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North of the border: Exploring the growth of modern Scottish food

Scotland boasts some of the world’s best produce, but why is it only just appearing our plates? A proud half-Scot reports on the chefs looking to boost the cuisine's reputation beyond fried Mars bars and haggis

Cheese toastie from Deeney's

Ask anyone south of Hadrian’s wall what they think of when they think of Scottish cuisine, and they’ll likely say two things: haggis and deep-fried Mars bars. I say this because for the last month I have been doing just that and everyone, including my Scottish father, has said the same thing. No matter that these stereotypes are wildly outdated; that the country itself is home to the best shellfish, game, salmon and whisky the world has to offer. There persists this “frankly absurd mentality that to be a Scottish chef is an oxymoron; that Scottish food is of poor quality,” as Jeremy Lee, the Dundee-born chef behind London’s Quo Vadis, puts it.

Coming to the subject as a proud half-Scot, inspired by the openings and achievements from Scottish chefs both sides of the border, I found this disheartening. The last ten years has found us rehabilitating a host of unfairly maligned cuisines, from Poland and Russia to the southern States of the US. Surely we could extend the same courtesy to our neighbours north of the border?

Fish at Quo Vadis restaurant london

Quo Vadis celebrates Scotland's excellent fish and shellfish 

We should – but it’s complicated, says Lee. Of course, London food snobbery has a role to play, as does historic Scots-English rivalry. Yet the main reason southerners don’t hold Scottish food in high regard is because the Scots themselves are fairly dismissive of it – or at least they have been until recently. For one thing, there has been “the Presbyterian angst around food being frivolous and folly-driven,” says Lee – a hangover from religious reformer John Calvin, who argued that food’s sole purpose was to fuel us in serving God and preached against such Catholic ‘indulgences’ as feasting. For another, there has been what Lee calls Scotland’s “mad Francophilia”, that rendered Scottish chefs and cooks utterly in thrall to French cuisine.

“This ridiculous love-in with the French had a massive influence,” he continues. “All the friends I grew up with were obsessed with leaving this drab country and donning the garb of France,” says Lee – and so, in a manner of speaking, was Scottish produce. “There we were with the most extraordinary game and shellfish – and we exported it to France and the rest of the world.” What remained was renamed: “The older Scottish chefs cooked French food in Scotland. It was French words, and a French foundation,” says Adam Handling, who operates restaurants in London, Windsor and Cornwall. “In America, they call shellfish soup chowder. They have their own name for their own thing. In Scotland we’re still calling it ‘bisque’.”

Italian chefs have beef ragù, but we scoff at mince and tatties

Of course, the food world’s obsession with French terms is by no means confined to Scotland, as the ubiquity of ‘canapés’ and ‘aperitifs’ at the slew of upcoming Christmas parties will testify. Yet it has without question influenced the way the Scots – and by extension, the rest of the UK – feel about their cuisine. “You can glam up any dish using a French or Italian word – but when you do that, you move the focus away from the country you’re in, to the country in which that word is used,” argues Handling. “We wax lyrical about pasta e fregola, and yet Scotch broth is easily on a level,” agrees Lee.” “The greatest Italian chefs all have a beef ragù recipe, yet we scoff at mince and tatties.”

Mark Greenaway, the chef behind Grazings in Edinburgh and Pivot in Covent Garden, penned a cookbook called Perceptions for this very reason: “I wanted to change, in my own way, the perception of Scottish food, which is that we have world-class ingredients and live on a diet of,” – you guessed it – “Mars bars and haggis,” he explains during a conversation taking place a few days before Pivot’s opening. They’re using Scottish salmon in sushi in Tokyo; Scottish lobsters in lobster rolls in Boston – and yet the dichotomy between cuisine and produce has persisted, he continues. “If the Roux brothers had opened in Edinburgh rather than London, we’d be having a different conversation – because, before the Roux brothers, England had a terrible reputation for food.”

Chefs are pushing to represent Scotland south of the border

That perceptions are finally changing is in part thanks to chefs like Tom Kitchin and the late Andrew Fairlie, all of whom spent time in European restaurants before returning to fly the Saltire for their own heritage. “They’ve gone away, learned their trade and come back to cook world-class food,” says Greenaway. “Now the younger generation of chefs don’t have to leave to learn.” Had the Scottish food scene been where it is now 15 years ago, Handling would never have felt the need to leave, he says.

Lobster dish at Pivot in Covent Garden

Mark Greenaway's cooking at Covent Garden's Pivot

“The reason Scottish chefs left Scotland is not because they don’t like the country. It’s because they wanted to represent it, rather than be shackled to French cuisine.“The younger chefs are pushing to represent Scotland, in Scotland as well as south of the border,” he says, and it seems that patriotism is now proudly making its way onto the plate.

That said, to give the restaurateurs sole credit for this shift in perspective is to do a disservice to the home cooks – women, in short – upon whom Scotland’s food is founded. Many of the chefs I spoke to cited their mother’s baking, cooking and jamming as formative in their pursuing a career in cooking; Andy Waugh who founded Mac & Wild (and now the cricket-themed bar and restaurant Sixes) and Carol Deeney of the eponymous Deeney’s restaurant in Leytonstone say their mums are behind much of their respective menus.

“Mac & Wild was all about the food my mum put on the table at home,” says Waugh, who still sources his game through his family’s game butchery business “I grew up picking fruits and herbs when they were in abundance and preserving them. I loved making raspberry sorbet.” Meanwhile Deeney’s family recipes – cullen skink, stovies and haggis cheese toasties – have garnered a loyal London following.

Give it a decade and Scottish food will be some of the best in the world

“My parents made cooking and food a daily part of civilised life – and that wasn’t uncommon,” says Quo Vadis’s Lee, who believes the foundation of Scottish food is “good cooking, pure and simple. It was frugal,” he continues – “but out of frugality and necessity are born great dishes.” It’s just that Scotland has not previously had the confidence to give these dishes – or at least variations of them – a platform outside of a domestic setting. Speaking to Lee and Waugh, I learn that the country has a rich canon of female cookery writers. Claire MacDonald is familiar to me – I grew up eating her shortcake and soda bread – but names like F Marian McNeill, Catherine Brown and Sue Lawrence are new to my ears. “They did much for Scottish food – because it is in their realm as cooks that definitive dishes endured and were developed and recorded,” Lee enthuses. “For centuries our food and the women who cook it have stood in the sidelines waiting to take their turn on the main stage, and in the last 10 or 15 years we have finally had this renaissance, in women like Rosie Healey [of Alchemillia in Glasgow], Lorna McNee [of Cail Bruich, also in Glasgow] and Pamela Brunton [of the remote, Loch Fyne-based restaurant Inver].”

Like Brunton, who cites stints working in Noma in Denmark and Fäviken in Sweden as an invaluable source of inspiration for Inver, Waugh believes that the Scandinavian food movement “really allowed Scottish people to say, this is who we are; to have the confidence in our land and its produce. We have our identity now, and it’s all about good, seasonal food, cooked simply,” he continues – whether that’s Handling’s Scottish lobster cooked in Scottish Highland wagyu beef fat, which is what Handling believes to be “the best of Scotland in a mouthful” or the ‘Macbeth’ toastie with cheddar and haggis from Deeney’s.

Deep fried mars bar at Six by Nico

I’m intrigued by the haggis toasties, and by the tongue-in-cheek names Deeney has given them, which include Lady MacBeth (veggie haggis) and Roberto-the-Bruce, a reference to its inclusion of mozzarella. It reminds me of the last time I dined at Nico Simeone’s Canary Wharf outpost of Six by Nico and ate his version of a deep-fried Mars bar for pudding. For a chef who has spent his whole career elevating his country’s cuisine to open a London restaurant with a deep-fried Mars bar and an Irn-Bru sorbet seemed counter-intuitive; now, it seems a stroke of genius. How better to subvert these Scottish stereotypes than by subsuming them into a menu featuring Scrabster monkfish, salt-baked celeriac and Speyside beef shin? Looking at the menus of Scottish chefs operating in London, I find various examples of these clichés being reclaimed and repositioned as something that, done well, are worthy of celebration: from Handling’s Balmoral chicken – “usually served at weddings and dry as hell; so I’ve taken a modern interpretation and made it a ‘wow’ dish” – to Waugh’s Irn Bru-based cocktails, and Greenaway’s roscoff onion with lamb haggis.

“I used to get really pissed off with those lazy stereotypes around our food – but you can play up to them,” says Waugh, who recalls catering for a private Burns Night supper for a high-profile journalist’s supper club. “We did hand-dived scallops, wild venison, top-quality haggis and then little nuggets of deep-fried Mars bar to finish – and they loved it, because it is delicious. It’s just a shame it’s become this iconic thing everyone associates with the country”.

I agree – but I also recognise that for Scottish chefs to feel able to engage in these lazy stereotypes and exploit them for them for their own ends is itself a testimony to how much perceptions have shifted. “We’re not there yet,” says Handling, but give it another decade or two and it will be one of the world’s great cuisines.” My half-Scottish blood thrills at the prospect.

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