Last summer, on the way back from a wedding in the charming Scottish town of Banchory, I spent a hungry evening in Aberdeen.
Now before anyone gets riled up, I’m not saying Aberdeen doesn’t have its share of good restaurants (the trusty Michelin Guide seems to have quite a lengthy list) I’m just saying that on that damp weekend last August, with only the squawking of giant seagulls providing the rather desolate soundtrack to our wandering along the city's grey streets, I didn’t find any.
I did, however, find some adult milkshakes which I thought were a fairly amusing concept, and after trawling numerous restaurants offering the standard triumvirate of haggis, fish and chips and grilled scampi, finally settled on some crispy white bait and grilled chicken for dinner.
But thankfully after this rather dejecting start to my culinary adventures in Aberdeen, the next day dawned beautiful and bright. A crisp summer morning inspired us to take a walk along Aberdeen port to the twee fishing village of Footdie (Fittie to local Aberdonians) – all pretty slate, stone and wooden houses plopped in handerchief-sized gardens bursting with summer blooms - at the edge of which is where we found The Silver Darling.
The seafood restaurant has in the past been named among the Top 10 seafood restaurants in the UK and I can see why - it would definitely count among my all-time favorites, and was single-handedly responsible for redeeming my personal opinion of the Aberdonian culinary scene.
The Silver Darling, which is run by French chef Didier Dejean, is named after a Scottish term of endearment for the humble herring. Apart from its elegant menu, the restaurant’s chief charm lies in its cozy size and absolutely stunning location – offering wraparound views of Aberdeen harbor and the North Sea. Despite the fact that the plates of food were impeccably presented, I really struggled to tear my eyes away from the views of glistening water and golden banks spread out before me.
On the menu that day were scallops and chorizo croquetas, mackeral and beetroot, and delicate seafood mains of fish, shrimp and cockleshells accompanied by fruity glasses of chilled white wine. I couldn't have picked a more perfect spot to enjoy my last day in Scotland, and the meal remains one of my favorite memories of last summer.
Has anyone else ever eaten at this little gem before? What were some of your memorable meals from last summer?
The best spot to drink in the view along with some vino when you're in Aberdeen
One of the best things about living in Dubai is meeting - and eating with - people from all across the world. I particularly admire the citizens of any country that makes an odd dish the focus of a national celebration. And when those people happen to make up one of the biggest expat contingents I count among my friends, it seems only fair to dedicate a post to them.
So, all ye Scots out there, having had the pleasure of both visiting your beautiful country and taking part in a merry Burns Supper, I think it's time others were let in on the secret - haggis is absolutely DELICIOUS! And anyone who has the opportunity to enjoy a Burns Supper really shouldn't miss it.
So, based on my (slightly sketchy) idea of what one should include, here are my list of Burns Night essentials:
Lads in kilts: They need to be true Scots to avoid looking like they stepped out
in fancy dress. I'm a firm believer in national dress requiring a national to
wear one. Someone with a proper brogue will also be helpful for a couple of
other essential elements of a traditional Burns Supper. So make sure there's one at the party. Also, if you don't know any true blue Scots, why exactly are you celebrating Burns Night? Oh yes, that would be because of the ....
Haggis: This creation of sheep's insides cooked in its own stomach with suet, onions, oatmeal and spices has definitely got a bad rap. So what if it includes bits of sheep lung, liver and heart (the 'pluck' as it's quaintly called)? Do you really know what's in that sausage you ate for breakfast? Thought not. And because of all those paranoid people out there, most of the haggis you consume today will probably contain a higher quality of raw ingredients than most other meat products you buy at the store. Once boiled and cut open the insides have a wonderful mealy, meaty texture and a peppery, nutty flavour. Nothing like what you'd expect heart, lungs and liver to taste like.
Neeps and tatties: Sounds a bit rude but it's all very innocent. The 'neeps' refer to boiled Swedish turnips (swedes) that lend a great complementary sweetness to the hearty haggis while 'tatties' is just a Scottish term of endearment for humble mashed potatoes.
A wee dram of whisky: Note whisky without the 'e'. None of that Irish or American stuff at a Burns Supper. I'm no expert in Scottish whisky drinking so will defer to the opinion of friends, some of whom say drinking it neat is the only way to go while others claim that the true flavour develops when you add a little water - preferably soft, spring water from the Scottish highlands. With or without water, just make sure you don't ask to drink it with Coke!
A Sgian dubh: A real Scot will know what this is and more importantly how to pronounce it which is one of the reasons why it's good to have one around. The ceremonial dagger traditionally tucked into the top of the kilt hose is used to 'slay the haggis' before tucking in.
And finally... the Address to a Haggis: This famous ode by the Scottish bard Robert Burns (who lends his name to this whole celebration) is usually recited before the haggis is 'slayed' - well, cut open - for dinner. The ode is yet another reason why you won't be able to manage without a real Scot at the table as it's a mouthful of words only someone coming far north of Hadrian's Wall could realistically be expected to pronounce.
There are a few other elements - the Selkirk Grace, the toast to the lassies, the reply to the toast to the lassies, ceilidhs, bagpipes etcetera but you will be able to get away with a decent Burns Night celebration with the essentials mentioned above.
PS: For a traditional end to your meal, try some cranachan - a sweet concoction of toasted oatmeal, whipped cream, whisky and raspberries. Having eaten a particularly lurid pink version a few years ago, I can testify that like haggis, it does taste a lot nicer than it looks :)
It's no secret I pick my holiday destinations based on what the country in
question brings to the table, quite literally. I have to confess though, besides food I have one other source of influence that plays an almost equal role in helping me choose where to go next. Books.
While travelogues feature quite heavily in my literary diet, it's often great fiction that gets me thinking about packing my bags and heading to places I never would have considered visiting before.
Apart from adding new places to my holiday wish list, some of my best-loved novels have also led me to - or heightened my interest in - great bars, cafes and restaurants around the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
Casa Botin - Madrid, Spain
Described as "one of the best restaurants in the world" in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
If you read this in a Hemingway novel, wouldn't you want to try it out for yourself?
"We lunched upstairs at Botin's. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."
- Jake, The Sun Also Rises,1926
More than 80 years on, the place is still going strong and has been for quite a while (Casa Botin has another claim to fame which will probably merit another mention in this blog at some point). The roasted suckling pig was as tender as I imagine it must have been in Hemingway's day, to have earned such high praise, and the wine - not rioja alta but syrupy Pedro Ximenez - was very sweet and went excellently with the pork. The upstairs dining room is a cheerful tiled room and a pleasant place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. And although I didn't visit it, my brother-in-law (who did) told me the exposed brick dining hall downstairs is also a great spot to grab a meal.
The Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the cafes where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
I remember glancing through an early interview with J.K Rowling when I first
started reading the Harry Potter books. It pictured her seated by a big window
at The Elephant House with a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle. I knew then
that if I ever went to Edinburgh, that was a cafe I'd definitely visit. I'm no Harry Potter nut - although reading this blog series I did in 2007 may give you that impression. It was work, I swear! :) - but I am enough of a fan to have wanted to see the place where this strangely gripping saga first took shape. The cafe is a bit of a nerdy writer's haunt which made it even more appealing. Some of the tables have drawers underneath that contain all sorts of fascinating scraps - poetry scribbles, badly drawn pictures, bills... I loved it! And it isn't famous-for-the-sake-of-being-famous either - The Elephant House was voted the best coffee shop in Edinburgh so you can be sure you can grab a nice cuppa when you drop in.
Leopold Cafe - Mumbai, India
Played a starring role in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Leopold Cafe (or Leo's as we always called it) was a favourite even before I heard of Shantaram. As a student in Mumbai, this is where I went on lazy Sunday afternoons for a big plate of fried rice after a matinee show at Regal, or for drinks and dessert before a late night film. Leo's is one of the oldest Irani-cafes in Mumbai and despite being the site of one of the 2008 terror attacks, I was pleased to have seen it as busy as ever when I visited Colaba Causeway a couple of months ago. It has the true faded charm of an old-school traveller's hangout, complete with whirring ceiling fans suspended from long rods, wooden furniture that has seen better days, eager gap year students exchanging travel tips and leather-skinned veterans nursing midday beers. The food is not the best, but the hearty portions and the atmosphere more than make up for it. The upstairs bar is generally darker, drunker and probably closer to the sort of place where anyone who read the book would picture underworld deals being done, but for a true taste of Colaba charm, dine at Leo's at street level.
M Bar - Hotel Majestic Saigon, Vietnam
Rooftop bar of the hotel where Graham Greene wrote the first draft of The Quiet American
My favourite book of all time, I challenge anyone who reads it not to want to
visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (the old name just sounds so much more romantic and truer to the era in which this melancholy novel is set). While the
Continental Hotel got more than a few mentions in the book, it was at the Hotel
Majestic - also on Dong Khoi street (the oft mentioned Rue Catinat) - that Greene did most of his writing. The grande dame perched on the street corner is still pretty impressive and its rooftop M Bar is one of the best places in the city to linger over a cocktail. (Or in my case a mocktail, as I was on pretty heavy meds when I paid it a visit, after a bout of what was initially thought to be malaria, then dengue fever before finally being downgraded to a particularly nasty flu bug). Even without the help of a glass of something to lend a rosier glow to memory, the panorama of River Saigon and the city spread along its banks is not one I'm likely to forget any time soon.
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