes and heroines.
Thanks to everyone I have met, compared foodie thoughts with, and who have taught me so much over the last year. But above all, thank you to everyone who has taken time to read Scrumptious Scran. I am genuinely honoured.
(Thanks to Ardfern for allowing the use of the lovely birthday cake photo).
I’ve always thought that cooking is as much about science as it about art. Of course, there is an art to being a great cook or chef. But there is also a sort of alchemy in making seemingly diverse or divergent ingredients work together. And there is most definitely a lot of science involved in bringing those ingredients to market and our tables. We might not always recognise it but such science is – to be frank – everywhere. Those anchovies adorning your pizza, why does the tinned variety taste different to the ones from the deli counter, and how do they still remain edible even after months in the tin? Oh, and the tomatoes making up the pizza sauce. What variety is used, and how did it come about? I think you are getting the picture.
Given my interest in the science of food I’m delighted to learn that this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival – the world’s foremost annual celebration of all things scientific – features a fascinating strand billed as Gastrofest. This mini festival of the science of food and drink brings forth an innovative series of events that will explore the centrality of science to our culinary experience. Topics under consideration at Gastrofest include: why some food and drink combinations are delightful whilst others are disastrous; how molecular science is now influencing the world of cocktail making, to produce greater intensities and varieties of flavours; and a series of discussions examining subjects such as food security and whether eating healthy costs more.
Given how important 2014 is to Scotland, one event in the Gastrofest is particularly intriguing. Feast of the Commonwealth will mark 100 days until the Glasgow Commonwealth Games by celebrating the role that food can have in bringing nations together – and in particular the exchange of culinary cultures between Commonwealth Countries – as well as the innovative role played by Scottish scientists in global food research. Taking place at Our Dynamic Earth on Friday 11 April, not only will Feast of Commonwealth feature a globally-inspired gala dinner devised and prepared by the likes of Café St Honore’s award-winning Chef/patron, Neil Forbes, but it will also allow diners to learn the intriguing scientific facts about how some of the menu’s ingredients made it to onto their plates. There’s something pretty alluring about such scientifically-inspired scoffing.
I certainly think it is a case of [chefs’] hats off to Edinburgh International Science Festival for developing a strand of their programme that marries the world of science and food so inventively. And as a scientific foodie, I’d be delighted if Gastrofest became and annual fixture.
I’ve become somewhat obsessed with salt. Now before the health police bang me to rights over daring to start a food blog article with such a provocative statement, I should point out that this is a positive thing as far as my cooking is concerned. You see, I haven’t become fixated with over seasoning my meals, far from it. However, I have discovered the age-old techniques of preserving food – and potentially enhancing the way it cooks – that are salting and brining.
A wee while ago on Scrumptious Scran I mentioned how – inspired by Tim Hayward’s excellentFood DIY – I decided to attempt producing my own salt fish – salted coley, to be precise. The process was both straight forward – merely involving parcelling the soft fillets in sea salt – and fascinating, as the liquid was sucked from the flesh turning it stiff and dry. And when ready to cook with the salt fish all that is to be done is to rehydrate them in a few changes of fresh water for 24 hours or so. I can testify that when incorporated in croquetas the salt fish was delicious, with deep seafood flavour that wasn’t salty at all.
Delicious, home-made salt fish.
And that delicate, yet significant, flavour change is something key. Certainly the primary function of salting food is to preserve it, which is why the process was so popular in the days before refrigeration. But the way salt interacts with meat, fish, and even vegetables can also enhance the taste and texture of the foodstuff. I shall spare you the detailed chemistry lesson, but basically salt reacts with the proteins in the foodstuff to subtly change their structure. This can ultimately transform the tenderness and succulence of your salted food of choice, in addition to how it tastes. Treating food with salt is certainly not a dry subject though, oh no. I am talking brine.
I first became properly aware of soaking food in salty liquid – which is basically what brining involves – when I got my hands on Jane Grigson’s inspiring book,Good Things (to Eat). Although originally published in the early 1970’s the passion for great British ingredients and culinary traditions expressed in this work are still current today. And it features a whole chapter on salting meat, including Grigson’s own recipe for brine, which basically consists of equal parts of sea salt and brown sugar dissolved in water. Yet interestingly, it also features the addition of aromatics – such as bay leaves, juniper berries, and peppercorns – which impart subtle notes of flavour to the meat that is soaked and preserved in the liquid.
Now we are in the depths of January the festive season might seem just a distant memory, but the Christmas just past provided an opportunity to dip my toe into the pond of brining. Turkey is the festive bird of choice at Scrumptious Scran Towers, primarily because my father-in-law is pretty traditional when it comes to Christmas dinner. I always try and get the best quality turkey available – bronze of feather, free-range, organic, probably called Horatio or something similar – to ensure two things: that the meat actually tastes of something; and that it isn’t dry. Choosing top quality usually delivers. But having witnessed a festive TV programme where Nigella waxed lyrical about brining one’s turkey for 24 hours before cooking, I wondered if this could make an already great fowl even more tender and flavoursome, as La Lawson claims.
Horatio the turkey, ready for a brine bath.
So at lunchtime last Christmas eve Horatio the turkey was deposited into a lidded plastic tub together with sufficient salt, sugar and water to make a brine, and a whole host of herbs and spices – bay leaves, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, star anise, peppercorns, juniper berries, clementine juice and peel, thyme, parsley and onions. Then into the fridge it went, until about an hour before cooking Christmas dinner was due to commence, whence it was drained, dried and brought up to room temperature. A mere two and a half hours in the oven – I certainly wasn’t going to overcook the turkey, as much as I wasn’t going to undercook it either – and the bird looked and smelled perfect. But how did it taste?
To be honest, it was blinking amazing. My father-in-law proclaimed it was the most moist, tastiest turkey he had ever sampled. The flesh was truly tender and not at all dry – which was down to more than just the quality of the bird, as the brining process helps lock moisture into the meat. And it had an almost mild gamey flavour, somewhere between guinea fowl and pheasant, but also with a very subtle hint of the aromatics that had gone into brine. This is certainly how I shall prepare our turkey from now on, but brining is not just for Christmas, as Jane Grigson’s recipes for salt duck and spiced salt beef clearly demonstrate. Watch this space!
Things have been a bit quiet on Scrumptious Scran of late, for which I must apologise. Don’t worry; I haven’t suddenly lost my enthusiasm for food and drink – quite the reverse. It’s just that recently I have had to prioritise starting a new job and celebrating my other half’s 40th birthday, over writing culinary copy. Fortunately though, part of JML’s birthday celebrations involved a trip to Berlin. This has provided an opportunity to compose the first Scrumptious Scran Odyssey article, giving an insight into some of our favourite dining and quaffing experiences in this wonderful city.
Not having visited Berlin before I must admit that we weren’t entirely certain what to expect, in culinary terms. Like any large city, Berlin has a diverse range of restaurant cultures – with Italian appearing to be a particular favourite – but for this visit I was keen to hone in on food that was typical of Berlin or Germany.
Our base was central Berlin’s “Mitte” district, a stone’s throw away from the former Checkpoint Charlie, one of few official crossing points between the former communist East and capitalist West sectors of the city. Our hotel – Gat Point Charlie – was great and very boutique-esque, even though the surrounding area was slightly underwhelming; it’s Berlin’s commercial and government hub being mostly populated by modern multi-stories. However, wander a little and it is possible to find a Germanic culinary gem, such as Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt – a cavernous eatery that serves traditional Bavarian fare and excellent beer. Be warned, however, so popular is this place that at peak times it is neigh on impossible to secure a dining table, meaning that we had to be content with sitting outside (it being a balmy October evening) whilst consuming a couple of glasses of “hell”.
And I should also point out that when strolling round Berlin’s Mitte district, anyone with a sweet tooth should be sure to call into Fassbender & Rausch – reportedly the world’s largest chocolaterie. Not only does its three floors offer 200 varieties of chocolate, it also features a chocolate volcano and a architecturally accurate model of the Bundestag – made from chocolate.
Checking out Berlin’s “Museum Island” and surrounding environs provided an opportunity to sample two things I love: sausages and micro-brewed beer. The former came courtesy of Oranium, located in the “Scheunenviertel” or “barn quarter”; an old neighbourhood that found itself on the eastern side of the infamous wall – here’s a hint, if you see a tram you are in former East Berlin… Having perused the menu, I just had to try the Würstchen Trilogie – Berliner Currywurst, Thüringer Rostbratwurst and Nürnberger sausages skewered with leek, onions, and capsicum, served with yellow and red curry dip. Each variety of porky morsel was delicious, even if some flavours were slightly unexpected. I’d heard that Berliners are mad for currywurst – a curry-infused banger. Maybe I was expecting a casein-coated balti, but the spice mix was more akin in its flavour to the sort of curry sauce served by Chinese takeaways – flavoursome yet unusual. For tip-top beer we ventured just south of Alexanderplatz to Brauhaus Georgbraeu. Located in the shadow of the city’s imposing Television Tower, not only are their superb pilsners brewed on the pub’s premises – try the dark lager with its great malty flavour – but these can be enjoyed on a terrace overlooking the River Spree.
Kreuzberg Kaffee und Kuchen.
A definite “must visit” for any food enthusiast is the conjoined neighbourhood of Kreuzberg-Freidrichschain, to the south-east of Berlin’s centre. Kreuzberg is bohemian and, thanks to the fact that WWII air-raids left it relatively unscathed, lined with handsome late 19th and early 20th century buildings. East of its neighbour, Freidrichschain has more DDR/modernist architectural lilt. But whilst different in appearance what they have in common is a great range of bars, cafes and restaurants. Both areas really lend themselves to wandering and stopping off at wherever looks appealing, whether this be for “kaffee und kuchen”, falafel, or a hearty German dish.
Two places we visited were of particular note. Kuchen Keiser is a pretty café-bar perched on a corner of a tree-lined square. It’s a great place for watching the world go by whilst nursing a glass of cold lager. The food is also highly regarded – with Sunday lunch being a particular favourite amongst locals. I will definitely dine there on my next visit to Berlin, but on this occasion it was just the fine beer that we sampled, as we had already booked a table at the Kreuzberg institution that is Max und Moritz.
Hearty Berliner Küche.
Named after the Wilhelm Busch cartoon characters, stepping into Max and Mortiz is like time travelling back to 1920s Berlin. A stunning bar, adorned in Art Nouveau cobalt blue tiles, greets you upon entry. This then gives way to a vast, labyrinthine dining area furnished with tables and chairs that would not look out of place in Cabaret. The vermillion walls, period electroliers, and wrought-iron fittings complete the Isherwood-esque ambience. The restaurant specialises in “Berliner Küche” – literally “Berlin Kitchen”; a hearty, rustic cuisine, with a German base but influenced by the cooking traditions of those who immigrated to the city from Central and Eastern Europe. Both JML’s and my dishes certainly were hearty. I chose Berliner Eisbein; an enormous salted and pickled pork knuckle accompanied by pickled cabbage, boiled potatoes, a split-pea purée and mustard. The meat was incredibly tender with a great salty/sour flavour, and was really complemented by the uncomplicated, yet delicious, accompaniments. JML’s Bollenfleisch – a traditional lamb stew – was equally satisfying, with flavoursome meat and vegetables bathed in a rich stout and herb sauce.
Berlin isn’t ALL about food and drink of course. It’s a city that just oozes history and still resonates the time it was split in two during the Cold War. Two museums in particular recount how this period impacted the lives of Berliners – the hands-on DDR museum, which charts what life was like for those on the eastern side of the Berlin wall, and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which recounts the history and impact of this divisive structure itself. It was after visiting the latter that we strayed upon a Café Gorki Park – a smashing wee Russian-themed eatery. Located in Scheunenviertel, given that during the cold-war period this district was very much in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find a restaurant that gives a culinary nod to Berlin’s recent history. Whilst JML’s choice of “the Russian Burger” might not be construed as being typically Soviet, it was none-the-less very good. My choice of warkeniki was much more Russian in keeping, consisting of handmade dumplings variously stuffed with potato, spinach, Brysna cheese, and minced beef, all accompanied by a tomato salsa and sour cream. Imagine a sort of delicious East European dim sum.
We certainly had a great time in Berlin. As I hope this odyssey indicates, it’s an engaging, intriguing city with some super bars, cafés and restaurants. During a short visit it’s possible to see many of the city’s main attractions, but you will still leave lots to explore. Undoubtedly then, we shall return. There is so much more left to see, eat and drink.
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