Scotland's newfound confidence
Lochs, monsters and kilted redheads, sure… but Scotland has never been known for its restaurants. The last five years, though, have witnessed a sea change.
By Freya Herring
Lochs, monsters and kilted redheads, sure… but Scotland has never been known for its restaurants. The last five years, though, have witnessed a sea change – attribute it to the rise of Scottish independence, or the country’s forced exit from the EU (most of Scotland voted ‘remain’ in the 2016 Brexit referendum), but there has been a seismic cultural shift in the country, most deliciously expressed through Scotland’s food.
Scotland has acted as a so-called ‘larder’ for centuries: food was historically grown in Scotland and traipsed south to England for sale, while the poorer Scots ate up the scraps. Five years ago, the vast majority of Scotland’s fêted seafood was exported, while most of the seafood eaten in Scotland was imported. It has made no sense for too long, and chefs are starting to act.
Today, there are so many excellent restaurants serving up carefully, lovingly created fayre that
greasy spoon cafés are fast becoming the domain of older generations, while bright young things are out on the hunt for the latest eatery honouring and challenging what Scottish food is now. “I think what I’ve seen in the past five years is chefs being more confident in trying something different, expressing their style without worrying too much about expectation or ‘traditional’ techniques,” says chef Scott Smith, who runs Edinburgh dego restaurant Fhior.
Opening in 2018, the food at Fhior showcases, rather than smothers, Scottish produce. One seasonal petit-four, for example, is a gently-warmed, plump Scottish raspberry, tasting like you’ve just plucked it from a sun-dappled hedgerow. Smith grows almost all of Fhior’s fruit and veg in Edinburgh’s idyllic Secret Herb Garden. “In Scotland we’re known for our shellfish,” he says, noting that the fruit and veg as just as impressive, “The quality of our mushrooms are wanted all over Europe.”
A dish at Fhior might be creel-caught langoustine, shelled and brushed with Ross-shire rapeseed oil (“The Scottish olive oil,” says Smith) and barbecued for barely a minute for smokiness. “Then we wrap it in sour, salty, fermented rhubarb from our garden – that’s our lemon and salt,” he says. “With the shells we make a reduced stock then emulsify it with nutty brown butter, splitting the sauce with an oil made from lovage, and pouring that over at table.” Unsophisticated food, this is not.
Crab, tomato and whey from Fhior (top) and Malaysian Scottish fusion at Julie' s Kopitiam.
Over in post-industrial, hyper-creative Glasgow, you can’t shake a Tunnock’s Teacake without hitting a hip new eatery. Ex-Ottolenghi chef Rosie Healey at Gloriosa in culinary hotspot Finnieston highlights Scottish produce with a Mediterranean-bent – think smoked haddock carpaccio bejewelled with Barbie-pink radish; or silky scallop roe spaghetti, handmade inhouse. Across the river at Julie’s Kopitiam, Julie Lin Macleod fuses her Malaysian and Scottish heritage into dishes like venison char siu. “We have a multicultural food map in Scotland,” says Macleod. “And we need to not celebrate but acknowledge that colonisation is where that comes from.” At nearby Ranjit’s Kitchen, Ranjit Kaur has opted not to cook the colonial and Westernised Indian food usually associated with the UK (chicken tikka masala, for shame, was invented in Glasgow). Instead, she champions the traditional, homestyle vegetarian Punjabi food she grew up with – making her restaurant both a cultural moment, and an enormous hit.
Inver, near Argyll’s Loch Fyne.
Most of the leading chefs in Scotland, notably, are now women. It’s part and parcel of a new sort of egalitarianism – Glasgow’s Freedom Bakery sourdough is Iggy’s level-delicious, but it’s made by prisoners on day-release, in a bid to skill them up pre-release.
None of this is isolated to the cities, though. In rural Aberdeenshire, Mexican-born chef Martha Doyle cooks tacos under the stars at woodland pop-up dinners – cashmere goat tacos; Arbroath Smokie tostadas – sourcing almost everything nearby. In the Kingdom of Fife, a prime growing region thanks to long, dry, sun-drenched days (yes, really), the 17th century Kinneuchar Inn relaunched in 2019 under a group of ex-Rochelle’s Canteen and St John chefs cooking produce from Balcaskie Estate to mesmeric effect. Nearby, the swoon-worthy Bowhouse market comes replete with a brewery, mill, and even a Muffin Man. As far afield as the Outer Hebrides, North Uist Distillery is reviving ancient beremeal barley for their upcoming production of whisky, and championing local botanicals, like heather and brambles, for their gin, instead of importing it all from overseas.
And then there is Inver, one of the most remarkable restaurants, frankly, anywhere. Seated here in an old white cottage, overlooking the reflective waters of Argyll’s Loch Fyne, a castle perched beyond, co-patron chef Pam Brunton may serve you a pearly white wodge of Gigha halibut with mussels, monksbeard and cod roe cream. There are big, bountiful bowls of flower-flecked salad dressed with elderflower, and sea robin fish paired with citrussy sorrel. You won’t know what everything is, but that’s OK – slide into your chair and let yourself be whisked away to the Scotland of today, tomorrow, and thousands of years ago.
Eating now in Scotland is a reflection of what and who Scotland is today – a kaleidoscopic, thrashing together of cultures and ideas and a newfound confidence in just that. Like a revision of the Wildean giant who ultimately shares his coveted garden with the children, Scotland has decided to keep a corner or two of its garden for itself, and invite you all round to dine.
Words by Freya Herring. Images courtesy of Fhior, Julie's Kopitiam and Inver.