Shall we just cut to the quick and address the elephant in the room? Or, that is, the sheep’s stomach in the room? The one filled with bits and pieces of sheep’s lung, liver, and heart mixed with suet and spices, along with onions and oatmeal? Yes, we’re talking about haggis. You’ll encounter Scotland’s favorite traditional dish on menus everywhere, and sooner or later, you really must try it. Because haggis is delicious, best when accompanied by neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), and washed down with a shot or two of smoky single malt whisky. Have a few of those malts and you might be moved to recite a verse or two from Robert Burns, who praised haggis as the “great chieftain o the puddin’-race!” Chefs are venturing into all sorts of variations of haggis, mixed with Indian spices, vegetarian versions, and small portions served tapas style as an appetizer. Haggis also often appears in a full Scottish—breakfast, that is, accompanied by baked beans, fried egg, sausage, and tattie scones (made with mashed potatoes). Yes, a full Scottish sends you into the day with a full human stomach.
It’s probably not entirely surprising that a country that makes a national dish out of sheep offal also enjoys black pudding. That’s pig’s blood, mixed with pig fat and oatmeal, and stuffed sausage-like into a casing. One more dish that might have you scratching your head when perusing a menu in Scotland is cullen skink. Off-putting as the name might be (it’s been suggested it sounds like the name of a villain in a novel by Charles Dickens), this rich fish soup is just the tonic for a winter night when the weather is dreich and the rain is beating against the windows. (This being Scotland, that might also be a summer’s eve.) Cullen skink combines smoked fish (traditionally haddock), potatoes (usually mashed), onions, and a wee bit of cream, how much depending upon the cook; the more cream, the richer the soup. Scotch pie is as easy as pie to find, and in some places still sold by street vendors (piemen or piewives), as it has been since the Middle Ages. Eaten hot or cold, often as a handy on-the-go snack, the pie consists of a double crust filled with minced mutton cooked with herbs.
The Scots also enjoy a lot of food that is not as exotic as haggis or pig’s blood but is just plain delicious. Aberdeen Angus beef, from shaggy beasts that spend their lives outdoors feeding on grass, is rich, marbled, and tender. Depending on where you happen to be dining, lamb tastes of the heather-clad moors of the Highlands or the salt-tinged pasturelands and shores of the Shetland islands, with a wee hint of seaweed. Salmon seem to jump out of the sea and rivers right into the kitchen, best onto a grill and simply done with some herbs—or smoked over oak. The modest herring becomes quite regal when split from head to tail, salted, and smoked over wood chips to emerge as a kipper. The best are from Loch Fyne.
Among their other fine qualities, many Scots have a sweet tooth. You may or may not share their enthusiasm for battered Mars bars (as if the popular candy bar isn’t unhealthful enough, in this version it’s dipped in a sweet batter and deep fried). Only slightly less challenging to cholesterol levels are sweet buttery shortbread, a national treasure for centuries, and sticky toffee pudding, sweet sponge cake soaked in toffee sauce and topped with ice cream. A favorite on-the-go treat is tablet, the Scottish version of fudge.
Whisky & Beer
Sir Walter Scot praised Scotch whisky as the “only liquor fit for a gentleman to drink in the morning.” A wee dram is satisfying just about any time of the day, and after dinner, sipped in front of a fire, is the best sleep tonic around.
Americans will make a much better impression on bar tenders if they can refrain from asking for Scotch. Here at the source, Scotch is simply whisky, and it’s spelled without the “e” as it is across the Atlantic. It’s also important to specify a single malt or a blend. You’ll be taken more seriously if you ask for a single malt, especially if you can specify a point of origin: for example, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, or Campbeltown on Kintyre. You can ruin your connoisseur credentials entirely with a single word: “ice.”
Blended whiskies came into being because the single malts were for a long time too harsh for delicate palates and they were expensive and time-consuming to produce. A shortcut was developed: A portion of whisky could be mixed with such ingredients as American corn, Finnish barley, Glasgow city tap water, and caramel coloring. Not that there’s anything wrong with blends. They’re rich and tasty, and since they account for about 90% of Scotland’s whisky output, you’ve probably been drinking them for years. To be officially called Scotch whisky, single malts and blends alike must be made within the borders of Scotland and aged for at least 3 years.
Scots may have whisky in their veins, but they have been throwing back beer for about 4,000 years. Brewers had a tough time over the past few centuries, dealing with the consequences of malt taxes and beer duties, but the brewing industry is making a comeback and breweries are opening all over Scotland.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.