And what to skip
If you’ve been following my adventures in Scotland series, you already know that my first international voyage taught me three things: Heathrow is the seventh circle of hell, it’s whisky, not whiskey, and everything tastes better in Scotland.
I could write an entire book on my undying love affair with Scottish food. For now, I’ll focus on the three things I really wish we could get in the United States.
Food in Scotland is generally much better quality than food in the States. I am told that this is because of EU regulations on produce and meats and that this may change once Brexit comes into full effect. But for now…
Grocery stores are incredible
You know how we have an organic section? Well, in Scotland they have a GMO section in some grocery stores. All of the GMO products are clearly labeled in every grocery store so it’s easy to avoid them.
The shelf life of food is also listed right on the container. Because everything is so fresh, don’t be surprised to find a loaf of bread or package of deli meat labeled 2+ days. The first time I went grocery shopping I bought too much food and ended up putting a lot of it in the compost bin. It didn’t take me long to get the hang of buying a few days worth of groceries, then ordering a few days more, etc.
The grocery stores themselves have an amazing selection of items and the prices are comparable to (or sometimes better than) back home. There are three main grocery stores, and I was fortunate enough to visit all three.
Lidl is like Aldi in really nice neighborhoods. They have extremely low prices and also sell a good variety of beer and wine. Compared to some of the other grocery stores, they are pretty scaled-down and no-frills.
Tesco, my personal favorite grocery store, is like a super Walmart. They sell clothing, dishes, gift items, and everything else you would expect from a regular grocery store. They also offer click and collect, which is basically curbside pickup, as well as grocery delivery in most areas.
Sainsbury’s is the other major grocery store, and they also sell clothing, household goods and gifts. Sainsbury has a much better makeup selection than Tesco, but Tesco has a better whisky selection so it all balances out. Sainsbury’s also a little bit more expensive than Tesco, and the service was not quite as enthusiastically friendly as the service I received in Tesco.
I should mention that all of these stores have ‘Express’ versions, local stores with less selection that stock all the essentials — eggs, bread, milk, and of course, whisky.
Mini chicken kievs, clotted cream, and sticky toffee pudding are amazing
My first order from Tesco included take and bake Chicken Kiev, which is as common over there as chicken cordon bleu is here. Like chicken cordon bleu, chicken kiev is super-rich and more of a special treat than an everyday meal, in my opinion. The second time I ordered, they had frozen mini chicken kievs on sale, so I decided to take a chance on them.
They. Are. Everything. Remember those cheddar cheese filled frozen chicken nuggets you ate growing up? These are almost exactly like that, except not gross. Mini chicken kievs are a step up from chicken nuggets, like the difference between Hunt’s vanilla pudding and creme brulee. Filled with butter and finely minced parsley, these bite-sized treats are equally delicious baked or fried.
If homemade whipped cream and fresh churned butter had a love child, it would be clotted cream. We don’t actually have anything like it here in the States. It’s the consistency of cream cheese, melts like butter, and tastes like panna cotta gelato. While I was over there, clotted cream was like Frank’s — I put that ish on everything!
I couldn’t believe that out of hundreds of American grocery stores, none of them so clotted cream. Then I found out that clotted cream is illegal in the United States. Apparently, the FDA doesn’t allow us to sell raw milk products in stores, so the only way I would be able to get my hands on clotted cream here is to buy some directly from a farm!
Last but not least, there’s sticky toffee pudding. I’m pretty sure I ate sticky toffee pudding every day after I first discovered it, which sadly was almost a week into my trip. Like clotted cream, this delicacy is hard to describe. The closest I can come is homemade gingerbread, the soft kind that kind of dissolves in your mouth. When my grandmother would make gingerbread, she would take the crumbs from the pan, along with some powdered sugar and butter, and make a rich sauce she poured on top. That mushy, melty, wonderful texture is spot on for sticky toffee pudding. The flavor, however, is like really good homemade butter toffee. Less Heath bar, more Werther’s original.
While it’s possible to make sticky toffee pudding in the United States, finding the ingredients is a bit of a hassle. A proper sticky toffee pudding requires dates, inverted sugar, and Lyle’s golden syrup. While it’s incredible topped with a scoop of clotted cream ice cream, French vanilla will do in a pinch.
Sticky toffee pudding is so incredible that I smuggled some into the United States. There’s a brand called Gü, which is like Häagen-Dazs except they do all kinds of desserts. Gü never steered me wrong, and their hot puds sticky toffee pudding was no exception. Just thinking about the buttery richness of those sinful little puddings makes me want to hop on a plane and go right back!
…But, lunch sucks
There’s a flip side to everything, and in this case it’s the true wretchedness of lunch in the UK. First of all, they put strange things in sandwiches, like tuna with sweet corn, or spicy chicken curry salad, or egg salad without mayonnaise or any seasoning, or tomato and cheese on soggy white bread. Secondly, I could never quite get the hang of when lunchtime is, since breakfast is served until 11:00 and tea time is at 3:00. Maybe that’s why lunches are so light, they are just a pit stop on the way to tea time which, by the way, is also amazing.
If you’re really jonesing for a midday meal, your best bet is to visit a chippy AKA chip shop. Chippies are the hot dog vendors of Scotland, ubiquitous and highly varying in quality. Out of eight chip shops I visited, three were incredible, four were good, and one was downright awful (the fact that they sold deep-fried pizza was a red flag I should not have ignored). If you ever make it across the pond, Bertie’s, City Restaurant and Mum’s Comfort Food were my favorites.
Another good alternative to God-awful Scottish lunches are Cornish pasty, AKA hand pies. These are small, usually handheld pouches about the size of a Hot Pocket. They usually have a braided rim which makes them really easy to hold, but sometimes they have the edges of a regular pie. There are tons of different varieties, some of my favorites were cheese and onion, spinach and feta, chicken and mushroom, and potato cheese and onion.
I met this really friendly couple at a place around the corner from my apartment in Edinburgh called The Piemaker. I was ordering a ton of pies near the end of the night, they were in line behind me and I felt bad about hogging all the cornish pastries. So I asked them if they wanted to go ahead and get some pies before I demolished what was left. Turned out they were the owners!
The sweet husband and wife (whose names escape me at the moment) told me all about the history of Cornish pies. Apparently, during the industrial revolution, Welsh immigrants were hard-pressed to find a job anywhere outside of a coal mine. Conditions were oppressive, and often the workers were not given adequate time for lunch. Their wives came up with the idea of doing handheld meat pies with braided rims. Instead of wasting their limited lunch breaks on handwashing, coal miners were able to hold on to the rim with their dirty hands and simply throw it away after they finished eating.
Traditional Scottish hand pies are filled with beef, mutton, or haggis, along with potatoes and gravy, but the true star of the show is the Cornish pasty dough. Made without sugar or any type of seasoning except for salt, this flaky, buttery crust is an art form. Scots pride themselves on using real Cornish pasty dough for their pies. Apparently, the French also make hand pies, but their dough includes sugar, something strictly forbidden in real Cornish pies.
I would be remiss to ignore some of the truly gross things people eat in Scotland. There’s haggis, which I passed on both because I don’t eat land animals and because it looks like gourmet dog food. Then there’s cullen skink, a type of fish and potatoes stew which tastes clam chowder-ish, except not so great.
Finally, there’s breakfast. Aside from the fact that the UK considers baked beans to be an appropriate part of a balanced breakfast, many of the things we are used to eating in America suck in Scotland, namely hashbrowns, eggs benedict, and bagels.
If you do accidentally order a bagel, get it toasted with plenty of butter. Scottish butter covers a multitude of sins.
Scottish cuisine is flavorful and unique, and oddly, all seems to go well with whisky. I should have come back to Cleveland a hundred pounds heavier, but the rich foods were balanced out by long walks in brisk weather. If you ever make it across the pond, be sure to leave room in your bag to smuggle back sticky toffee pudding, and remember to bring good walking shoes.
More adventures in Scotland: It’s Whisky, not Whiskey, Navigating Scotland as a First Time International Traveler