Why Scottish Restaurants Make Marina O'Loughlin Cringe
scotland

Why Scottish Restaurants Make Marina O'Loughlin Cringe

My home country’s reputation as being culinarily challenged has not been achieved without putting in the work. Scottish restaurants have a way to go until they’re no longer the punchline.
13 May 2016, 8:00amUpdated on 14 May 2016, 10:03am

Why do so many people who make a living from food come from a country that has been the butt of every foodie joke for decades? For a food-obsessed child born into a non-Scottish family, growing up in Scotland was … interesting. I'm not about to launch into a slagathon—a fish-in-barrel-shooting peppered with deep-fried Mars bars and Irn Bru—but even with all nationalistic love, I have to say that my home country's reputation as being culinarily challenged has not been achieved without putting in the work.

As a kid, eating well took work, too. For our olive oil, my family—Italian mother, Irish father—would make pilgrimages to a warehouse on the Clydeside, a wonderland in a stained old building where fragrant hams dangled from ceilings, vast slicers were on permanent salami duty, and massive wheels of Parmesan lurked in dusky corners. Its role was to service Glasgow's Italian trattorie—then, as now, Glasgow loved a good Italian. Or even an indifferent Italian, to be honest.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food

These and the curry houses formed my restaurant education. Even if the curry houses sold more mince ("It's no mince, it's keema") than anywhere else in the UK and we thought you ate your paté with a knife and fork. Legend has it that chicken tikka masala was invented here by the Ali family of the famous Shish Mahal, fulfilling a previously unidentified longing for tomato soup-flavoured curries.

Chef Neil Rankin, of London's successful Smokehouse and Bad Egg restaurants, remembers a particular Edinburgh delicacy.

"I'm not sure why so many Italians chose to move to Scotland but it was great for our restaurant scene," he says. "There were two kinds available side-by-side in the chip shops, the excellent thin crust with traditional toppings—not too dry and very light and airy. Or the other kind which was bizarrely just cheap frozen pizzas from the cash and carry deep-fried and served with chips. We'd eat these like a giant taco filled with chips and sometimes deep-fried haggis or sausage. We'd cover them in chippy sauce: cheap brown sauce watered down heavily with vinegar. Beyond delicious."

Me, I can't talk for the whole of Scotland. We didn't travel much. I know nothing of the outlying wee towns and small cities, only day trips to Ayr or Troon or Rothesay, where sustenance was chips and an Italian ice cream with raspberry syrup—a strange, thin, fuchsia liquid that had almost certainly never been near a raspberry in its puff. Edinburgh was posher than Glasgow foodwise (well, every-wise; still is). The big difference between the two cities wasn't anything to do with Protestantism vs Catholicism, posh vs, common, Celtic vs Hibs, but chips anointed with either salt and vinegar (Glasgow) or salt and sauce (Edinburgh).

The irony of the snottiness about Scottish food is that its native produce is amongst the finest in the world. But still we expats are still filled with what's known as the "Scottish cringe," a permanent feeling of being not quite good enough.

"It always makes me laugh when folk say we had no food culture," says Dundee-born Jeremy Lee, the influential chef at Soho's Quo Vadis. "We grew up with much that was good. The courgette was an object of awe and luxury, but not good bread, butter, cheese, cream, and more besides.'

Joanna Blythman, the prominent Edinburgh-based food writer, whose latest book Swallow This looks into our over-reliance on supermarkets and processed foods, agrees.

"I actually remember food being quite good," she says. "Growing up in Springburn, we had real milk in glass bottles and a once-a-week delivery from the grocer at the bottom of the road. There was a shop that sold fresh butter—formed with wooden paddles—and real cheese: Lockerbie and Galloway cheddar before it got industrialised. My grandmother and mother cooked: soup and stews and Scottish baking. They instilled in me a healthy suspicion of processed food."

The irony of the snottiness about Scottish food is that its native produce is amongst the finest in the world. But still we expats are still filled with the "Scottish cringe," a permanent feeling of being not quite good enough.

So why did so many of us bugger off then? A picture crystallises: wonderful produce, good, plain home cooking, indifferent restaurants. Of course, there were one or two: my first langoustines were eaten in Glasgow's seminal Ubiquitous Chip restaurant. Wow, get me, I thought, eating something that needed cracking open that wasn't a tin.

But despite throwing up a number of chef luminaries—Nick Nairn, Heston's former right-hand man Jocky Petrie, and of course, Big Sweary Gordon—Scotland has never been in danger of overtaking St Sebastian on the gastro-tourists' map. Broadcaster, comedian, and cook Hardeep Singh Koli remembers a landscape where the only beacons for a wee foodie boy were the curry houses.

"I remember the food offering in 70s Glasgow being almost nonexistent," he says. "Even pubs didn't offer much more than a pie. The curry house was, and is, the jewel in the crown of Glasgow life. I think it's this exact lack of food that fuelled my obsession. The food explosion in London in the early 90s felt not just like another country but another planet."

This rings so many bells, this sense of wonderment—dazzlement, really—that hit us when we finally made the trek to the fleshpots of London. Never mind streets paved in gold, here were streets wallpapered with restaurants. Returning home fired up with a desire to work in the business, I found it hard to replicate the thrill of places called Mwah Mwah or Nosh Brothers. In my Glasgwegian places of work, blaring music cool-kids joints like The Spaghetti Factory and The Rock Garden, food wasn't the top priority. (I remember a customer found a used Band-Aid in his salad. When I showed the chef he shrugged, "I bet they weren't expecting that kind of dressing.")

Is the food scene changing? Yes and no. There are stars—of course there are: Tom Kitchin and Mark Greenaway. And then the new brigade of forward-thinking restaurant contenders: Inver, Timberyard, The Gannet, Scorrybreac, and The Cellar. There's a rekindled pride in Scottish dishes and ingredients. But sometimes Scotland does itself no favours.

Why did so many of us bugger off to London? A picture crystallises: wonderful produce, good, plain home cooking, indifferent restaurants.

Blythman agrees: "When I mentioned to a friend that I had just visited a restaurant in Edinburgh called 'The Kilted Lobster' her instant reaction was: Stop right there. The name alone puts me off. And she was a 'Yes' voter."

There's still too much of this kind of thing—all shortbread tin, fur coat, and nae knickers. A new Indian restaurant in Glasgow from "celebrity chef" Tony Singh bristles with lumpen couthiness: "bits tae share," "Glasvegas," "Tony's tuckshop"—it makes my own Scottish cringe crank into overdrive.

It's either this kind of thing or American barbecue and burgers, spreading over the big cities like a rash. Scottish restaurants have a way to go until they're no longer the punchline. They need to stop serving sausage and mash in wine glasses for the pure dead poshness, or the likes of "scheme poutine" ("scheme" is local lingo for a scabby council estate).

In answer to my own question, the reason I hot-footed it to That London is simple: the beauty of Scotland's produce may be second to none, but that was where the restaurants were. There's only so much cullen skink, lasagne and chips, and chicken tikka masala a girl can take.

Illustration by Alice Duke.

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