storyWhile Scotland might not yet enjoy the reputation for ‘haute cuisine’ found in Italy, France or Spain, that is quickly changing.

Haggis and Whisky.

For the outside world that pretty much summed up Scotland’s national cuisine for a long time. But that is swiftly changing and now the northern country plans celebrate its bounty of victuals and beverages with a year-long celebration of food and drink. And why not? Things have changed considerably when it comes to food in Scotland. Brenda Anderson, the director of Tasting Scotland, calls the country’s culinary scene today “electrifying.”

According to Anderson, Scotland’s food is becoming recognized across the world at what she declares is a feverish pace.

“The justification for this fascination is that people are really waking up to what an extraordinary, yet accessible, natural and healthy larder Scotland has. Fearless chefs, too, are playing their part. Serve Scotland’s bounty naturally and let it – in the words of Tom Kitchin, one of Scotland’s most inspiring chefs – sing.”

The organizers of Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink hope that not only will the food sing, but that consumers and visitors will sing the praises of the food and drink they dine upon. VisitScotland, one of the organizers (along with EventScotland and Scotland Food & Drink), assert the country’s food and drink form an important part of Scottish cultural identity and heritage.

Catherine Brown doesn’t argue with that. The former food columnist for The Glasgow Herald and a one-time co-presenter of television’s Scotland’s Larder, says the country’s culinary heritage is largely peasant-based. Scottish cooking originally developed from a one-pot cooking system over an open, slow-burning peat fire. This produced excellent slow-cooked broths and stews, but wasn’t much good for roasts or grills. Out of this technique came the famous haggis as well as black puddings and clootie dumplings.

Brown notes that the native grains which grow best in Scotland’s soil and climate are oats and barley. The former found use in oat cakes while the latter of course helps create Scotland’s famous whisky. According to Brown, conditions are perfect for ripening soft fruits, resulting in an especially sweet and luscious taste; native breeds of cattle and sheep provide prime beef, lamb and mutton; and seafood, from the cold, unpolluted waters around the Scottish coast is one of the nation’s most valuable foods.

Then came the influences from those who invaded and protected Scotland, bringing with them their cultural tastes. Anderson says the Vikings contributed smoking and salting, which worked well with both oily and white fish, including smoked salmon, trout, Arbroath Smokies and salted herring. The Europeans played a role as well. The Auld Alliance partnership with the French saw a trend for French terminology and cooking inspiration come to the fore.

Also, Anderson notes, until the 1950s, Scotland’s cooking wasn’t given to a lot of spices; in fact, pepper would have been about as adventurous as it got. But when a substantial migrant population arrived in Glasgow, that all changed, and today the city is known as the curry capital of the country.

“In the last couple of decades, the hospitality industry has begun to market these assets on their menus,” Brown says. “Also, the old peasant slow-cooked broths and stews, using cheaper cuts of meat have seen a revival as some chefs create their own interpretation of nose-to-tail cooking.”

Tom Lewis, owner of Mohr – a group of two hotels, a bakery and a fish restaurant – suggests that the seasons form Scottish cuisine. He cites mushrooms and wild garlic in the autumn; and winter kale as examples.

“The Scots have fallen back in love with their own food – a great bowl of soup, a great cheddar. And now you can find a double espresso in every town and village!”

But Scottish chefs no longer just look to their own flavours either.

“Today, as is the case with everything, we operate on a global stage,” Anderson asserts. “Influences from all around the world are tried, tested, embellished or parked. Molecular gastronomy is here, but it isn’t as eminent as in Spain or Scandinavia. In the last few years it has been about creating stunning, contemporary versions of time-served traditional dishes.”

Mark Greenaway, who owns a highly regarded restaurant carrying his name in Edinburgh, says Scottish food celebrates the produce the country has to offer.

“It involves working closely with local suppliers and producers to enable my kitchens to create truly Scottish dishes. It has evolved in recent years as people have become more aware of food provenance and it is something which is now expected of Scottish restaurants.”

Brown agrees, citing a more vibrant food and drink culture now brought about by the cooks and producers who have created a higher profile for Scottish food.

“More high quality produce is staying in Scotland, so those who visit now have a better chance of also eating Scottish.”

What exactly does it mean to eat Scottish? The country offers an amazing variety of indigenous food and drink. Meat and game that Scotland is renowned for includes venison, which is recognized as the most nutritious of red meats and extremely low in fat; wild hare and rabbit – the former had dark, lean red meat, while the latter is low in fat and tender; and game such as grouse, pheasant and partridge.

Angus Scotch beef is famous globally and holds the coveted Protected Geographical Indication brand, a European initiative that identifies high quality products unique to a particular region. Scotch lamb also features the same brand. Specifically Scotch Beef is sourced from selected Scottish farms that must adopt best practices in terms of animal welfare and natural production methods. The farms and processors are independently audited to ensure they meet those requirements.

When it comes to seafood, Scotland is a recognized global leader. The country exports more than 70 per cent of its seafood to Europe because of high demand. The bounty of the sea includes scallops, mussels, crab and lobster. The country’s wild salmon is equally prized, but it is not the only species of fish pulled from Scottish waters. Others include brown trout, pike, carp, hake, haddock, cod and bass.

Another Scottish speciality is soft fruits, producing thousands of tonnes of strawberries and raspberries along with lesser amounts of gooseberries, blueberries, black currants, red currants and blackberries. Perthshire and Angus are Scotland’s main growing areas, particularly in the fertile Strathmore Valley. The fruit thrive in the cooler Scottish summers where long daylight hours help them ripen.

And, yes, haggis is still a specialty with producers zealously guarding their recipes which include the minced heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, cow or pig mixed with oatmeal, suet, onions, spices and seasoning boiled in the stomach of the slaughtered animal. Along the same lines is black pudding. Black pudding contains suet, oats, barley blood and a special blend of spices stuffed in a protein casing.

Of course, what’s a meal without a drink? Scotland’s beverages are legendary, with whisky topping the list. The most recent figures on the Scotch Whisky Association’s website date back to 2013, but even so they add up to an impressive list. At that time 109 distilleries were licenced to produce whisky (it’s likely that number has since increased) and the industry employs 10,000 people. In Scottish warehouses some 20 million casks are maturing. Not surprisingly it is sold in 200 markets overseas.

But Scotland is not just about the whisky when it comes to drinks. The country also supports vibrant beer and gin industries. The former includes such well-known brands as Innis & Gunn and Belhaven Brewery. The latter has been produced in Scotland for centuries, but recently has regained popularity in the form of bars, cocktails and pairings throughout the country.

That hardly sums up the Scottish larder. Cheeses, ice cream, cereals and shortbread, and heather honey are in the mix as well.

All this diversity is being put to good use during Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink. The presenting agencies have developed a number of “trails,” which guide gourmets along various foodie routes. On offer are whisky and ale trails, seafood, cheese and chocolate trails, and even an Arbroath Smokie trail.

The Scottish Cheese Trail, for instance, helps visitors put together an itinerary enabling them to visit some of the independent producers across the country. Following the cheese trail, one might find him or herself sampling the full-flavoured cheeses from the Island Smokery on Orkney or watching the cheese-making process from a special viewing gallery at the St. Andrew’s Farmhouse Cheese Company in Pittenweem.

The fact of the matter is, Scotland’s larders – and hospitality – will be overflowing during the year with just about every imaginable food and beverage event available on tap. Whisky Month and World Whisky Day both take place in May, for instance. The Spirit of Speyside Festival kicks off the month, which includes Edinburgh’s Whisky Strammash, the international celebrations around World Whisky Day on May 15, and ends with the Feis Ile, the Islay Festival.

If you’re looking for something a little more offbeat, consider the Scone Palace Chilli Festival in Perthshire in September. Taking place at the Scone Palace – one of Scotland’s most stately homes where both Macbeth and Robert the Bruce were crowned – the festival features chilli variations of popular foods, experts on hand to answer questions, live music and, of course, a chilli eating contest.

Or perhaps you want to see competitors from around the globe compete for the coveted Golden Spurtle trophy, the prize for winning the title of World Porridge Making Champion. The 22nd annual porridge making championships take place in October in the village of Carrbridge in the Cairngorms National Park. The festival also celebrates the “diversity of porridge through a specialty section and includes porridge, craft and local produce stalls for visitors.”

Of course, you don’t need a festival for an excuse to dine out in Scotland. The country boasts 16 Michelin starred restaurants, with five of those located in Edinburgh; in fact that city has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the UK, outside of London. Beyond that, there are many other exceptional dining establishments that highlight seasonal cooking, showcase Scottish produce and demonstrate creative flare.

Some of the places awarded Michelin stars include the Number One at Balmoral, 21212, The Kitchin, Martin Wishart, and the Castle Terrace Restaurant. Andrew Fairlie’s restaurant is the only double-starred Michelin dining place in Scotland and one of 21 double-starred restaurants in the UK. Fairlie has secured a Victorian kitchen garden a few miles from Gleneagles and now 95 per cent of the fresh produce used in his restaurant kitchen originates from there.

Some other exceptional places outside of the aforementioned restaurants include The Loch Fyne Oyster Bar & Restaurant, and The Dome. The former is located in Argyll where the mountains meet the sea, and is a beautiful destination in itself. The latter in Edinburgh oozes class. The Victorian-era bank-now-restaurant features Corinthian columns, intricate mosaic floor tiling and a marble-topped bar.

Truly, between the restaurants, cafes, destination hotels with dining and bars and pubs, it would be easy to fill a book with the listings of fine places to tuck into a superb meal.

With such a wealth of food and drink, it seems easy for Scotland to rest on its laurels, but all the individuals in the business whom Celtic Life International spoke to agree that further improvements could be made.

Anderson remarks that the Scottish food and drink industry has never been stronger, with exports breaking all previous figures. That said, she said peoples’ conception of the country’s food is still rooted in stereotypes.

“We are not all about haggis and shortbread and do we really eat deep-fried Mars Bars? No, we don’t. I don’t know a single Scot who has ever eaten one. Whatever the reason, the story stuck. It was the single worst thing to happen in a country with one of the best and healthiest larders in the world.”

Lewis says the country needs to sell itself better.

“Okay is never good enough,” he declares. “We should always continually push as a nation.”

Anderson agrees, commenting that she’d love to see Scotland host the World Food Travel Association Summit in 2021.

“I have recently become the certified ambassador in Scotland for the World Food Travel Association and would love nothing more than introduce my country to the global food travel population. Before I retire, Scotland will be regarded as a culinary destination in the same way as France, Italy, or the like. Then, and only then, will I look back, full and happy.”