Scrumptious Snippets: Cheeky drams, paella parties, and spring rejuvenations

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Mixology.
Marvellous malt whisky mixology.
I'm not sure if it's because more and more people appear to be reading Scrumptious Scran (apologies for any immodesty), but I seem to the recipient of a lot foodie news of late. It would be remiss to keep this to myself, so I am starting "Scrumptious Snippets" which is my way of sharing what's capturing the culinary buzz in Edinburgh, and further afield. So here we go...

Clans and Drams - what's your whisky "clan"?

Partial to a wee dram of "the water of life", but bewildered by the sheer diversity of Scotch whisky that's on offer? Well, Edinburgh's Scotch Malt Whisky Society might just have the answer. This May - as part of Homecoming Scotland 2014's Whisky Month - the Society is opening its doors to the public for a series of activities that aim to help people discover which "clan" of whisky they prefer.

Clans and Drams sets out to shake up preconceptions about Scotch that centre on regions or distillery brands, instead focusing purely on taste characteristics by categorising whiskies into 12 clans that include "spicy and sweet" and "deep, rich and dried fruits". Watch out for events throughout the coming month that will help you discover your own "Dram Clan", including a "Clan Whisky Feast" that explores how whisky can be paired with food; and "Clan Cocktails" which will guide punters through the enchanting cocktail mixology that can be applied to uisge beatha.

A full list of the events throughout Clans & Drams month can be found at www.smws.co.uk/clans&drams.

Paella partying at La Tasca

Cooking paella at La Tasca, Edinburgh.
Seriously big paella at La Tasca, Edinburgh.
It's no secret that I love Spanish cuisine. So I was delighted to be invited - the other week - to the re-launch of the Edinburgh branch of Spanish-themed restaurant chain, La Tasca. I must admit that I hadn't previously eaten at this South Charlotte Street restaurant before. So I was intrigued to see what it was like.

Well I have to say I had a very pleasant evening. The sangria flowed freely, and the guests that crowded into the airy basement - where the re-launch party took place - were treated to an impressive demonstration of how to cook paella - using the largest paella pan I have seen this side of Valencia. It wasn't all theatre, however, as the finished product also tasted very good. Having chatted to some of the Spanish and South American staff behind the restaurant, they certainly seem to be passionate about creating an authentic Spanish dining experience. I think I shall be heading back soon to sample more of what is on offer.

London calling - Enjoying a right culinary knees-up in the Big Smoke

Bread sticks at Borough Market
By jenga! Beautiful Borough bread.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” so said Samuel Johnson. This is doubly true when it comes to food and drink. When I lived in London, half a lifetime ago, I was truly bowled over by the diversity of restaurants and food shops. The streets were not paved with gold; they were lined with dim-sum, shawarma, pie and liquor, and rice and peas. Since that time my culinary enthusiasm for the city has not diminished, as a recent trip to the Big Smoke bore testament.

A couple of weeks ago JML and I ventured “darn sarf” for a concert – the fabulous Alison Moyet, at the Royal Albert Hall, no less. Sneakily, I also engineered our trip to include a few dining and quaffing highlights. Well for the most part, but more of that to come. So what follows is an overview of some of the places we visited during our sojourn in London, together with details of what we enjoyed there.

As we were stopping a stone's throw from the Royal Albert Hall we decided to go for somewhere local and straightforward for an early dinner to proceed the concert. So "hoorah" for the internet for pointing us in the direction of the Builder's Arms, a smashing hostelry nestling in the heart of Kensington. The pub occupies the corner of a Victorian block, and has been nicely renovated to maintain original features, whilst being decked out in the shabby chic interior design that appears to be de rigueur amongst UK boozers at the moment. It also features a charming wee terrace for alfresco socialising. Best of all, however, the place boasts a great range of beers and a pretty decent menu of pub grub. JML's burger with skinny chips was delicious, and my cider & tarragon battered cod with skin-on chips, crushed peas and tartare sauce was really spot on. Oh, and the place has charming staff, which contrasts markedly with...

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).

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.

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.