Highland Christmas

Every now and then, we all find ourselves in uncomfortable situations equivalent to someone afraid of water being forced to swim or someone afraid of heights glancing out the window of a tall building. Being cast from our comfort zone can only do us good in the long run even if it makes us cringe in the short term. Sometimes for reasons of adventure, curiosity, or even self-punishment, we launch ourselves into such situations by choice.

My own version is two-fold; on one hand, I've lived for nearly 43 years on earth without waking up to an actual, genuine "White Christmas" so raved about in songs and lore. I've been chilly at Christmas, but never truly cold. I've lived in a trailer park or suburban house, most without a chimney further stunting the believability of Santa Claus. This year, I've chosen to spend Christmas in a harsh, alien landscape laden with snow testing my distaste for cold weather. That whiteness comes at th
e expense of travel convenience and the requirement of extra layers of clothing, but it is a thin, powdery layer of assurance that Christmas is actually happening. (Seasonal changes in California can be hard to detect.)

The second challenge I face is my blatant fear of "bad food" and my palate has become more and more difficult to please. Given mobility and a credit card, I can usually find something to "survive" on. The snow would make driving (and even walking) difficult and would restrict my culinary freedom. Stranded on a farm, I had to make the best of what I had at hand.

These two fears – cold weather and bad food – would be tested in a single, precarious destination for anyone particular about what they eat - the United Kingdom; specifically, Scotland and England. While the cuisines of several other countries (Holland, Sweden, Denmark, among others) deserve a similar reputation, none are as notorious.

The Food Network, Travel Network, and recurring articles in food magazines and on the web lead us to believe that a culinary revolution has already taken place throughout the U.K. Thanks to Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Fergus Henderson and the like, the U.K. is waking up to their own abilities and roots in food. In Marco's case, he reminded the English what the French have known for centuries, Fergus reminded them of how they once cooked, and Gordon taught them the discipline to seek more from their cuisine. Hester Blumenthal – well, he headed in a completely different direction.

The "crown jewels" of British restaurants can indeed dazzle provided the chef doesn’t strictly adhere to traditional ingredients and preparations. Among the many things British food lacks apart from flavor is balance and prudent additions from other cultures can transform this humble cuisine into something more.

Even as I type this, at 35,000 feet somewhere over Greenland, I am hurtling myself into the belly of the culinary beast - Scotland - where there's plenty to be afraid of. The primary sticking point for most people is a single dish mimicked in a dozen cuisines around the world, but singularly feared from the Scottish - haggis. It's all the things we (as Americans and largely the English as well) consider outside the realm of actual food. To us, haggis contains the parts of an animal left over when the "edible" parts have been removed with the notable exception of fur and hooves.

Upon arrival, I wasn't sure where to begin. I could hardly start at haggis and work backward; instead, I would do a bottom-up approach - get to know the basics, understand the overall flavors, and then head for the peak of the mountain.

Fish and Chips

I stumbled, quite by accident, upon the best fish and chip shop ("chippy") in Scotland, which was fortunate; I was after the absolute pinnacle of what this dish can be. However, the differences between vendors are subtle, and a look at the ingredients explains why. Take fish, (and not a potent fish either - cod - "tofu of the sea"), batter (flour, water, and maybe beer), an inert oil heated to 400 degrees, and combine. Then, take par-boiled potatoes, cut into sticks, add them to the same oil, and drain. Serve them in a cardboard tray, voila.

Frankly? You get something not unlike every other version of fish and chips you've ever had. Nobody adds herbs, no detectable spices other than salt, no marinade, no innovative dipping sauce, nothing. It’s the same thing. At its very best, fish and chips is still a dish of mute flavors which demand bolder ones to make it interesting, a blank canvas seemingly designed to be painted with malt vinegar or tartar sauce. Even at this award-winning venue, the tartar sauce was in tear-and-squeeze packets manufactured by Heinz.


The second on my to-do list was frightening in name, ingredients, and appearance; black (or blood) pudding. While not actually black, it's nearer to black than any other color and "pudding" doesn't seem to suit either the American or common British use of this word (I took it to mean their generic term for "dessert", but p
udding seems to describe anything ground/minced, and edible with a spoon. Then again, much of the U.K. refer to dinner as "tea", so there you go.)

I'm not terribly squeamish about eating something made primarily of dried blood. In fact, it was intriguing. As Fergus Henderson (whom I hope to meet on this journey) says, "it’s the essence of the beast". We carnivores eat all manner of animal, nose to tail in some rare instances, but this most vital of fluids is usually lost to industrial purposes (glue) or to dog food. It's a pure form of protein and a shame to waste.

I generally like my first taste of any “challenging” dish to be from the best source possible, and prepared by knowing hands. However, my first taste of black pudding would be prepared in a home from a freezer by me. I cut slices, glistening with ice crystals and wrapped in plastic, thawed them in hot water, then fried them (minus the plastic) in a pan with a most orthogonal ingredient (olive oil) and dived in.

As I started eating, I pondered what most people struggle with in food. Probably the biggest is any blatant-reminder that you are eating an animal of some sort; the connection between "dead corpse" and "main course" being too much for people to handle. The smell of tripe can instantly remind us of what it did for a living, as can kidneys. Tongue, brains, nose, tail, ears; all-too-recognizable and enigmatic challenges to what we think of as food.

Even for me, black/blood pudding exhibits only two daunting pretenses; its appearance (which resembles a random piece of a burn victim) and its named contents. It tastes nor smells like anything else I can think of and nothing I'm likely to crave in the future. I'm not sure if my displeasure stems from the main ingredient, or one of the others mixed with it. Maybe this is just what dried, fried blood tastes like. I’d taste it one more time during the trip, and come to the same conclusion. I’d be curious what the cuisines of other countries do with this same “challenging” ingredient.

Taming of the Wild Haggis

For all of the disappointments in Scottish cuisine, the one we’re trained to fear most was actually the least threatening and even interesting. Like black pudding, the “haggai” (my invented plural for haggis as there were three of differing spice levels)
we had were cooked in a home by experienced, if not trained, hands, along with the traditional "neeps and tatties"; mashed turnips and mashed potatoes.

Despite the variety of offal in it, it smells nothing like the ingredients it contains nor the bladder containing it. Salt is an abundant ingredient (the Scottish tend to either omit it when it's needed or use far too much.) White pepper plays a big role, and what you're left with is a slightly gluey meatloaf owed to the suet mixed in with the other animal goodness.

Is it good? That is very much in the palate of the beholder, but I will say that haggis is nowhere near as daunting as its reputation. I would say it’s worth trying if you get the chance, but wouldn't say that the flavor is worth seeking out. Much like turkey at Thanksgiving, it's suitable for a once-a-year meal on "Rabbie Burns" night, a celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns where haggis is served with whiskey (or even poured over the it).

A second version I had in a restaurant (shown above) modified little about the basic dish. Apart from serving it formed into a circle with a whiskey and mustard cream sauce which was a marked improvement in the balance of flavors, the essence of the dish intact.

Scotland is a country steeped in tradition, but tradition has another name; momentum. Tendencies, both good and bad, have little chance of changing without motive and there doesn't seem to be a motive or desire to change much about food in Scotland. Do they have good food? Yes, though much of it isn't traditional or even Scottish for that matter. In the more expensive restaurants, the flavors and textures are still tempered to the Scottish palate. You can taste the restraint; if not in main courses, then in the side dishes. Vegetables are often boiled beyond recognition, and mashed if they resemble anything at the end. Beef is generally cooked to cremation, and greens make rare appearances on a plate.

For whatever reason, the bulk of Scottish people just aren't focused on nor passionate about food. Dinner (“tea”) is simply to combat hunger, one "tick" on the to-do list of the day and activities resume once it is finished. To discuss, question, or form a strong opinion about food can be perceived as being "up one's self" (snobbish); a no-no in a classist system. Best that I’m a visitor here.


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