Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Happy Birthday Scrumptious Scran, or what I have learned in my first year of food blogging

A birthday cake with candle
Happy foodie birthday.
Unbelievably, well for me at least, tomorrow will mark the first birthday of Scrumptious Scran. It is a cliché I know, but it simultaneously seems like five minutes since, and an age from when I decided to try my hand at food blogging. So, to mark this, personally sweet, anniversary I thought I would share a few things I have learned during my first year as a food blogger:

  • I am still learning. I’ve been reviewing restaurants, devising recipes (for print) and writing about food and drink stuff in general for 12 months. Yet I still feel like I am finding my feet – or my “voice” as it is often referred to. Being the columnist, sub, and editor combined can be tricky. But I think it’s going in the right direction. Blogging is brilliant, but sometimes it is challenging.
  • I’ve met some fantastic people; fellow food bloggers, writers, producers, chefs, campaigners, activists… It’s inspiring how many people share my passion for all things culinary, on every level. I simply didn’t have the confidence to interact with them in the same way, until I started writing about food on the blog.
  • Always be fair and honest in what you write. Enthusiasm and disappointment make for great copy in equal measure, but they are dishes that need to be served cold. Allow a couple of days of cooling off, or warming up, before you decide to publish that review or recipe. Oh, and if you have eaten somewhere for free – often at the behest of PR agencies – make sure you tell your audience. It should never influence opinion, of course, but always be up front about a freebie.
  • Food photography is hard work. Even with swish smart phones and digital SLRs, food pictures might not do justice to the dish. Food bloggers increasingly get sucked into what is described as “food porn”. I, too, like taking and sharing great pictures of what I eat. Sometimes in Scotland, in the middle of winter, these aren't always as pretty as I would wish… 
  • If you are passionate about food, use social media to find likeminded folk. Used properly, it is the best blether about food and drink you could wish for. By way of example, a tweet from a fellow foodie last week led me to the most amazing coffee I have had in an age. Ideas fly and news spreads. And – this might sound a bit trite – sometimes you even get to have a chat with some true food heroes and heroines.
  • Thanks to everyone I have met, compared foodie thoughts with, and who have taught me so much over the last year. But above all, thank you to everyone who has taken time to read Scrumptious Scran. I am genuinely honoured.
 (Thanks to Ardfern for allowing the use of the lovely birthday cake photo).

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Edinburgh Restaurant Review: Castle Terrace – truly a stellar dining experience

A dish of spring barley risotto with chicken
Stupendous spring barley risotto with chicken.
One of the great things about living in Edinburgh is that, for a relatively small city, it boasts a fantastic range of eateries, both in terms of cuisine type and level of sophistication. Within a stone's throw of the Royal Mile and Princes Street it's possible to feast on excellent yet modestly priced burgers or mezze, as well as indulge in some extremely fine dining. As someone who is obsessive about all things culinary, I appreciate good food whatever the context of its consumption. Yet every now and again it can be a real treat to push the (gravy) boat out with a meal at a gastronomically renowned restaurant.

And so it was a couple of Saturdays ago, when JML invited me to share a 40th birthday present by joining him for lunch at the Michelin-starred Castle Terrace. To be frank, there would have been tears if he hadn't have done so, such is the reputation of this sister restaurant of Leith's The Kitchin. Jointly established in 2010 by the vastly experienced Edinburgh-born chef Dominic Jack and his long time culinary pal Tom Kitchin, the quality of the food at Castle Terrace is such it took a mere 15 months for the restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. So having experienced a superb meal courtesy of The Kitchin late last year, and knowing that both Chefs share an ethos of "from nature to plate", I have been champing at the bit to sample Jack's cooking.

Amuse bouche of three canapes
An amazing amuse bouche.
Right from entering Castle Terrace it was apparent that we were in for a classy dining experience. The interior is beautifully designed, without being over stated; the muted burnt-ochre and plum decor giving the place an immediate mellow air. Warmly greeted and immediately seated, it was also obvious that the front of house operation is a well-oiled machine set up to provide exactly the right level of attentiveness. So within just a couple of minutes of stepping through the door, glasses of sparkling water had been poured and we were already perusing the set lunch menu.

Once our order was dispatched to the kitchen, it was only a matter of moments before the culinary concerto commenced. An amuse bouche consisting of a trio of beautifully crafted canapés was so artistic it seemed almost a crime to eat them. However, the fantastically fishy salt cod tortellini, caper-filled mini burger, and liquid-centred hors d'oeuvre that immediately exploded with Caesar salad flavours, were nonetheless consumed with eagerness. A deconstructed take on a cheesy baked potato was to follow - except this was presented layered in an espresso cup and packed with umami flavour. All were extremely clever and perfectly judged to thoroughly whet our appetites for the main event.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Feature article: Gastrofest – an intriguing recipe for mixing food and science

Growing plants in tubes
Seeds, science, food?
I’ve always thought that cooking is as much about science as it about art. Of course, there is an art to being a great cook or chef. But there is also a sort of alchemy in making seemingly diverse or divergent ingredients work together. And there is most definitely a lot of science involved in bringing those ingredients to market and our tables. We might not always recognise it but such science is – to be frank – everywhere. Those anchovies adorning your pizza, why does the tinned variety taste different to the ones from the deli counter, and how do they still remain edible even after months in the tin? Oh, and the tomatoes making up the pizza sauce. What variety is used, and how did it come about? I think you are getting the picture.

Given my interest in the science of food I’m delighted to learn that this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival – the world’s foremost annual celebration of all things scientific – features a fascinating strand billed as Gastrofest. This mini festival of the science of food and drink brings forth an innovative series of events that will explore the centrality of science to our culinary experience. Topics under consideration at Gastrofest include: why some food and drink combinations are delightful whilst others are disastrous; how molecular science is now influencing the world of cocktail making, to produce greater intensities and varieties of flavours; and a series of discussions examining subjects such as food security and whether eating healthy costs more.

Given how important 2014 is to Scotland, one event in the Gastrofest is particularly intriguing. Feast of the Commonwealth will mark 100 days until the Glasgow Commonwealth Games by celebrating the role that food can have in bringing nations together – and in particular the exchange of culinary cultures between Commonwealth Countries – as well as the innovative role played by Scottish scientists in global food research. Taking place at Our Dynamic Earth on Friday 11 April, not only will Feast of Commonwealth feature a globally-inspired gala dinner devised and prepared by the likes of Café St Honore’s award-winning Chef/patron, Neil Forbes, but it will also allow diners to learn the intriguing scientific facts about how some of the menu’s ingredients made it to onto their plates. There’s something pretty alluring about such scientifically-inspired scoffing.

I certainly think it is a case of [chefs’] hats off to Edinburgh International Science Festival for developing a strand of their programme that marries the world of science and food so inventively. And as a scientific foodie, I’d be delighted if Gastrofest became and annual fixture.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Birmingham Restaurant Review: A yummy Brummie bistro - The Pickled Piglet

Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
Delicous belly pork with saffron and honey.
I’m a bit geographically off piste in terms of my latest restaurant review.  It’s not of an eatery in Edinburgh, nor even one in Glasgow.  For this week, I am dining at a place nearly 250 miles due south of “Auld Reekie”.  And it turns out to be a restaurant I liked very much indeed.   I probably should explain.

The first day of spring has always been memorable for me, not only because it marks the passing of winter, but also because 21st March is my Dad’s birthday.  So to mark his 79th year on planet Earth I thought it appropriate to arrange a wee visit back to Birmingham – the city of my birth – to celebrate this notable event.  I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that the exact form this celebration took was to take my parents out for very pleasant meal.

Now Birmingham is a very different place from the depressed, and – to be honest – somewhat depressing, metropolis I left in the mid-1980s.  Though the “city of a thousand trades” may have well and truly had the stuffing knocked out of it during the Thatcher era, it has now become a vibrant, cultural hub.  Its centre has witnessed massive regeneration over the last two decades, particularly around its “canal quarter”, as the development of Symphony Hall and Brum’s architecturally impressive Library of Birmingham bear testament.  The waterways that were once at the heart of Birmingham’s industrial revolution are now the focus of a Bohemian collection of cultural and culinary establishments.  And as my Dad was born a stone's throw from the canal hub of Gas Street Basin, I thought it might be appropriate to find somewhere close by for a relaxed – but good quality – lunch.

Turbot with samphire and cockles.
Fab turbot with samphire and cockles.
A quick bit of searching on the internet and I had made a reservation for Friday lunch at the Pickled Piglet.  Located on Gas Street itself, this bar and bistro's website promised much of what I look for when I dine out - locally sourced ingredients, and free range, properly matured meat.  "Any chef can dress a plate, but taste is a different game" the restaurant's website sagely stated.  Occupying a compact, converted warehouse building, the Pickled Piglet’s dining and bar area is located on the upper floor.  It's bright and airy space which is tastefully furnished, whilst retaining features which nod to the building's industrial heritage.  Being Friday lunchtime in the centre of a bustling city, I'd expected the restaurant to be full.  Yet even though our reservation was for 1pm, as we were seated it quickly became apparent we were the only diners there.  Had I chosen a dud, I wondered?  Read on, and you will find the opposite to be true.