Scottish cuisine, for so long synonymous with dishes high in calories and low on sophistication, is undergoing a 21st-century renaissance.
Beyond the deep fried Mars bar
I was surprised to see it there, but there it unmistakably was; nestling in the deepest recesses of the frozen-food compartment of my local supermarket in Khalidiya, a little rock-hard, greyish brownish cannonball-shaped object. A haggis. And not just any haggis, but a haggis from MacSween's of Edinburgh; which, as any aficionado will tell you, is the only haggis. Although, technically, these days it's MacSween's of an Anonymous Industrial Estate Somewhere in the East of Scotland, but this lacks -romance. And, let's face it, for the uninitiated, haggis needs all the help it can get. Scotland's national dish is inextricably linked to Scotland's national poet, and between them they constitute something of a conundrum. Of all the Scots whose lives we could celebrate with an annual festival - the architects, the philanthropists, the engineers and inventors, the explorers, the economists, the -writers, the entertainers, the footballers - we choose a feckless, inebriated womaniser and composer of -incomprehensible sentimental doggerel. And from the gourmet cornucopia with which we could celebrate - the fish, the seafood, the meat, the game, the fruit, the vegetables - we choose a sheep's stomach stuffed with, er, with - look, just don't ask, OK - which even those who enjoy the taste (and I am one) have to concede is about as visually prepossessing as a mound of minced roadkill. And image is everything. Consider, for example, the conflicting public profiles of porridge and polenta. Other than that one is made from oatmeal and the other from cornmeal, they are essentially the same. They even share a history as peasant food. But think of polenta and you think of a lunch table on a sun-dappled terrace in Tuscany, ripe tomatoes, fat-speckled cured meats, tangy Gorgonzola and drizzled olive oil followed by a pleasant afternoon stroll in the Chianti vineyards. Think of porridge and you think of a dank, grey morning in Wick with a North Sea gale pounding the windows and a hard day ahead in the fields digging up turnips. No contest, really, is there? But then, culinary judgments are rarely fair. The Italians deep-fry everything: fish, poultry meat, vegetables, the lot. So do the Japanese, only they get away with it by calling the result tempura. But we Scots deep-fry one lousy Mars bar - I used to think this monstrosity was an urban myth, until I saw the thing on the menu of a fish and chip shop in a particularly historic and picturesque part of Edinburgh. I upbraided the proprietor, who remained unrepentant. First, it was mainly for tourists, he said, apparently oblivious to the consequences for the Scottish tourist industry of entire Japanese families heaving up over Arthur's Seat. Second, he argued, it was no more than baked Alaska with attitude. Maybe he had a point. Frying, in any case, has always been intrinsic to the Scottish psyche. The actor and director Mel Gibson's grasp of history is less than complete if his movies are any evidence, and I have always thought it a pity that he chose to take liberties with William Wallace in the preposterous Braveheart. What the great Scottish patriotic warrior actually said to rally his troops before the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 was: "They may take our lives. They may even, at a push, take our freedom. But they will never take away our right to deep-fry everything and die from coronary heart disease." That chip on the shoulder with which the Scots have traditionally viewed the English has developed into a veritable mountain of the things, consumed with most meals. The consequence is that the country has rates of heart disease and obesity among the highest in the world. Scotland's twin passions are fried food and football, which is perhaps why the nation's best-known culinary export is a foul-mouthed failed footballer (although it should be noted that Gordon Ramsay honed his cooking skills well south of the Tweed, and his accent now owes more to Chelsea than to Rangers). Nor is it a coincidence that the latest high-profile Scot, the gravel-voiced singer Paolo Nutini, was brought up in a Paisley fish and chip shop. Just as a true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells, a true Scot is born within the sound of sizzling fat. Indeed, many Scots find it inexplicable that young Nutini should eschew an opportunity to join the family frying business in favour of a career as an international rock star. But- is all this changing? Is there gourmet life beyond the deep-fried Mars bar? Visitors to the Gulfood trade fair in Dubai this week would have found considerable evidence that it is. The stars were smoked salmon from the West Highlands, the fishing villages of Portsoy and Achiltibuie, and as far away as South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, and top-quality beef and lamb from Aberdeenshire, but they were just the highlights. Fifteen food companies and two trade associations, not a deep-fat fryer among them, are the vanguard of a campaign that aims to turn Scottish produce into a £10 billion-a-year (Dh57 billion) business by 2017. And the export drive is merely reflecting a change in eating habits at home. At the last count, restaurants in Scotland held a total of 15 Michelin stars. OK, it ain't London, or Paris, but for a country of around five million people it's a start. And what is more important is the recognition by those chefs of the natural harvest sitting on their doorstep. Scotland's geography gives it a -ridiculously large coastline of around 16,500km, and together with the rivers and lochs the country is teeming with salmon and trout, prawns, langoustines, crab, lobster, scallops and mussels; Aberdeen Angus beef is the best in the world; the dairy cattle of Ayrshire produce sensational cheese - and Ayrshire new potatoes, with their papery soft skins that you can rub off with your fingers, are vastly superior to the overrated Jersey Royals in everything except a marketing budget, thus remaining a secret confined largely to the west of Scotland; soft fruit from Perthshire, grouse from the moors, oats and barley from the fields. How can any half-decent cook go wrong? Historians would argue that not only has Scotland always had the raw materials for a world-class cuisine, but the influences have long been there too; in the 16th century Mary Queen of Scots brought French chefs to Edinburgh. And 200 years later even Dr Johnson - author, philosopher and professional Scot-baiter - observed: "If an epicure could remove by a wish, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland." Mind you, the old boy was an 18th-century Englishman, and from someone whose idea of a good breakfast was half a side of overdone roast beef and a jug of cheap claret, who needs praise? For me, however, the revolution began as recently as 1971, when a new restaurant opened in a cobbled mews behind Byres Road in the trendy West End of Glasgow. The Ubiquitous Chip was named with delicious irony, since the old artery-clogger appeared nowhere on the menu. Until then, Scottish restaurants were a reflection of the immigrant communities the country had welcomed over the years. The best were Italian, Chinese and, especially, Indian (although there was some cross-fertilisation; you haven't lived till you've eaten haggis pakora). But the Chip changed all that. It celebrated - still did, the last time I was there a couple of years ago - not only Scottish food, but its provenance: west coast langoustine, Garvellach scallops, Perthshire pigeon, Orkney organic salmon, and that's all just from the current dinner menu. I'm getting hungry just writing this. And in these profligate times, when the developed world throws away more food than it eats, perhaps there is something else that Scottish cooking can teach the world: thrift. Archaeologists excavating the sites of ancient Scottish middens, or rubbish dumps, have found animal remains indicating that every single part of the beast was used for food. Yes, every single part. What sort of food? Well, as I said earlier about the haggis: just don't ask, OK? firstname.lastname@example.org