Last week I had the privilege to go on a family day-trip with Sodexo. They have these days out to make sure that their staff is aware of cultural changes and trends, to let them see new places and get influences and inspirations to take into their daily jobs. They look at food and drink, of course, but also crockery and cutlery, décor and service. This time they’ve come to Edinburgh. As an Edinburgh resident it was interesting to see which places had caught their attention, as well as to visit places both new and well established.
We met at the Botanical Gardens, then set out into the clear and sunny day to our first destination: Scran & Scallie.
The upmarket pub food served in Scran & Scallie shows attention to detail. The batter for the fish and chips is proved over-night; the steak pie is served with a bone marrow gravy and clean, white bone, not a blackbird, pokes out of the pastry; the pearl barley risotto is perfect in flavour and texture. From the range of dishes we tried, the smoked beef tongue stood out to me: the fall-to-pieces tender meat is smokily savoury, creamy egg yolk and zingy pickles add interest. I also really enjoyed the espresso panna cotta because it looked like it would be creamy but offered really clean coffee flavours. The environment is homely: wood, stone and tweed makes you feel at home.
I don’t go to Grassmarket much so the next two places were treats. Obadiah is a new café, small: pared right down to modern café styling with clean white walls, recycled wood and metal fittings. The owners are obsessed with coffee in the best possible way. They select their own beans, run their own roastery and want you to have the best possible experience. They want you to share their obsession. That’s why there are only five options on the coffee menu: espresso, Americano, flat white and pour-over. The coffee used for the flat white has nutty, chocolatty notes that work perfectly with milk. I really enjoyed it and have already been back for more.
Sage and salted caramel might not be an obvious combination but if you see it on your next visit to Mary’s Milk Bar, try it! It’s the most wonderful flavour, subtle and very satisfying. She let us try a range of flavours: goat’s cheese and figs was good, but malted milk was better, violet surprised with crunch and cherry bakewell was yum. Nothing topped the sage, for me. Mary told us that she didn’t like ice cream as a child. It was gritty, over-flavoured, fatty stuff. Then she met milk-only ice cream and was intrigued enough to start making her own. Mary likes Mary’s ice cream and so do I. The flavours are interesting, fun and totally yummy.
When pulled pork is done right, as it is at Oink, it is very good. Moist, full of flavour, perfectly encased in a morning roll and jazzed up with, in my case, haggis and barbecue sauce (apple sauce and stuffing might be more traditional), it is a deeply satisfying mouthful. Oink uses a mix-breed pig for added fat and flavour. The animals are slow-cooked and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Go queue! I’ve seen the queues in summer, when Oink goes through several pigs. Having tried their rolls, I understand what the fuss is about.
We mulled over what we’d eaten and seen while we had a quick look at the Pompadour and Galvin’s Bistro De Luxe at the Caledonian Hotel. From the luxe end of Edinburgh’s offering, we went to Quartermile to have a look at Söderberg and Peter’s Yard. The contrast between the two styles – traditional and current – was interesting. Both do what they do with excellence.
You wouldn’t expect a pub opposite the university to be the place that got everyone raving, but it was. The Potting Shed has gone through a couple of transformation, menu-wise, since I first visited a few years back. The current offering shows that there’s someone in the kitchen who wants to impress. It’s difficult to say what I liked the most: the venison was great, the beef cheek amazing – meltingly soft and gelatinous, rich and savoury – and the chocolate cannelloni both creamy and fresh. We sat here for a good while, discussing the dishes, oh-ing and ah-ing at shin bones hiding under purple mash, picking at fried squid and trying not to lick the rice pudding plate.
We ended the day with haggis bonbons, jambon and strong blue cheese matched to whiskies in a room with exposed stone walls. It was a very good end to the day: although we were too full to eat, each pairing was well chosen, and the whiskies were distinctly different. I was delighted when one of my companions, not usually fond of whisky, declared that Cao Isla was pleasant and that smoky flavour really made the whisky more palatable. Since Lagavulin was my route to whisky love, I know that sometimes you need to start at the heavier end of the scale and work your way down to subtlety and citrus.
What did I learn?
A day of eating, drinking and talking about food is a day of joy for a foody. My day didn’t just fill me up, it also gave me food for thought. I’d spoken to chefs about the realities of preparing food in different venues – the vast differences in what you can produce when you’re cooking for a handful to when you’re cooking for hundreds. I’d discussed the increased speed of trends travelling across oceans or up and down countries. I’d talked about what makes a place good? What sets it apart? What’s the life span of a plate compared to a wooden crate? (There’s such a thing as an edge chip guarantee. I didn’t know that.)
What linked the places we visited is obsession. A strong focus on creating the perfect product, be it a pulled-pork roll, ice cream, food, coffee or pub grub. There’s a question there too: is obsession alone enough to make a business succeed or are the trappings – the environment the product is served in – as important? The answer is yes.
Every time I spend time with people who work food-related industries it changes my perspective of what and how I eat and drink. I love learning, getting a new perspective. Thank you to Sodexo for inviting me to a most inspiring day.