Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Scottish Feast

My sister and I were extremely close growing up. Less than two years apart in age and sharing nearly all the same interests, we did everything together. That is until, after an unhappy year of college here in the States, she moved to Europe. She lived in Milan, Italy, and then the Netherlands, spent summer in Switzerland and has visited more European cities already than I will in my whole lifetime. But for the past two years, she's lived in Edinburgh, Scotland where she attends the University of Edinburgh. And for the past two years, I've visited Edinburgh on a semi-regular basis.

Modern technology and a dedication to communication allows us to talk nearly every day. We update each other on our lives, giggle at facebook pictures, share new music obsessions, and even virtually browse our favorite clothing stores. But one of the few activities we can't share over the internet is eating together. Trying to fit months worth of splurging on dessert and trying out new restaurants together is no mean feat and so almost as soon as I finalized my plans to spend Spring Break with my sister, she began making detailed plans of everywhere we had to eat.

Since I've been to Edinburgh before, there are certain spots I remembered and had to experience again. After all, I might not fly all the way across the Atlantic just for the decadent, skip-lunch-just-to-splurge-for-this weeks-worth-of-dessert-in-a-bowl hot chocolates at Chocolate Soup, but if I'm already going to be there, it makes the cut.

Certain foods qualified for our week of epicurean indulgence just for nostalgia's sake - like pasta and pesto which is what we had nearly every week night growing up - or because she wanted to show me what her life is like - her favorite breakfast spot, Elephant and Bagel, sells the most incredible sandwiches all served on the best bagels I've ever had. But when I told her I was writing this blog post, she became adamant that I try "real" Scottish food.

"Don't eat breakfast," she warned as soon as I woke up on the day that we had decided to immerse me in Scottish cuisine. I obliged - having heard the rumors surrounding the meal I was about to partake in. Around 11 am we headed out for brunch at Kilimanjaro, a cute, unassuming coffee shop along the main drag. My sister ordered for us at the counter while I claimed a table. After a short wait, two of the largest plates I have ever seen emerged from behind the counter and headed our direction. Aside from the quantity of food, I had been given one warning about the traditional Scottish breakfast - apparently, the Scots only know of one food group: meat. A traditional Scottish breakfast - which is not so much a category as a specific dish, served at pubs and bed and breakfasts throughout the country - consists of: a poached egg, sautéed mushrooms, a single roasted tomato, toast with marmalade, a potato cake, bacon, sausage, and either haggis or black pudding. The food is arranged across the plate without any obvious indication of how to put the different items together. "You're supposed to get a bite of everything at once," I was informed by my culinary tour guide but for the sake of research (and a strong suspicion that I couldn't fit everything into one bite if I tried), I sampled each thing separately.

The poached egg was exactly what I was used to, but exceptionally well done with the whites fully cooked and the middle still runny. The mushrooms and tomato were good but unspectacular and seemed slightly unnecessary. The toast was surprisingly remarkable - thick and hearty with sweet orange marmalade that cut the heavy taste of meat. The potato cake was not at all like the latke or giant hashbrown I was expecting. It looked like a pancake and had the same smooth texture and vaguely potato taste as the inside of a french fry. The bacon was not at all the fatty strips of salty meat idolized in American breakfast culture (those are called "streaks" she tells me, but they're still not quite the same). It's more like Canadian bacon, except meatier, with less of that processed taste. The sausage also had a more "natural" meat taste - as much as sausage can. Although in this instance, the lack of seasoning to mask what is, when you really think about it, not the most appetizing of culinary inventions made me long for the the diner version from back home - with some syrup to dip it in.

Our order came with haggis. The paragraph break represents a chronological break in the writing of this blog entry during which I debated googling haggis to include in this description. I decided sometimes ignorance really is bliss. If you're a Philly local - or you've been at Penn long enough to know what I'm talking about - haggis (and, I believe, black pudding as well) is a lot like scrapple. You know, the meaty scraps that didn't even make the cut to be sausage all lumped together with enough starch and binder to keep in a general lump that you can then fry up in slices.... yeah, I think it's something like that. For those of you who have had scrapple, haggis is distinguished by larger.... chucks. But don't let my description deter you! In fact, if you ever find yourself in Edinburgh I highly recommend finding an enthusiastic local who will force you to try haggis because the results might surprise you. I know mine did...

I ate almost everything.

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