Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scotland may have some lessons to teach Ireland about food

Sometimes, you find a place that chimes with everything you think, feel and believe about food. A place that focuses on simple things such as quality and flavour, generosity and community. A place like Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.

"Oh, I have to bring you here," my boyfriend said when he saw Loch Fyne come up on the sat nav. "My mother used to love it."

Loch Fyne Oyster Bar grew from what was essentially a stall by the lake. Its setting is stunning (excuse the cars above but the fact that I couldn't get a picture without cars shows how popular this place is).

It's still quite a modest building, as you can see from the pictures above but when you get inside, you can't help but be impressed.

The first thing you see is a range of seafood. This is appropriate as Loch Fyne was established 32 years ago with the idea of growing oysters in the clear waters of the lake. This is still its main focus but it has grown to include a cluster of businesses, all of which focus on offering great food. 

Seafood and fish is still at the heart of Loch Fyne and there is quite a variety on offer; all locally and sustainably sourced. This is a food business that takes such concepts seriously. It works closely with the Marine Conservation Society and is committed to its environment - something that is highlighted throughout the store.

Its staff are wonderful too. We didn't know what fish to buy and the staff offered taster samples of a variety of different ones before we made our final decision. Perhaps their generosity has to do with the fact that for the past eight years, the Loch Fyne company has been run by its employees. Its team of 140-odd staff now have a say in the future of the business and it's in everyone's interest to keep the customers happy.

As well as the seafood and fish, the shop stocks a selection of other top-quality Scottish produce too. There's shortbread, honey, muesli, cereals, tablet (a type of Scottish confectionery) and so much more.

And that's not all. There's also an adjoining café, serving simply cooked food using the quality ingredients on offer in the shop. Mussels, smoked rainbow trout, whole roasted seabream, beef casserole and venison were some of the dishes on offer when I was there.

I'd love to see more places like this in Ireland. Places where people can buy food directly from those involved in producing it. Places where  producers can serve their food with pride. I know we've got farmers' markets where customers engage with food producers and get to ask them questions but we don't have enough farm shops or places like Loch Fyne .

Or maybe we have some that I'm not aware of. Do you know of any? If so, post a comment to let me know. I'd love to visit them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ditch the deep-fried Mars Bars the next time you're in Edinburgh. Eat here instead.

I just knew it had to be true. There had to be more to Scottish food than haggis, fish and chips and deep-fried Mars bars. On my recent trip to the country, I decided to try to prove my theory.

My first stop was Edinburgh, where I had an awful lot to eat. I've already written about the Chinese, Indian and Spanish food I had in my previous post but I haven't told you about the higher end of dining we also enjoyed.  So, here goes...

We stayed in 21212 while we were in Edinburgh and had dinner there on the first night. This is a Michelin-starred restaurant with four bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen is run by Paul Kitching, whose playful approach to food is causing quite a stir in the city.

The restaurant is small, seating a maximum of 38, but cosy and sumptuously decorated. The open kitchen looks out onto the dining area you can see above so you can watch the chefs as they assemble your dishes.

21212 takes its name from the layout of the menu, which offers a choice of two starters, one soup, two main courses, one cheese course and two desserts. Because there were two of us, we decided to taste everything.

(I must apologise before I continue. I don't have any pictures of the food. We had driven all the way from Dingle to Edinburgh that day (a distance Google tells me is 496 miles) and when I was greeted with champagne, all thoughts of being a good blogger went out the window. It was only when I woke up in the morning - feeling slightly groggy from champagne - that I thought 'darn it! Why didn't I take any pictures of that wonderful food?'.)

Because it was good. Really good.

Each of the dishes was a complex creation involving lots of flavours dancing around a central ingredient. Take the trout tart for example. A delicate baked trout fillet in a cheese and lemon glazed tart served with white asparagus, girolles mushrooms, cucumber, white and brown crabmeat, chilli, a thyme and onion cream sauce and Marie Rose mayonnaise.
It sounds like overkill, doesn't it? And yet it wasn't. The trout was allowed to be the star of the show while the other ingredients played supporting roles. This was clever cooking that only a talented professional could achieve.

Other dishes included a chicken, mushroom and leek pie (no ordinary pie, mind you, but one served with the likes of kohlrabi and piccalilli mayonnaise, morel and pimento squares and smoked bacon); smoked haddock baked in saffron and pink peppercorns and served with scallops, chickpeas and hazelnuts; beef fillet served with root vegetables, tarragon butter and a pea and mint purée; excellent cheeses; and the most imaginative desserts.

How does a Mars Bar, popcorn and Scottish shortbread brulée served with a fresh raspberry coulis, toffee, chocolate, caramel and oatmeal sound? It sounded odd to me but it made sense in the mouth, the flavours mingling in surprising ways and the sharp berries cutting through the sweetness. 

There were so many highlights to this meal but I have to mention the cheeseboard which featured 11 types of cheeses from all over Britain and the continent, everyone one served at a perfect stage of ripeness; and the cheeky sommelier. He was from France but maintained he had been excommunicated because of his passion for New World wines. He helped us choose wines to complement our food with real enthusiasm and no pretension whatsoever.

My verdict on 21212? This is a restaurant that takes top-quality Scottish ingredients and combines them using an imaginative approach and with an emphasis on strong, gutsy flavours.

Dinner here costs £67 per person for five courses, excluding drinks.

The following day, we had lunch at 12 Picardy Place, where chef Mark Greenaway opened a restaurant in February.

This small, intimate restaurant is housed in one of Edinburgh's grand Georgian buildings. Its décor is minimalist yet plush and the food served here is seasonal, local and always cooked with passion.

We started with an amuse bouche of hazelnuts - a layer of salty broth topped with a creamy hazelnut mousse, crunchy hazelnuts and a slick of hazelnut oil. The combination of salty, creamy and nutty flavours and smooth and crunchy textures made for a good start to the meal.

My starter was a summer pea velouté - a soup that was the essence of pea served with a pea raviollo, chanterelles mushrooms, crisp pancetta and summer truffle. The sweetness of the peas contrasted with the earthiness of the mushrooms and truffles and the saltiness of the pancetta was a delight.

But my boyfriend definitely chose the more exciting starter. The Loch Fyne Crab 'Cannelloni' has become Mark Greenaway's signature dish:

The dish on top contains the 'cannelloni' which is crab meat wrapped in a herb butter and served with beetroot mayonnaise and baby coriander. Underneath is a dish of smoked cauliflower custard, lemon 'pearls' (bursting with citrus flavour) and more beetroot mayonnaise. 
When you lift the top dish off the bottom, oaky smoke wafts out from the bowl underneath, adding another level to the dish.

For mains, I had pan-roasted hake served with a lobster tortellini, fennel and dill purée, pumpkin, radishes, a mash of purple potatoes and a ginger and spring onion broth.

The hake was perfectly cooked with a crisp skin and flaky flesh. The lobster lent a touch of luxury and the broth an unexpected flavour of the East.

My boyfriend had the 11-hour roasted belly of pork - a spiced fillet served with pomme purée, savoy cabbage and toffee apple jus. It was a simple dish; spicy and sweet, crispy and smooth and with lots of strong flavours.

For dessert, I had a chocolate fondant and my boyfriend had Mark's Eton Mess. Unfortunately, they didn't quite live up to the high standards of the rest of the meal. Although I like my chocolate bitter, I found my fondant lacking in sweetness. But the other elements of the dish - the vanilla tuile, white chocolate mousse, orange 'caviar' and tonka bean ice cream - helped make up for this.

Mark's deconstructed Eton Mess was interesting and had lots of contrasting sweet and tart flavours but I didn't think the meringue 'shards' were an improvement on ordinary meringue. I like the chewy texture of meringue and the way it contrasts with the soft berries and luscious cream in a regular Eton Mess


Overall though, I would recommend a visit to Mark Greenaway's restaurant at 12 Picardy Place. He's an ambitious chef with a daring approach to food and flavour.

Our three-course lunch with sparkling water cost £70. There is a £20 lunch menu for those seeking better value.

So, if ever you're in Edinburgh, don't feel you have to gorge on haggis and deep-fried confectionary. Discover just how much more this is to Scottish food by visiting 21212 and Restaurant Mark Greenaway.

3 Royal Terrace
Edinburgh, Midlothian EH7 5AB

Restaurant Mark Greenaway,
12 Picardy Place, Edinburgh EH1 3JT

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm not dead. I've just been recuperating (and eating!)

Don't worry. I haven't died from hyperventilation!
There are several reasons why I haven't posted anything here for the past two weeks and none of them has to do with my premature death as a result of trying to bake too much for the Dingle Food Festival!

Firstly, I had to spend some time recuperating. I'd worked myself ridiculously hard (59 hours over four days) and ended up a gibbering wreck. Thankfully, I'm over that now.

Despite my gibbering, I have to say I enjoyed the food festival this year. There was such a great atmosphere on the streets of Dingle as people wandered through the town, sampling little taster plates of local foods as they went. The two food markets were exceptionally busy and I loved meeting lots of Twitter friends and fellow food bloggers at my stall. I grabbed every opportunity to chat but unfortunately, I was so busy that there wasn't time to have a chinwag with everyone. Nor was there any time for me to take any photos of all that was happening around me but thankfully, Aoife of I Can Has Cook has a great write up here.

My second reason for not updating is that I've been away. I got a chance to go to Scotland for work and as my boyfriend has a lot of family in England, we decided to combine it with paying a visit to them. So, we climbed into the car at 6am on a Tuesday morning, drove to Larne just north of Belfast, took the ferry to Cairnryan in Scotland and arrived in Edinburgh just shortly before dinnertime. We spent three days in that wonderful city (where I once spent a happy summer as a student), then travelled north to Oban and the island of Mull and generally mooched and ate our way around the Highlands. 

Isn't Scotland pretty?

We then travelled south to Hereford (with a pitstop to see the Angel of the North just outside Newcastle, which is totally worth a visit), followed by two days in London and another day in Gloucester. Finally, we arrived back in Dingle 12 days later, having travelled more than 2,000 miles and had an absolutely great time.

We ate lots of good food while we were away. I've got so much to tell you about eating in Edinburgh - having eaten in the fabulous 21212 and No. 12 Picardy Place - but I'm going to start my series of holiday posts by sharing some tips about three other great restaurants in that city.

Dingle may have a strong (and growing) food culture, as the success of its annual food festival attests. But the one thing I miss about not living in a city is the quality of Chinese, Indian, Japanese and other foreign cuisines. It’s something we just don’t have and I often wish we did. So, when I go to the city, I want to sample some of those foods – as well as foods that typify that city too.

I went to three places in Edinburgh: the Chinese Karen’s Unicorn, the Indian Mother India and the tapas bar Café Andaluz – all of which have lots to recommend them. (My apologies in advance for the quality of the photos - I only had my phone with which to take them.) 

Karen’s Unicorn was recommended by Mark Greenaway, the chef at No 12 Picardy Place.  We’d been impressed by the modern Scottish food he cooked for us and had to follow his advice as a result.  The restaurant looks enticing from the outside, its blue twinkling brightly in a sedate Edinburgh square. 

We were instantly greeted by the staff and what wonderful staff they were. I don't know if I've ever met any friendlier or kinder. We were dithering over our choices when the lovely Danny said that if we chose something we were unhappy with or didn't really like, we could always send it back.
“It’s important to us that our customers are happy,” he said. Wouldn’t it be great if all restaurants had that policy?

We had dim sum, steamed pork buns, war tip dumplings, battered ginger monkfish, crispy beef and a side dish of stir-fried vegetables. My favourites were the pork buns and the monkfish. The buns were soft and fluffy, steamy, slightly sweet and filled with a contrastingly spicy meat filling. 

The monkfish was a lovely Chinese take on the Scottish classic of battered fish - the batter was crisp, the fish perfectly cooked and the spicing gave the dish a light, fresh taste. Yum! 
Our meal, which was more than enough to feed two people and included four beers and one dessert of lychees, cost £50 - good value, don't you think?

Café Andaluz is an attempt to recreate the fiesta of Spain in Scotland. It's fabulously decorated with tiles, Moorish lamps and colourful fabrics and its menu is a varied range of classic Spanish tapas as well as some dishes - such as the beef carpaccio with wasabi and pickled ginger in a spicy dressing - that fuse Spanish cooking with other cuisines. 

Unfortunately, I didn't take photos but I did enjoy my meal here. I had aubergine stuffed with herbed couscous and topped with melted manchego cheese, which was a dish of simple, strong flavours, and battered lime-scented prawns served with a lime aioli. This was fresh, crispy and bursting with citrus flavour.  

Richard (I don't know if I've told you that that's my boyfriend's name!) had the beef carpaccio, which combined its strong flavours in a brave way and featured beef of a very high quality, as well as sea bass served in a citrus mango dressing, which was light and zingy.
The atmosphere here was buzzing. We drank delicious beers. And it cost us £20 each. 

On another day, we had lunch at Mother India, one of Edinburgh's best-loved Indian restaurants. Everyone who works here is Indian. There are Indian film posters on the walls and the menu specialises in tapas-sized plates of Indian food, which means that you can mix and match different dishes. 

We had aloo gobi with green beans, chicken korma, machi massala (a spiced fish dish), boiled rice, raita, coriander chutney and aloo paratha (Indian flat bread stuffed with potato) and it was all good. All of these dishes were simply and excellently spiced and tasted like something the best kind of Indian mamma would make - wholesome, hearty, homely food. The bill, which also included sparkling water for two, came to less than £25.

I would recommend all of these as places to eat in Edinburgh, particularly as places to eat with large groups of friends.

I'd also love to know where your favourite Indian, Spanish or Chinese restaurants are. After all, who knows when I'll next be in your city, craving some foreign foods.

Karen's Unicorn, 8 Abercromby Place, New Town, Edinburgh EH3 6LB
Café Andaluz, 77 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 3EE
Mother India, 3-5 Infirmary Street Edinburgh EH1 1LT