Monday, March 19, 2007

Northward Ho!

We took the train north from London, through York and Durham. The scenery took a dramatic turn north of Newcastle, with glimpses of wild coast, crashing waves and huge rocks jutting into the North Sea, with little stone villages nestled into crags along the shore. Alighting in Edinburgh, we emerged into the twilight to see the castle looming above the city on ancient volcanic rock. Thunder crashed. A million shades of grey colored the medieval Old Town. It was a dark and stormy night.

Scotland was home to Tam’s forebears, and he felt his blood stir with ancestral memories of tartans and mossy crags as soon as we arrived. After a brief jaunt through a freezing downpour, we downgraded our culinary ambitions for our first night and supped on mussels and haggis-stuffed chicken in a lovely pub near our little guest house, washing it down with some ale and a few sips of whiskey, chatting with some proper Scottish locals, and bearing witness to the unexpected St Patrick’s Day victory of Ireland’s cricket team over Pakistan. Tam was pleased to note that B. Rankin was of material assistance in the glorious triumph.

By morning, the skies had cleared and we headed off to Edinburgh castle to relive Scotland’s glory days (not that they’re over, of course). The climb up the almost sheer rock face on the north side of the castle was enlivened by thousands of yellow daffodils, swaying in the bitterly cold wind but lending a spring-like air to the view. The vista at the top was nothing short of spectacular, as we watched a snowstorm blow across the Firth of Forth, then turn west around the city. The castle itself is pretty neat, too, capped by a tiny Norman chapel – possibly the oldest building in Edinburgh – built by King David and dedicated to his mother, St Margaret.

We spent the (entire) afternoon at lunch with friends (one a fellow blogger) at The Grain Store, a rambling stone-walled second story restaurant serving an excellent three-course lunch that featured Scottish smoked salmon with capers, hare confit served on beetroot risotto, grilled mackerel, pork belly with wilted greens, and a bitter chocolate cake with espresso cream sauce that recalled a pint of Guinness. After a few hours at the restaurant, we retired for a brief tutorial on single malt across the street at the Bow Bar, where we sniffed lots of fancy bottles and were instructed that a little water in your scotch awakens the peaty flavors. It’s a fine line, though; Laura was scolded by a fellow customer standing by the bar for having overdone the water in her drink. Fortunately, it wasn’t too weak to act as a necessary fortifier for the icy walk home in the howling wind.

The next day, we finished our tour of the Royal Mile, spit on the Heart of Midlothian for luck, marveled at the Thistle Chapel in St. Giles Kirk, saluted John Knox’s House and stopped at a tapas bar full of kilted Spanish speakers. We ended at the Holyrood Palace and Park and hiked straight up the Radical Road – named not for its intimidating incline, but for the leftist political leanings of its builders – for another thrilling view of the city and surrounds.

Confident that we’d earned it, we had what may be our last pint of real ale for some time at what was surely our favorite of the pubs we tried in Edinburgh, the “Oxford” Bar on Young Street. There, we mingled with the thickly accented and bushy-cheeked Scots that gather nightly to warm themselves inside and out sipping scotch and water by the fire and watching ancient British sitcoms with great enjoyment.

For our final dinner in Edinburgh, we decided that it was time to come to terms with Scotland’s most notorious culinary creation. Haggis is a kind of pudding made of sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour, which is nearly universally disliked around the world, but which the Scots embrace and adore. A Room in the Town presented an upscale – and delicious – version in the form of a terrine: haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) layered, molded and topped with chili-spiked gooseberry chutney. The haggis was earthy and meaty-tasting, and the spicy tartness of the chutney cut nicely through its richness. Our waiter explained that different butchers – and many families – have old and highly secret recipes for combining oats and sheep parts, differing dramatically in consistency, spice and strength. There’s also a ubiquitous and seemingly oxymoronic product known as vegetarian haggis, in which the meat is replaced by pulses and vegetables.

The other highlight of the meal was a slice of ginger snap cheesecake, flecked with crystallized ginger and caramelized just a bit around the edges. We were impressed enough to consider concocting our own version - once we get home to our spring form pans.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very exciting and tasty! Very sad that the cricket story has turned into a nightmare.

On to warmer climes!
Happy Greece!
P

jan said...

OMG! You actually ATE haggis?????? I've never known anyone who honestly even tried it! You are truly my gastronomic heroes... ;-)

Tam & Laura said...

Our sincere condolences to the family and friends of Bob Woolmer.