Continuing our edible (and drinkable) adventures in Edinburgh, I insisted after we hit the farmers’ market that we stop at Mary’s Milk Bar. A gazillion readers recommended it, and Charlotte and my friend Lani, were happy when we herded ourselves into Mary Hillard’s cozy shop.
I love meeting ice cream makers and Mary was one of the nicest I’ve ever met. She started as a chocolatier but ended up churning gelato. Her gelato is made mostly from milk with a little cream, and sugar. The first flavor I tried was simply labeled “Milk.”
She uses milk from a local dairy, and that’s it, and that’s enough. The flavor of the high-quality milk zooms to the front and the gelato really didn’t need anything else. Still, Mary likes swirls and mix-ins as much as I do, and most of the other flavors play around with additional ingredients mixed in.
The most popular flavor in the shop is the Salted Butter Caramel, and I could see, and taste, why it won the popularity contest. But the winner of the day, in our book, was the Hot Cross Bun ice cream with plump raisins and scribbles of buttery, sticky sauce. The hot chocolate is legendary, but I was worried what people would think, so we stuck with ice cream.
Someone was concerned about the knife and fork when I put a picture on social media, that we used to eat the excellent toasted and buttered hot cross bun at our next stop, Lovecrumbs bakery and coffee shop. It also segues into a question I frequently get, “How do you eat all those foods?”
The answer to the second question if that I usually share desserts, especially when eating a lot of them. If not, I would have eaten 5 dishes of ice cream at Mary’s, and here, I would have eaten a generous slice of cake and a hot cross bun all by myself. (I’m sure some people could eat all that in one go, including a big mug of hot chocolate, but I’m not one of them!) When sharing, I think most people would agree that it’s better to cut things in pieces, rather than gnawing away at something, then passing it on to the next person. As the French would say, it’s also “Plus joli,” or, more attractive.
In addition to sharing desserts, if you travel with me, you get used to having dessert at any time of the day, even right before lunch. But my friends were game and while the hot cross bun was outstanding, the layered Parsnip and Hazelnut cake was even better than it looks. (And that’s saying something because to me, it looked pretty good.)
We downed it all while keeping in mind lunch wasn’t that far off, and then we had a distillery visit later that day. Romain had gone off on an Edinburgh history tour with Lani’s husband, Paul, and the kids, who were later jealous when we told them about everything we ate. I mean, everything we shared. And we would have had to share, but they were happy some chocolate bars from Mary’s.
En route to lunch, one final stop (and this time, I mean it…) was Demijohn for a quick look at what is self-billed as “the world’s first liquid deli.”
It didn’t look like any deli that I’d been into, but it was still interesting to see all the wines, whiskies, elixers, vinegars, liqueurs, infusions, olive oils, and more. I could imagine getting a little bottle of this, and another little bottle of that, and spending a lot of time tasting once you got home. But the no-liquids policy put the kibosh on that for me, though, so I admired from not-too afar.
One of the main reasons I was keen on going to Scotland in the first place was to learn more about Scotch whisky. I’d been trying to arrange a visit to a number of distilleries for years without success. But pressed for time during our weekend visit, it was great to sample a distillery tour in an afternoon.
Pictures aren’t allowed in the distillery, but we followed the whole process of making Scotch whisky with a guide. Scotch whisky is made from malted barley, which is roasted over very low heat. If peat (decayed matter) is added to the fire, the whisky is peated, which gives it either a slight, or forceful, smoky flavor and smell. In some cases, it can be almost medicinal. Some people like them, others don’t. It’s just a personal preference. Peated or not, a single-malt Scotch whisky is made only of barley and distilled in a single distillery and I’ve read that it accounts for just 8% of the volume of whisky produced in Scotland. In blended Scotch, a mix of grains can be used.
To make a single-malt Scotch, water is added to the barley and it’s left to ferment. I stuck my head in one of the fermentation tanks, which was a bubbling mass, and made the mistake of taking a deep whiff. It not only cleared my sinuses, but everything up to the top of my head, to clear it out. I think I might have even burned the back of my eyes in the processes as well.
The barley (or grains) are then distilled and the steam is collected, resulting in a clear liquid, like eau-de-vie. That liquid is then transferred to oak casks; the previous use of the cask can determine the final flavor of the finished Scotch. Oak Casks used for aging bourbon (in the U.S.) or sherry (in Spain) are used, and sometimes they’re started in one type of cask, then finished in another depending on what kind of profile the distiller is looking for.
Our guide told us that some distilleries have a reciprocal agreement with another distillery, and they leave half of their aging casks with their neighbors. So in case of a fire, they won’t lose all their whisky. Scotch whisky is barrel-aged for at least 3 years before it’s released, and I supposed a lot could happen in three years.
For the all-important tasting, it’s perfectly acceptable to add a few drops or a dash of water to Scotch whisky, which clears away some of the alcohol so you can get a better taste of some of the subtler flavors in the whisky, which the alcohol can overwhelm. Most bars and restaurants provide a little pitcher of water if you order Scotch whisky. An ice-cube is acceptable, too. They say the only thing you’re not allowed to add to Scotch whisky is Coke. Fair enough.
Scotch whisky is pretty heady stuff, and very high in alcohol. We choose three (or was it five?) to taste from the wall of whisky in the tasting room. It would take a lifetime to understand all these whiskies, and fortunately there wasn’t a quiz at the Edinburgh airport on the way out, but there were a lot of whiskies to buy, which I did, to continue my studies at home…of course.
En route back to Edinburgh, we stopped at Kinloch-Anderson, makers of kilts, tartans, shawls, and scarves. The kilts are especially beautiful; it can take up to six to nine yards of fabric to make a kilt, due to all the pleats. The good ones are heavy, and not inexpensive.
For those reasons, plus wool makes me itch, you won’t see me walking around Paris in a kilt anytime soon (in spite of any good intentions, it would likely end up in the same box as my djellaba from Morocco and şalvar from Turkey), but Romain was considering this lovely purple and green number.
After we reluctantly left the store almost empty-handed (Paul bought a lovely cashmere scarf), we headed back to town.
Nope, we didn’t have steak & ale pie, but we made it to a local pub one night that was recommended by a local. The food was fine, standard fare, but they happily mixed up a great Rob Roy for me, which I sipped while others enjoyed their beers.
Another night, full of food, but still up for a drink, we had dinner at the White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar. The Royal old fashioneds, made with Old Pulteney whisky and sherry, Paul and I found to be a little on the sweet side (and I plucked out most of the ice, which was copious), but Lani enjoyed her Clover Club (I like it too when I took a sip), made from Caorunn gin, grenadine, orange blossom water and dried raspberries.
We loved the Crabmeat Scotch eggs with wasabi mayo, which was followed by the house seafood platter, and icy tray heaped with pickled mussels, clams, tuna tartar, cured salmon, and “dressed crab,” a lump of crabmeat in a creamy sauce.
Oh yes, and there were Scotch eggs that we started with. And we ended up ordering an extra plate of oysters because we couldn’t get enough of them, and the ones at White Horse were so darned good.
They were served with a choice of shallot sauce, bloody mary sauce, and apple, tarragon and sherry caramel sauce. I tend to go for the shallot sauce but it was interesting to try the oysters with other accompaniments. The extra-charming staff was a real bonus here.
Most people in Scotland were truly lovely and extremely friendly. Before I visited, someone said they were almost “too friendly,” which I didn’t think was possible. But on the first night of our stay, at a local grocery store, the staff practically tore the store apart looking to see if they had adapters for our phones and electronics since we didn’t have any. By the end of our trip, I was tempted to take several Scottish people (along with some whisky, but no kilt) home with me, too.
The best meal of our trip was at Timberyard. We’d stopped in earlier in the day to see if we could change our lunch reservation to dinner, but they were fully booked. And it was easy to see why.
Taking a break from whisky (and alcohol) I started with a crab apple “soft,” a housemade soda made from tangy crab apples. Another soft was made from sea buckthorn, which I had to use some of my precious battery life (due to not being able to find an adaptor…) to look up on my phone, which, like medlars, need to be bletted.
Lunch started with thick-cut country bread and bone marrow spread. A plate with a softly cooked hen egg, mushrooms, wild garlic, peas, and crisp toasted bread (below) was perfect, the kind of dish I love – fresh flavors, lots of textures that go well together, and not a lot of fuss. Just good ingredients, presented simply, and letting them stand on their own.
There was lamb with celery root, horseradish and ramson, another ingredient I also had to look up, which was bear’s garlic, which I’m currently hoarding at home to make pesto.
My main course was trout (above) with thinly shaved white asparagus, clams, capers, and celery.
Others had the veal sweetbreads (above), cooked crisp, with hazelnuts and morel mushrooms, and monkfish cheeks (below) with grilled spring onions, fennel, and cultured cream.
By Sunday, it was time to pack up and go. We didn’t want to leave Edinburgh, especially our amazing bathroom.
Needless to say, I think I caught up on six months of sleep where we were staying, especially after several good soaks in the generous copper bathtub by the window. Shout-out to whatever company made the mattress and mattress pad in the bedroom, as well as the linens, which were heavenly. Although we didn’t eat in the apartment where we were staying much, it had a nice kitchen, so the kids could be left at home while the adults went out and drank Scotch.
Our last meal before heading home happened to be on Easter morning, at Scran & Scallie, a gastropub recommended by a local, as well as a friend in New York. Of course, being our last day, we woke up and found the gray skies had turned miraculously blue, with not a drop of rain falling from the skies.
Walking into this neighborhood favorite, there was the usual especially friendly Scottish greeting. The staff was utterly charming and welcoming, and although he wasn’t there, the chef-owner, Tom Kitchin, wins the award for the best chef’s name anywhere.
Since it was breakfast, most of the standards were on the menu. I explained to Romain what Eggs Benedict was, steering him toward the version with Scottish smoked salmon, and he sort of looked perplexed, but gamely ordered the original anyway.
I went with scrambled eggs with Scottish smoked salmon, along with a side of drop scones, which surprised me by looking remarkably similar to American pancakes.
Full, and with suitcases in tow, we stepped back out in the streets of Edinburgh, taking one last look at the sky, and headed to the airport.
A few notes about Edinburgh and our trip:
-This is a continuation of my post, Eating, Dining, and Drinking in Edinburgh, which has more information, stories, and addresses.
-Several people asked where we were staying. Because my friends have kids, it was easier (and more reasonable) to rent an apartment, which they did on One Fine Stay. The apartment had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a half-bath, and was a duplex on the top floor in a quiet residential building.
-My friends, Paul and Lani, are the founders of Context Travel, which offers tours in Edinburgh. They’re long-time personal friends, and even though they have three kids, I’m still hopeful that they’ll someday adopt me, preferably before they depart this spring for a three-year trip around the world on a sailboat. (If you suddenly stop hearing from me for three years, you’ll know I was successful.) Some of their excellent local docents took us around, but this isn’t a sponsored post. The links are for informational purposes only.
-I’m far from an expert on Scotch whisky, although I’m eager to learn more. Whisky.com has a series of excellent, in-depth posts and explanations about the details of the process.
-We had trouble finding converters/adaptors once there. We tried several convenience stores near where we were staying, but all we found were for using Scottish plugs in other countries. We were told to try Boots, Apple, and Currys, but didn’t have time to get to one. Our apartment had one adaptor in it, which the six of us shared : 0 but you might want to get one (or two) before you go.
-Edinburgh is a favorite travel destination and it’s easy to see why. It’s a small, compact city, and you don’t need to figure out transit maps, etc. We walked most places. Taxis or on-call ride services, like Uber, are readily available. August is said to be a particularly busy time in the city as there are many festivals that take place in Edinburgh.
-The Edinburgh airport has an extensive selection of Scotch whiskies, which you can buy after you go through security so you can take them on the plane with you. Many are available for tasting. Someone online advised me that the prices were similar to what you could find in French supermarkets, which I later found out was true; I brought home three bottles and when I went to my local grocery store in Paris, one was a few bucks less than at the airport, but not much. I suspect they’re much more expensive in the U.S., though. They do have a huge selection and they also have some Scotches that are “exclusive” to the airport. The fellow that give us a lift to the airport told me the best deals on Scotch, in Scotland, are at local supermarkets.