An assignment for a special issue on the Edinburgh Festival (11 - 31 August this year ) sets off a chain of assorted thoughts. I have to confess that not ever having been there, despite many opportunities, has been a recurring regret. And the festival itself is just a reminder of the city's attractions as a whole.
Picking up a paper to read about Brian Wilson's acclaimed performance at the Edinburgh Playhouse, or that Edinburgh will be the only city in the world to get a glimpse of the "Forbidden City: Treasures of an Emperor" exhibition, mostly comprising objects never seen outside of China, makes it clear that the cultural festival really lasts the year round. The festival with a capital F has made the city a magnet for such attractions.
Scottish food probably does not spark off any immediate reactions in a global audience, except perhaps for haggis, which does not have such a direct connection to the idea food in many parts of the world. Part of the explanation is revealed by having a look at what are considered Scottish classics and staples. Many of these are so well-known - shortbread, marmalade, doughnuts(!), meat pies and various soups - that they don't have any national baggage. People just think of them as 'food'.
Many of the trademarks are variations on the simple ingredients - butter, flour, honey, oats, root vegetables, mutton - common to rugged northern climes. Sitting here in Norway, there are obvious links between the unsung cuisines of the two countries, which would doubtless have existed even without the cultural exchange set off by boatloads of Vikings.
I have a pet theory that haggis is the reason behind the stereotype of the parsimonious Scot. What I don't understand is why the Viking tradition of using the whole sheep has not resulted in a similar reputation. Norway even has a festival for its frugal speciality - smalahove- cured, smoked, then boiled sheep's head. Maybe the vital difference is the fear instilled by seeing the latter dish.
Or maybe it is the truth behind Edinburgh Rock. Alexander Fergusson built a confectionary empire and exported this treat around the world. His inspiration came from ... an ancient, stony piece of candy he found lying forgotten.
Personally, I find this and other ingenious methods of developing hardy food an admirable legacy of life in hostile climes, and I don't think I am being intimidated by the legendary fierceness of the peoples that thought these things up.
The simple brilliance of producing shortbread from absolutely minimal ingredients (flour, butter, sugar and a touch of salt) should convince a cook to venture some of the other basic classics. I had a period of experimenting with subtle variations on this recipe in order to try and break the family's escalating Walker's dependency. The results were very good, but despite the apparent ease of the slightly different recipes there seems to be some magic ingredient or secret technique found only in Scotland - it's never quite the same.
I find it easy to be tempted by the variety of dishes based on the humble oat. This remains a common staple where I am, and breakfast oatmeal is a sturdy and continuing tradition. Research turns up the posset, which I had not heard of but must be one of the most Scottish brews possible, a hot drink made from oatmeal, heather honey and whisky.
I have learned a popular treat in this tradition. Pancake batter (for example, 4 eggs, 8 dl milk, 3 dl flour, a pinch of salt and a 1/2 tablespoon of melted butter) made by replacing part of the flour with cooked oatmeal - usually extras left from breakfast - makes a wonderful cross between a tiny crepe and a flat cake. It may sound too frugal to be true, but these small pancakes have to be tried - to my mind healthier, hardier and tastier than those made simply with flour.
Another interesting concoction is Orcadian Oatmeal Soup, which, with its leeks and root vegetables, again reveals the strong geographical bonds in the cooking of the northern regions. The tradition that developed where Viking and Scot rubbed shoulders lives on.
Edinburgh and Kirkwall are two notable such spots. Both places recognize Norway's Independence Day, and Kirkwall in the Orkneys also has the remarkable Kirkwall Ba', a year's end contest where most of the town competes in a no-holds-barred effort to move a leather ball to a traditionally designated goal. There are claims that the game's original ball was someone's head, the unfortunate consequence of a heated Viking disagreement.
The Scots Independent suggests a fitting treat to honour the historical bond is the Orkney Broonie, which interestingly is a kind of biscuit that needs to be aged. Further proof, if any is needed, of the ingredients and concerns that helped shape these traditional dishes. The Christmas Cake continues this tradition, taking weeks to come to perfection, and of course benefitting from regular infusions of alcohol along the way.
As you will see, much of this article was inspired by leads found on the Electric Scotland web site, and there are specific links in the table above. Alastair McIntyre, the creator of the site, says his mission "is to tell you about our history and the history of our descendants, wherever they are in the world." He does a good job, and a visit will reveal that it is not just Scottish cooking that is full of impressive, neglected, surprises.