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Issue 17 - Food glorious food

Scotland Magazine Issue 17
November 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Food glorious food

It's a cut above the weekly supermarket run. Shopping for food in Scotland is all about seeking out the best delicatessens, bakers, butchers, cheesemongers and ice cream shops. Kate Patrick takes stock (lots of it)

A British national newspaper once made the mistake of comparing Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh’s Italian delicatessen and a destination in its own right, with ‘the best of anything in London’. It missed the point entirely: V&C bears favourable comparison with the best of anything in Italy, which is its true inspiration and source of much of its tempting produce.

Enterprising food shops all over Scotland not only take their inspiration from other countries and cultures, but also just do their own, utterly Scottish thing with considerable panache.

Take, for example, the new farm shops opening in response to demand for fresh, organic and traceable produce that does not have hundreds of ‘food miles’ to its name before it reaches our tables. Dobbies Garden World, near the Edinburgh bypass, opened a food hall earlier this year, selling produce from local suppliers in East Lothian and the Scottish Borders.

And in an even more dedicated fashion, the gift shop at Drumlanrig Castle, the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Dumfriesshire, is among a number of outlets selling Buccleuch’s own-brand meat, chutneys, pickles, mustards, preserves, biscuits, cheese and beers, sourced either from the estate’s farms or from small producers across Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders.

With rigourous control from field to customer, you find that the food is fresh, high-quality, natural and additive-free – and certainly brings a sense of the Scottish countryside to the table. But if the meats, cheeses, oils, wines and breads associated with northern-Italian migration into Scotland are more to your taste, then Valvona & Crolla is the place to start.

V&C is the shop you show to visitors: full of friendly, knowledgeable staff and floor-to-ceiling food, much of it trucked in from Milan; it’s also a café and venue for demonstrations and shows during the Edinburgh Festival, and it supplies HM the Queen with provisions when she’s staying at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Sarti’s in Wellington Street, Glasgow, is another corner of Italy, with its deli and trattoria here and another eating place with wine shop in Bath Street. Garlic’s fame has spread beyond its unfashionable location in the east end of Glasgow: Italian meats and cheeses are here, and home-made pasta dishes which are also supplied to some of the city-centre restaurants; the pumpkin risotto is worth taking away if it’s on the menu the day you visit.

Meanwhile, if there’s one thing that seems to ooze out of Scotland as freely as a firth or sealoch, it’s cheese. Mull truckle, Arran cheddar, Dunsyre blue, Locharthur, Bonnet, Crowdie and Caboc… the names trip off the tastebuds.

You’ll buy the biggest selection of the home grown stuff in branches of the inimitable I J Mellis in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews – shops that greet you halfway down the street with their musty, reekie smell.

Inside, they can practically tell you the name of the cow, sheep or goat that produced the original milk (Iain Mellis started his working life at the Orkney Creamery, so he knows about top class milk), and other ‘slow’ food is for sale here too, such as sourdough bread, hams, sausages, coffees and seasonal apples and mushrooms.

Possibly Scotland’s best-known deli chain, Peckham’s, has two branches in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh – each of which is run in a very individual way. Apart from the cheeses, there are fine wines, upmarket nibbles and quick meals.

If you happen to be in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh there’s a tiny shop along from Peckham’s called Herbies. You should try Herbies’ perfect-condition, matured-in-burgundy epoisses cheese, picked up some home-made pesto and passed the time of day with Andrew Firth, its knowledgeable proprietor.

An exemplary array of cheeses is also to be found at Cook’s Fine Foods in Peebles – a place that’s more Edinburgh New Town than orders country in style, where you can also stop for a snack and take away home-made bread.

Also in Peebles is The Olive Tree: a small but perfectly-packed deli with farmhouse and un-pasteurised cheeses alongside local beer and honey. And it’s also worth mentioning Macdonald’s Cheese Shop at Rattray near Blairgowrie – it sells Swiss as well as Scottish cheeses – and Island Cheeses on the road to Brodick Castle on Arran, where I confess I first developed a taste for garlic crowdie.

The broadest collections of Scottish produce – including smoked meats and fish, Mackie’s ice cream and Macsween’s haggis – are likely to be found at the better all-round emporia, such as House of Bruar, the Falls of Shin Visitor Centre on Mohammed Al Fayed’s estate (Harrods hampers), Made in Scotland in Beauly, the top floor of Jenners department store in Edinburgh, and the food market, also on the top floor, at Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh.

I think this is the best part of what’s otherwise a fashion store: I pop in for presents or dinner party starters such as the Islay Fine Foods beef marinated in Islay whisky. They often have unusual fresh produce in too, such as rare British apples or Tiptoe Farm black potatoes.

On the other hand, if it’s dessert you’re after, there are some superb places to go for ice cream. Luca’s of Musselburgh has been known to have queues in February for its classic triumvirate of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, and I’ve certainly enjoyed a frozen cranachan cone at Cream o’Galloway near Gatehouse of Fleet, in Dumfriesshire, in distinctly autumnal conditions. Colpi’s in Milngavie is one of Glasgow’s finest – you can only get vanilla at the cone counter but there’s amaretto or honeycomb to take away.

And then there are those who say that Janetta’s shop kept them going throughout finals at St Andrews University: 52 flavours, frozen yoghurts, and a café too.

The other thing we do well is bake: bread, pastries, cakes, fruit pies, Scotch pies, black bun, tattie scones, doughnuts, whisky cake, cloutie dumpling… all the comfort food that you would find synonymous with a cool climate and long winter evenings. Moreover, when it comes to Scotch pie, there is some competition between butchers and bakers as to whether it’s the pastry or the filling that makes theirs so good.

In Dundee they take their Scotch pie very seriously. Robertson’s, the butcher in Broughty Ferry, buys his pastry shells from a Dundee baker and fills them with his own top quality meat, for the best possible outcome.

Bridies are said to have originated in Forfar, concocted by Mr Jolly the baker. In 1893 McLaren Bakers opened there, and have baked bridies to the same recipe ever since.

But if it’s a meat-free breakfast you’re after, try a butterie from the Seafield Bakery in Cullen: a Scottish version of the croissant, and usually eaten buttered, although butter is not used in the making. Seafield’s miniature cullen skink (haddock and egg) pies are also quite delectable.

Adamson’s of Pittenweem may be the oldest bakery in the United Kingdom, established in 1635 by a Dutchman called Hedderwick, who was asked to bake something special for a visit from Charles I that year. The Hedderwick bun was born – a forerunner of the Selkirk bannock. And Goodfellow & Steven, bakers established in Dundee in 1897, based their Dundee cake on a surplus of orange peel from the nearby Keillers marmalade factory.

Finally, a word for the butchers. Concertina’d into a corner by stringent EU regulation, so many small butchers have lost their livelihoods or been forced to join supermarkets. Those who have kept going have done so through a combination of force of personality, access to immaculately -farmed produce and luck.

They often have a speciality: Robertson’s in Broughty Ferry makes Lorne sausage using at least 75 per cent beef; Ramsay of Carluke hand cures its pork in the traditional way to produce the best Ayrshire middle bacon; Charles Macleod’s in Stornoway, Lewis (known as Charley Barley’s), and John Henderson’s in Kirkcaldy both sell a wonderful black pudding… and Findlay’s in Portobello does the rich, rare haggis which succeeded in converting me to eating the ‘chieftan o’ the puddin’-race’.

And that’s quite an achievement.

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