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Posts Tagged ‘Anstruther’

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Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot famously said, ‘The English do not have a cuisine; they have food. Overcooked meat, boiled vegetables, inedible cheese. And the day they invent English wine, I am retreating to the Continent.’ *

I should emphasize I’ve only been to Scotland, sadly missing England, Ireland, and Wales, not that it’s forever. I’m going. But despite one meal in Scotland, strictly average fajitas eaten at the sole restaurant at the edge of Rannoch Moor, everything we ate was incredible.** The trick, always and forever, is to eat where the locals eat, and to eat what’s locally sourced. In the space of one week we put 800 miles on our little rental car, driving across the central part of the country. Coast to coast, from Oban to St. Andrews, we feasted.

From a remote farm we bought bags of wonderful homemade granola with bright orange marigold petals in it. At the Gateway to the Isles at the western coast we ate tiny succulent mussels, harvested at a nearby island, and no bigger than the tip of your finger. At the opposite coast in Anstruther (pronounced ‘Enster’), at the recommendation of a portly policeman, we had crisp, tender fish and chips with malt vinegar. All week we ate a proper English breakfast with eggs, rashers, and bangers prepared by the house manager, a small, wiry English expat (our host called him Wee Jim). And of course we tried haggis, although made unconventionally: tater tot-sized, fried, and served with a creamy garlic dipping sauce. Conventional or not, it was rich and satisfying. And everywhere there were local brews of beer and whisky.

But travel aside, I’ve loved the British dishes I’ve prepared at home, and there have been quite a few. This year I’m going to tackle more of them. The poor reputation is getting pushed aside. I want to try out classic dishes; I want to learn about this region’s great tradition of simple, comforting foods; and I want to talk about it.

My Cooking of the British Isles (Time-Life, 1969) will be my chief guide. I’ve already made Scotch Woodcock, Traditional English Christmas Cake, and Irish Christmas Cake. I tried Spiced Beef in Christmas 2014 and failed because the recipe didn’t emphasize that I needed to season every inch of the meat. But that’s on the editors of the book, not on the whole of the British Empire. I’ll try it again sometime.

For now, I started with Eve’s Pudding, a recipe from James Dunlinson, an Englishman who was the design director for Martha Stewart Living. Yesterday I was cooped up inside for most of the day while the outside was blizzarding. Today I put butter in a bowl to soften, shoveled out my car for an hour and a half, then came back inside and made this lovely thing.

It’s basically a cobbler, full of cinnamon and apples (would Eve have it any other way?). Warm out of the oven, with my extremities still red from cold, it was was a profoundly comforting experience. The British know from cold and raw; they built up a tradition of cooking to counter it. And it’s worked for a few years.

Poirot can stay a little smug; I always giggle at his statement. But not too smug.

*For best effect, say ‘food’ with a nasal French accent, the way he did. And it’s worth noting that Christie herself was an Englishwoman. Whether the statement was a sly personal editorial on the food of her homeland or her best guess of a Belgian’s opinion of it, we don’t know.

**Who in the name of all that is holy eats fajitas in the West Highlands? Well…I hadn’t had a vegetable in a week. It’s hard to find them in pubs in Scotland. When you see ‘salad’ on the menu chalkboard, they mean tuna salad or ham salad. Nothing green. As we were eating, an elderly Englishman approached our table gingerly about what he called ‘the fajitas,’ pronouncing the ‘j’. ‘Are they nice?’ he asked. If you need vegetables, and you probably do, then yeah.

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Much can be said for everyday pantry and fridge staples, the Monday night spaghetti and meatballs, the Thursday night chicken tacos. Who hasn’t sunk gratefully—heart, soul and tummy—into a warm bowl of alphabet soup? Like old Nat King Cole standards, these mealtime standards soothe, comfort, and never let you down.

Which is great.

But there comes a time, I hope, when you’re ready to shake the dust off, to get out of the comfy chair and try something new. And by new I mean something off center. Way off center is even better.

To wit, the llama burger above.

Recently I was lucky enough to be invited to the NOFA-NJ (Northeast Organic Farming Association of NJ) Winter Conference at Princeton University as a representative from Edible Jersey magazine. There I met some truly fascinating folks, including Linda Walker and her son, Brent. At their farm, WoodsEdge Wools Farm in Stockton, NJ, the pair raise llamas and alpacas for fiber and meat.

…Meat? That threw me. But when Brent grinned and his eyes lit up describing the flavor, I knew I wanted in. Two pounds of ground meat was snatched up on the spot, and the next night I was in my kitchen, a hefty patty sizzling in a hot skillet, an earthy, rich smell saturating my place. It was such a mild night that I opened my back door, sending the aroma wafting over Loch Arbour and tormenting the neighbors. (Sorry, folks. The website link’s at the bottom of the page here. Order away.)

As much of a treat as the smell was, the flavor and juiciness were astonishing. Imagine the best hamburger you’ve ever had. Got it? Now imagine it made with filet mignon. That’s the best descriptor I can come up with. Since it’s fat that makes meat tender, and Brent told me it’s much leaner than beef, I can’t explain why it’s the tenderest burger I’ve ever had.  But some things are just fine left as a mystery, and this is one of them.

From Stockton to Scotland, now, for the next food adventure. A breathtakingly beautiful country, it doesn’t typically come to mind when one thinks of wonderful food. But you can eat very well in Scotland (and most anywhere on the planet, I believe) as long as you do two things, and never waver from them:

1) Eat what the locals eat. You wouldn’t order pasta bolognese in Mexico, would you? Ask a country to do what it doesn’t do, and you’re asking for disappointment.

2) Be curious. Words to live by, but especially when you have the opportunity to try something new. Go ahead and have a bias or two (I will never eat a worm, delicacy though it may be on some remote rock in the Pacific) but try to keep that mind opened.

In Scotland, I ate what Scotland does best: heaps of pub food and seafood. Not surprisingly, they were consistently stellar. I’ve never much liked shellfish, but I wanted to learn to appreciate it; the country, a peninsula, knows it intimately. Tiny mussels harvested from the waters surrounding one of the nearby islands burst with briny flavor, and now I love mussels. Salmon has always been a favorite, but the poached local salmon I had in Scotland was unlike anything I have had before or since, so whisper-soft that it almost dissolved on my tongue. It was like eating an entirely new food.

One misty day, on the road to St. Andrew’s, I stopped in Anstruther (pronounced Enster) to try fish and chips, something I’d never had before. (Heck, no, I don’t count Arthur Treacher’s.) I’d read that the locals are the best source to go to when looking for the best food, and almost as if I had dreamed him up, a stout policeman with friendly blue eyes and chubby cheeks appeared as I rounded a corner.

He blushed and smiled, jotting down the name of a tiny shop at the water’s edge. All at once he became very serious, and leaned in conspiratorially. “Don’t go to the place next door, the one with all of the signs saying it’s the best. Be sure to go to the place next to it.” The woman behind the counter handed me an order of cod, along with chips and malt vinegar. I found a bench next to the boats and tucked in. The enormous filets were delicately breaded and fried with no frills at all, and they didn’t need it. It’s full-circle beauty, sitting by the sea while tasting something from the sea.

Back to the country’s interior—Dunblane, for dinner.

Haggis (come on, you knew I was going to bring it up), a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with oatmeal, onions and spices and cooked, is loathed and feared by many outside the UK. Many, I should clarify, who might never have tried it. It’s among the humblest of peasant foods, fitting in with pasta e fagioli or the aforementioned tacos. Because of my love of peasant food, and because haggis is so well-loved in its homeland, it deserved a try.

Although the pub I visited didn’t serve it the traditional way, stuffed into a sheep’s stomach and served with turnips, it was still wonderful—almost overwhelmingly rich, but full of heady, pungent flavor. Here I am, holding a nugget of haggis the size of a tater tot, fried and dipped into garlic cream sauce.

I’ve cooked for people who have looked warily down at their dishes and I say, “Try it. Try it and hate it, for all I care, but try it.” If you in fact hate it, you’re no worse off than you were before. If you love it, your world gets bigger.

http://www.alpacasllamaswoodsedge.com/

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Scotland:

  • velvety deep-green mountains when it’s overcast and sparkling with a million diamond droplets when the sun shines
  • highlan’ coos (highland cows); woollies (sheep, black-face and otherwise)
  • people with a goofy sense of humor
  • castles and ruins along major roads
  • landscape with intense yellows and blues
  • windmills
  • eggs on shelves instead of in fridges at Tesco
  • wonderful local seafood and beer
  • horizons not spoiled by telephone poles
  • Glencoe’s Lord-of–the-Rings mountains and hikers walking with backpacks miles from civilization
  • cheers = thank you, brilliant = great
  • Edinburgh’s hilly, colorful Royal Mile and Goth restaurant, the Witchery
  • sunny mountains in three shades of green
  • ravens
  • cool village names like Yetts O’Muckhart
  • the fact that you can take a ferry to Belgium
  • stone cottages
  • Kilmartin’s ancient stone markers and cairns
  • the Scottish method for predicting the weather: go to the top of the Wallace Monument. If you can see the loch, it will be raining in an hour. If you can’t, it’s raining already
  • a landscape that goes from lush pine trees on one side of the hill to rocky and stark on the other
  • hauntingly delicious local heather honey
  • pheasants running in the meadows
  • Hamish, the Hairy Haggis children’s book
  • dogs and their owners together in pubs
  • sunset at 9:15p in May
  • great fish and chips with vinegar on a bench near the water in Anstruther (pronounced “Enster”)
  • trees curving sideways from the wind near St. Andrew’s
  • yellow wildflowers packed in huge squares over pastures, rhododendrons in gold, lavender and deep red, and woodland hills covered in bluebells
  • the cheesemonger in the town of St. Andrew’s, and the mines, counter-mines, and false starts underneath the castle
  • low-ceilinged pubs painted white with dark wood beams
  • civilized train travel: cloth-covered seats, carpeting, and tables between seats
  • the boar and the footprint carved into stone and the beautiful, desolate landscape at Dunadd Fort

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