Thursday, 22 October 2015

Scotch ale trail - Edinburgh edition

There’s something romantic about train travel. Sure, it might seem hard to visualise it when your nestled in the armpit of the morning rush on the Bakerloo Line, or in the loo on a Virgin Train (and the less said about the bathroom facilities on a memorable journey from Thailand to Malaysia as a child, the better).

But these things aside I have many more positive memories of rail travel that include riding the wonderful Shinkansen, or ‘bullet’ train, in Japan; spending the end of our honeymoon eating a picnic of goat’s cheese and walnut bread, washed down with vin rouge, after getting caught on the Eurostar in the snow somewhere outside Paris; and our mammoth coast-to-coast American adventure, the highlight of which was riding the California Zephyr for two and a half days from Chicago to San Francisco.

Our journey on the Scots Sleeper - from Euston to Edinburgh, although you can ride through the picturesque Highlands all the way to Fort William - may struggle to live up to the heights of breakfasting in the dining car in Denver before spending a day riding through the Rockies, but I was equally excited about the prospect of falling asleep at Watford Junction and waking up somewhere north of Carlisle.

After hearing the call of 'all aboard! (not really, we were in North London, not an American movie), we squashed our case in the cabin - which would charitably be described as 'bijou' by all good estate agents - and raced down to the dining car for a midnight snack.

While it was a little late to attempt the Rannoch smoked duck or the Clunes lamb casserole, we made sure we ticked every other Scottish cliche by hitting up the whisky menu - Auchentoshan and a Balblair - with a side of Irn Bru and haggis flavoured crisps. If you fancy a train beer, large cans of Tennants and Belhaven Best can be had for just £2.30, although more refined brews from Fyne ales and St Mungos are available.

After a decent night tucked in my bunk - only truncated by a knock on the door from our attendant, followed by a cuppa and a shortbread biscuit half an hour before we arrived - we were soon roaming the streets of Edinburgh, the foggy weather matching our foggy heads, in search of a good breakfast. All signs, and a steady flow of hi-vis jackets, were pointing toward Snax Cafe, tucked on West Register Street off the main Princes Street drag.

The biggest breakfast was the plate of my dream, minus the bad egg (not reflecting the quality, merely my antipathy toward it). Alongside the standard link sausage, black pudding, bacon and beans there was the local additions of square sausage, haggis and tattie scone (my dad's favourite, from a childhood spent visiting Belfast) and, instead of white sliced, a floury morning roll to squash assorted morsels into.

The payoff for such a blowout was climbing up Calton Hill, then past the Scottish Parliament and up Arthur's seat, finishing with a traverse around the Beautiful Duddingston Loch. Which wasn't too much of a hardship at all and meant we arrived at the Sheep’s Heid just in time for opening.

Established in 1360 and purportedly the oldest pub in Scotland, as well as a regular stopping place for both Mary, Queen of Scots and James VI – the pub is halfway between Craigmillar Castle and Holyrood Place – who called in to drink and even to play skittles; a bowling alley, built around 1870, remains to this day.

Today it’s the perfect place to get in from the rain and cosy up in a leather wing-backed arm chair by the fire. Fortunate, as it had started throwing it down just as we arrived in the village. It's also a good choice if you like tartan, too, as there's plenty of it adorning the upstairs dining room, although the menu offered is strange a cross- English hotchpotch, boasting crab from Devon, black pudding from Bury and ham from Yorkshire.

The culinary conceit for this trip (after previous holidays spent trying to eat the top 10 national dishes or find obscure local specialties only served at noon on a Thursday) was to only drink Scottish beers, hence the post's title. Whilst this might have seemed like an easy task, until the recent craft explosion it might have meant a days subsisting on Schiehallion (try saying that after a couple) and McEwan's Export. 

My first pint was Autumn Red, a staid seasonal brew from Caledonian - the last remaining of Edinburgh's 'old' breweries, although now owned by Heineken - that was perfect when supped in a wing-backed armchair while watching the rain battering on the window.

As the first day of our trip was my actual birthday (not the practice run I had enjoyed a few day's before at Yauatcha) there had to be cake and where better than Lovecrumbs, who proudly advertise themselves on their website as 'Edinburgh's cake-only cake shop - we don't do soup, sandwiches, bookings or gluten free.' 

From an almost dizzying array of sweet treats housed in the cabinet at the front, I chose the damson and lavender cake (only rejecting a wobbly chocolate tart with a glaze as glossy and black as pitch because, well, it wasn't a cake). While not my usual choice of flavours, this was light and fruity and fun. The Ewing's austere-looking chestnut and apple cake was also a winner.

The Hanging Bat had been mentioned to us several times as a big hitter on the craft beer scene and I was also interested in checking out their onsite microbrewery. Thankfully it was just around the corner from Lovecrumbs, less fortuitously our visit coincided with a mid-afternoon sugar slump (not helped by our early start). Of course, we manfully battled on, who could resist such a selection of cask and keg beers (their bottled menu is something to behold, too) especially when dispensed from wooden taps carved to resemble the winged mammals after which the bar is named.

I tried the Cromarty raspberry infused IPA, a great little early autumn beer with tropical hops blending nicely with the tart Scottish berries and served up at a very easy-going 3.2%, The Ewing also went a bit fruity with a Salzspeicher cherry sour from the Freigeist Brewery in Germany. Named after the ancient salt towers of old Lübeck (made famous in the classic 1922 horror film “Nosferatu”), Salzspeicher is a mix of two great historical Porter styles, the traditional sour German a salty English version.

After so comprehensively failing to do the board any justice the first time, we returned on our last day to tackle a beer flight, plus another schooner of the Cromarty raspberry infused IPA. notable brews were a Six Degrees North and Hanging Bat collaboration, La Place Du Soleil grisette; and the Ewing's Burning Sky gooseberry saison.

We also sampled a selection of grub including a passable haggis dog - the sausage lacking the requisite girth, although it was housed in a very decent bun - and some spicy pulled brisket nachos. Pick of the platter was the house smoked bbq wings accompanied by a punchy blue cheese dip that, after I ran out of chicken, I happily spooned up straight from the dish.

After such big-hitting flavours we finished with a big hitting beer, a Fyne ales and De Molen collaboration, Hills and Mills. This was a gloriously dark sticky imperial stout with the autumnal aroma of ginger cake, treacle and prunes and an ABV of 9.5% which made the decision to only sell in thirds seem like a wise one.

You can’t have a serious discussion about Scottish beer without mentioning Brewdog. Started in 2007 in Aberdeenshire by James Watt and Martin Dickie they now have well over twenty bars in the UK, as well as outposts from Barcelona to Brazil. While their marketing may be divisive, their beers have put brewing north of the border firmly on the map.

The Ewing wanted a Pumpkin King, spiced pumpkin ale, but it wasn't on keg and the bottles weren't chilled, so she settled instead for a Cocoa Psycho an imperial russian stout brewed with crushed coffee beans, cocoa nibs and dark malts. At 10% maybe not the best choice for someone that was almost under the table (through tiredness, I should add, not drunkenness) at the last bar we had visited, but well received nonetheless. 

I tried the new Lizard Bride on keg, a union of sour fruit with the hops of an IPA. A batshit-sounding combination of berries and dank funk that might well have fitted in at our previous stop, as well as slipping down with little resistance.

After so much beer it’s only natural our thoughts should have turned to kebabs. Well, my did anyway as at this point the Ewing informed me she had, in nearly 40 years on this earth, never had the pleasure of a few slices of elephant leg in a pitta, all salad, extra chilli sauce.

Inebriated as we were, the lady was not for turning – unlike the gloriously fatty, salty tranches of meat she has shunned all these years – so it was quite by good fortune that we stumbled upon Kebab Mahal, an Edinburgh institution that dishes up both curries and grilled meats (and a variety of pizza, including the mixed kebab calzone, if you so desire).

To start we had chicken pakoras which we were warned ‘came with bones’, which indeed they did and were all the better for it; four juicy, crisp nuggets of thigh, lightly tumeric-infused batter and served with two varieties of ‘special sauce’, white and red. This was followed by an earthy dish of lamb with yellow lentils and a perennial favourite, palak paneer, or cheesy spinach. Not as much fun to say as cheesy peas, but equally delicious to eat. There was also, controversially, a garlic nan, chosen by the Ewing over the customary peshwari in the hope the vast amounts garlic would kill off any residing cold germs (and anyone that came within 50 feet).

I also had the shish kofte, the only kebab they serve with nan, that arrived as a blistered and billowy teardrop of buttery bread with two large minced lamb kofte and a token handful of salad nestling inside. The kofte tasted as glorious as it looked, although I didn’t find this out until the following morning as, being too stuffed to attempt it there and then, I had carried the hefty roll home for the following day’s breakfast.

Possibly the culinary highlight of the trip, and certainly one of my favourite moments, was eating a macaroni pie in the rain on Leith Walk. While carb-on-carb may sound like an unholy abomination these might be the greatest things to be exported south of Hadrian's Wall. As on our previous trip we got our pie from Storries, alongside a Scotch pie that's filling may have looked dubious but tasted delicous, and a hefty vanilla slice.

For 'pudding' we went to Baynes for a coconut snowball - this incarnation being two sponge cakes glued together with icing and rolled in coconut - rather than the marshmallow version. To drink, if more sweetness was needed, was a glass bottle of Barr's Red Kola, an unholy and delicious amalgamation of sugar and e-numbers that purportedly cures sore throats and almost definitely hastens a visit to the dentist.

Man can't live on sugary drinks alone, so we wandered down to the water for a drink. The Port O' Leith Bar - known for it's collection of naval paraphernalia and 'colourful' atmosphere, was closed for renovations, so we trudged on to the King's Wark down on Leith shore. 

Known mostly for their seasonal Scottish food - monkfish cheeks and crevettes in bouillabaisse broth or rabbit saddle stuffed with duck liver and pistachio, anyone? - they also have a range of ales from Caledonian. I enjoyed a pint of Edinburgh Castle, an inoffensively easy drinking, malty 80/- ale, that was revamped at the start of the year in partnership with Historic Scotland. Beer and culture, what's not to like. 

Our final day saw us craving something fresh and containing more than just the dose of vitamin b12 we were getting with each pint. So made our way to Ting Thai Caravan, where, at twenty past twelve the queues were already forming down the street.

We were to find out with good reason, the Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese fusion menu offering good value, and interesting, street food nibbles, curries and soups in a convivial – if rather cramped and cacophonous – setting (factor on getting to know your neighbours quite intimately, although we got the bench in the corner to ourselves). Full marks for the wait staff, too who as well as being welcoming and extra efficient made time for a little impromptu dancing as they dealt with the hordes.

The Ewing's revival started with a tom yam soup with prawns and extra rice noodles, while I had the somewhat less virtuous Char kway teow with its spiced coconut broth bobbing full of squid, prawns and giant green lip mussels and topped with a thatch of fried egg noodles. Maybe not entirely authentic, but lots of fun.

A decent enough salad, that was heavy on the carrot and fish sauce but light on green papaya, bolstered the ‘healthy’ aspect of our lunch, supported by accompanying drinks of sweet roasted coconut water and something spicy with ginger and lemongrass which was a little too ‘freshen-up towelette’ scented for my tastes. Cute little metal water jugs on each table can be filled up from a tap by the door.

Strolling on our way to nowhere, one of the true joys of being on holiday, we stumbled into the National Library of Scotland, who were hosting an exhibition on the history of Scottish cuisine; no not an oxymoron but a glimpse through history that charted the local larder from the delightful sounding crappit heid (cod’s head stuffed with oats, suet and liver and boiled in seawater) through to the rise of the Scottish sweet tooth and ending with a display about sustainability, including allotments and ‘grow your own’, that the Ewing was particularly taken by.

Ironically, after spending a happy hour discovering some hidden culinary gems, one of the first places we stumbled upon was a chippy with this sign in the window. Although I resisted the lure of a battered Mars (having last enjoyed one a few weeks ago, in Bristol of all places) I do confess to being sad that I still haven't sampled the delights of a deep fried pizza (known as a pizza 'crunch' if it's also battered before being submerged in boiling oil).

For our final stop I owe an apology to my wife, who had repeatedly mentioned Jeremiah’s Taproom as a potential drinking spot after researching pubs and bars near the hotel before our trip. For reasons of my own (mainly centred around my antipathy toward the name, I liked the biblical connotations - TE) I had discounted the idea of visiting. But, with an hour or so to kill before our train we decided to brave the hordes of Scottish football fans drowning their sorrows and call in for a farewell drink.

The final drink was a cracker, a Double Mochaccino stout brewed at the Pilot Brewery just down the road in Leith. This was possibly my favourite beer of the whole trip, and was akin to enjoying a coffee and an after dinner snifter in one. A majestic pint to which the clichés ‘velvety’ and ‘smooth as silk’ seem warranted.  So impressed by the beer we also had a half of another Pilot brew, the intriguing Citrus and Basil Sharp, which was a little more summery than the occasion demanded, but equally tasty. 

With another pint sadly refused so we could dash back to Waverly, I excitably squashed into our cabin and climbed into my bunk with the foreboding words of the witches in Macbeth (a film that we had watched at the cinema earlier that evening) still ringing in my ears.

‘Sleep shall never night nor day, hang upon his pent house lid'...

…the next thing I knew I had fallen into a deep slumber, dreaming of Watford Junction again.

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