Let the festivities begin – Foodie frolics at Edinburgh’s festivals

Lobster ice cream and roasted cockroach.
Lobster ice cream and roasted cockroach, anyone? (edfoodfest).
The sound of torrential rain clattering off the roofs of Edinburgh in late July can only mean one thing.  Yes, it must nearly be Edinburgh’s festival season again…  Yet seriously, I hope we have a modicum of good weather during late July and August, because as well as the world’s greatest arts extravaganza making camp in Scotland’s capital there are also some very alluring food and drink-focused activities and events taking place during the festival period…

Culinary debates and celebrations at Edinburgh Food Festival (Assembly, George Square)

Located at the famed Edinburgh Fringe hub that is George Square, Assembly’s acclaimed (and free to enter) Edinburgh Food Festival makes a welcome return for a third year.  Unlike some other food festivals, this initiative isn’t just about tasting tempting morsels and drams, although there are plenty of those to be had too. It also features a range of engaging and thought provoking events that encourage visitors to devote some consideration to what they are consuming, and why/how they are doing this.  Highlights from amongst the varied programme include:
  • Eating insects: buzzy, buggy or grubby?  – Entomophagy - that’s the human use of insects as a food source, to you and me - has become very much in focus in recent years, as this animal group has been hailed as a cheap and readily available source of protein.  Millions of people across the globe regularly eat insects, but they barely make an appearance in western diets.  So can they really be the food of the future, or are they just too terrifying to be tasty? (Saturday the 29th of July in the Piccolo tent).
  • Hipsters and Hobos: Urban Foraging – Certain high end eateries such as Denmark’s – temporarily defunct – Noma, together with TV cooks such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have shone a spotlight on how gathering ingredients from the wild – as opposed to the aisles – can result in some superb dishes.  Yet you don’t necessarily need to the trek to the countryside to forage interesting and nutritious additions to your cooking, as this event demonstrates. (Saturday 29 July).
  • Jannettas Gelateria – Back in the day ice cream was, well, a little bit predictable. Sure, it’s nice to nibble on a rum and raisin cone, or spoon up a tub of raspberry ripple. But maybe you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted parmesan and Vegemite gelato, as I find out on a recent trip to Australia.  So if you favour savoury over sweet why not join these leading ice cream makers as they demonstrate how umami-laden ingredients are pushing the boundaries of frozen foodstuffs. (Thursday 27 July).
  • The Great Gin Debate: Part II  – Over the last few years artisanal Scottish gin distilleries seem to have sprung up like thistles on a sunny brae.  However, are these iconic new Scottish gin brands all they appear, and indeed are some of them even really “Scottish” at all? Find out as gin experts, brand owners, and distillers debate what makes our gin truly Caledonian (Friday 28 July).
And if all that chatter about food and drink makes you hungry and thirsty the festival offers a super array of stalls, serving the likes of “raw soda” on draft, (as well as prosecco for the more mature consumers), spicy Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, and the best of Scottish seafood, to identify but a very few.

Checking out Checkpoint’s new cocktails (Bristo Place)

Draft prosecco van - Edinburgh Food Festival.
Draft prosecco on wheels - what's not to like?!
Here at Scrumptious Scran Villas we love a nice cocktail – innocent or alcoholic. Well, mostly alcoholic, to be quite frank.  So I was naturally intrigued to receive an email informing me that Checkpoint was putting together a special cocktail menu to mark this year’s festival happenings. Situated an ice cube’s throw from the Fringe nexus that is Bristo Square, this airy and laid back, yet trendy, restaurant and bar – think Berlin via Brooklyn – has a really nice vibe to it, which might explain why The Times has named it one of the '25 coolest restaurants in Britain'.

Whilst still featuring classics such as an Espresso Martini and Negroni (one of my personal favourites) their new menu also celebrates festival time with a batch of specially created offerings designed to provide something a bit surprising and unique in terms of flavour profile.  Notable amongst the 18 drinks featured on the list are:
  • Smoke In The Grass - Zubrowka Bison grass vodka, smoked chai syrup, yellow chartreuse, Peychaud’s bitters, lemon juice, soda
  • Red Eye - Absolut Vodka, tomato juice, beer and a whole egg
  • Grow A Pear - Tequila Blanco, pear & black pepper syrup & lemon
And if the 'Red Eye' sounds a bit too much like a hangover kill rather than cure, as part of their 'day break' menu Checkpoint also offers three inviting variations on the classic Bloody Mary, based on either vodka, gin or mescal. When hanging at the bar do say "Heavy on the smoked chai syrup in my Smoke In The Grass, thanks". Do not say "Hey, I’d love a Babycham"…

Toasted Radish – "'Come, Watson, come!' he cried. 'The game is afoot....'"

Festival time in Edinburgh is not merely about drama, music and comedy, oh no. As part of the season’s multifaceted artistic offering the city also host’s the world’s largest literary event in the form of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  Perhaps somewhat fitting then that Toasted Radish supper club is paying homage to one of Scotland’s literary legends that is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a Sherlock Holmes-inspired event taking place in Edinburgh New Town’s historic Arthur Conan Doyle Centre.

Hosted in such a grandiose setting, it isn’t only the architecture that seems set to impress, as the evening’s food is being billed as being "worthy of a crime fiction heavyweight".  And given Toasted Radish’s ethos of using, wherever possible, ingredients sourced within thirty miles of Edinburgh, as well as ensuring meat and vegetables are organic and fish responsibly sourced, all clues suggest this has the potential makings of a highly enjoyable culinary thriller. (Arthur Conan Doyle Centre, 12 August 2017).

If you have any other foodie or drinkie (is there even such a term?) highlights associated with the Edinburgh festival season let us know and we may let our readers know about them too.

Pa amb tomàquet - A mighty-vine Catalan tapa

Pa amb tomàquet - catalan tomato and bread tapa.
Mighty vine: Pa amb tomàquet - catalan tomato and bread tapa.

Hopefully some of you out there - possibly, my Dad at least - may be aware that my previous post on Scrumptious Scran was a foodie travelogue encapsulating culinary discoveries made during a recent visit to Barcelona.  Publicising such musings on social media, as is the want of most food bloggers, I was a bit surprised to be accused by some, seemingly, smart Alec that the article was ‘completely oblivious to its [Barcelona's] culture.’  'How odd' thought I - or words to that effect.  For what could typify a city's, region's or country's culture more than the food and drink that is uniquely associated with it?  For it effectively represents a place's history and literature on a plate, or in a glass.

And when it comes to Barcelona and Catalunya, there is one dish that ultimately typifies the culture there.  It is uncomplicated, harking back to when what is now modern-day Catalonia was much more rural, and certainly less of the industrial powerhouse it has become in modern times. It uses locally-sourced ingredients, and stems from a time when wasting any food - even stale bread - would be treated with disdain.  I talk, of course, of the straightforward yet exquisitely delicious tapa/dish that is pa amb tomàquet, which literally translates as 'bread with tomato'.

Pa amb tomàquet is a dish that is ubiquitous in Catalunya, being served from high-end restaurants to neighbourhood canteens, as well as consistently cropping up in the kitchens of practically every household. It's also a dish that is ideal for easy dining on warm summer days, so great for an alfresco lunch or supper back in the UK, when the sun is shining. And what’s more it takes just minutes to make and involves the use of just four or five ingredients; bread, tomatoes, salt, garlic (optional but adds real flavour and a little kick) and olive oil.
So if you fancy a bit of Barcelona on a plate, back in Blighty, here’s my guide as to what you will need to make your own, pretty authentic,  pa amb tomàquet, and the achingly simple process for putting the dish together.  ¡Salud!

Serves 2 as a tapa or part of a light lunch.

  • 2 large, thick slices of rustic bread - sourdough is really ideal for this.
  • 2 tomatoes, halved - these should be ripe and sweet with not too much acidity, and ideally posses a pulp that isn't too watery.  Catalans traditionally use tomàquets de ramallet (tomatoes still on the vine) so go for properly vine ripened heritage ones, if possible.
  • A clove of garlic, peeled and halved - a nice fat juicy clove is ideal.
  • Olive oil - the best quality one you have in the kitchen, a fruity, extra-virgin, Spanish variety would be right there in terms of flavour.
  • Course sea salt.
Preparation and cooking
  1. Heat a grill to a medium heat.  Place the bread on a tray under the grill and cook for a couple of minutes each side until just beginning to turn very slightly golden.  Remove, and allow to cool slightly.
  2. Sprinkle the bread with a few grains of the sea salt, then gently rub one side of each slice all over with the garlic, so that it releases its oil on the surface. A little salt on the bread will help with this.
  3. Rub the same surface of each slice with the tomatoes.  The pulp of each tomato half should cover the bread leaving just the skin behind.
  4. Generously drizzle the olive oil over the tomato-laden side of each slice, and sprinkle with a little more sea salt, to taste, if desired.  Consume with gusto and a crisp, cold beverage.

¡Viva Barcelona! - A foodie homage to Catalonia's capital

Tomatoes in a market in Barcelona
Terrific tomatoes - Mercat Santa Caterina.
Oh Barcelona, how I have missed you!  It's been over ten years since we last experienced your cultural, architectural, and − possibly most importantly  − culinary delights.  As I have previously eluded to on Scrumptious Scran, it was Barcelona that ignited my love of Spanish cuisine, and probably made me realise how it was possible to cook really good food with simple ingredients purchased from a market just hours previously.

So visiting once again over a decade on, would Catalunya's capital still be so alluring?  And what new food and drink-related experiences might be awaiting discovery?  Here's what I found...

Tapas, cava, and vermut

Pa amb tomaquet, fried fish, Bormuth, Barcelona.
Pa amb tomaquet, fried fish, Bormuth, Barcelona.
Like everywhere else in Spain, Catalunya seems to have an obsession with the myriad of bite-size morsels that constitute tapas, and this possibly reaches an azimuth in Barcelona.  Even when wandering down the most insignificant back street it would be almost improbable not to encounter a diminutive neighbourhood bar offering at least five or six choices of tapas to accompany a cold glass of caña (draft beer).  Yet the city abounds with numerous venues that succeed in turning simple small plates of food into a culinary art form, whilst still maintaining an air of unpretentiousness.

A case in point is Bormuth in the now achingly trendy, but still utterly charming, El Born/La Ribera district. Seemingly always bustling, it’s little wonder that punters frequently crowd outside this compact bar/restaurant to feast on tapa stalwarts such as the utterly moreish croquetas laced with Ibérico ham, and the oh-so-simple, but totally delicious pescadito frito – literally little fish fried – which is a superb Iberian take on whitebait.  They also turn out a splendid version of the Catalan staple of pa amb tomatoquete (more of that later).  But also available are new twists on what might be thought of as a tapa, such as char-grilled peppers combined with goat cheese in a mini gratin.

Salmorejo, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Salmorejo, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Yet the food is not the only attraction of Bormuth, as a wee tangential consideration of the name might suggest. For this is a fantastic place to enjoy a glass or two of the traditional, now voguish, tipple that is vermouth.  Mention vermut (as it is referred to in Catalan) to Brits of a certain age, and memories of Great Aunt Maud's sickly-sweet festive tipple are often invoked.  We are not talking about mass-produced, Italian brands here, however.  Whilst Sherry may be king in southern Spain, it’s maybe surprising to learn that northern Spain has a long-standing tradition of producing fortified wine infused with herbs and other aromatics.

Traditionally, vermut was consumed as an aperitif, especially before Sunday lunch. Thankfully, these days, locally-produced varieties of the drink can now be enjoyed at any time across Barcelona with glasses often being theatrically poured from large oak barrels nestling behind the bar.  At Bormuth I enjoyed a couple of glasses of the superbly aromatic Vermut de Falset (produced close to Tarragona, in southern Catalunya) which combined honeyed sweetness with lovely herby notes and a great balance of earthy-bitterness. Fantastic with tapas and a bargain at just €2.60 for a generous glass.

Confit of cod on a bed of samfaina, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Confit of cod on a bed of samfaina, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
And whilst speaking of drinks that are natural companions for tapas – or indeed the reverse – no visit to Barcelona should be complete without a ‘copa’ (bowl like champagne glass) of cava. This superb sparkling wine – whether in white or rosé form – probably needs little introduction, given its massive popularity in the UK, but nothing can compare to consuming a really good vintage in the region it was produced.  And if you get the chance, do try and sample cava in one of the bars that specialises in serving it in combination with a delightful tapa or two.

El Xampanyet located in the El Born barrio looks as though it has scarcely changed since before George Orwell was paying homage to Catalonia in the 1930s.  Even the house cava served here is excellent, especially when combined with a plate of delicious boquerones – anchovies in vinegar – or pintxo of tuna loin with padron pepper – a word of warning, the ‘picante’ version is ‘muy picante’!  Authentic though El Xampanyet is, given the popularity with tourists of the area in which it is located you may struggle at times to hear a word of Catalan or even Spanish being spoken amongst the clientèle.  So for possibly a more authentic experience seek out Can Paixano secreted in a lane heading towards Barceloneta.  Reminiscent of the neighbourhood bars that used to abound around the old port area, this is frequently a standing room only venue - albeit you'll be standing under a forest of hanging Serrano hams - thanks to its excellent rosé cava and selection of tasty plates of charcuterie, cheeses and tinned (yes that’s right) produce tapas.

Flam (flan), La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Flam (flan), La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
A final mention in terms of tapas has to go to a great bar located in the Eixample district that, despite being round the corner from our hotel, we only discovered on our final evening. Kserol is a trendily-relaxed neighbourhood venue with a tapas menu that's a wee cut above - this is the Eixample, after all! Salt-cod (bacalao) croquetas are sublime, the stalwart that is patas bravas is creatively flavoured with rosemary and paired with a sophisticated spicy sauce. However, the simplest of Catalan tapas that is pa amb tomaquet - quite literally bread and tomato - is simply superb at this place. Beautiful sour-dough lightly toasted and rubbed with a garlic clove, then rubbed again with acid-sweet tomatoes, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt. So straightforward, just so delicious.

Menu del dia

Curd cheese mousse, rosemary ice cream, honey, La Mar Salada, Barcelona.
Curdcheese mousse, rosemary ice cream, honey, La Mar Salada.
For those not familiar with the idiosyncrasies of dining in Barcelona – or even more widely in Spain – the menu del dia (literally ‘menu of the day’) may be a neglected culinary delight.  For lunchtime has customarily always been when the main meal of the day is consumed, thanks in part to the continuing – and extremely civilised – tradition of a one and a half to two hour lunch break (the Spanish working day does extend into the evening to compensate).  In order to attract hungry workers seeking lunch, historically restaurants began offering a pared down, three course menu which changed daily depending on what ingredients were available.  Accompanied by bread and often a drink, the menu del dia frequently offers excellent cooking at an extremely reasonable price.

A case in point is La Mar Salada (roughly translating as 'to sprinkle with sea salt') which is a jewel that stands out amongst the throng of - not so cheap and sometimes less than cheerful - tourist-orientated  restaurants located along Barceloneta's  Passeig Joan de Borbó.  As the name eludes to, the place specialises in serving seafood dishes that wouldn't be out of place in a Michelin-listed establishment, so at €18 for a three course lunch their menu del dia represents incredibly good value.

I absolutely love the classic cold tomato, garlic and bread soup that is salmorejo, but at La Mar Salada this simple entrée was inventively enhanced by the addition of white shrimps and a quenelle of goat cheese ice cream, taking it up a couple of notches. Equally superb was JML's starter of fresh fusilli pasta with baby broad beans, asparagus, roast cherry tomatoes, and courgette and rock squid tagliatelle.

Empadrat, Casa Amalia, Barcelona.
Empadrat, Casa Amalia, Barcelona.
Fish and vegetables were excellently paired in the 'segonds' (mains courses), consisting of confit of cod served on a bed of samfaina - a sort of Catalan ratatouille - infused with Ibérico ham; and megrim (a type of flatfish) deep fried and set atop artichokes bathed in suquet - Catalan fish stew - and shrimp broth.  Pudding (postres) may have been deceptively simple-sounding, but a mousse of cottage cheese paired with fragrant honey (and I am usually not of fan) and rosemary ice cream was subliminally excellent.  Flam (flan, or crème caramel) was sumptuously gelatinous and creamy, all bathed in a dark, bitter-sweet caramel sauce. An excellent example of, what is possibly, Spain's national dessert.

There actually wasn't a day during our trip when JML and I didn't avail ourselves of the menu del dia, not least because it is often an excellent way to discover local dishes.  I have Casa Amalia - a bistro that nestles in the shadow of the Eixample's Mercat de la Concepcio and is renowned for offering uncomplicated and tasty Catalan cuisine - for introducing me to 'empedrat'.  A quick search on Google translate indicates this equates to "pavement" in English! Fear not, as there is not a flagstone in sight with this delicious, and deceptively simple combination of tender haricot beans, bacalao (salt cod), tomato, olives, and onion, all beautifully dressed to form a starter ideal for al fresco dining.  And then there is 'arroz a la Cubana'.  Eaten in many Spanish speaking countries it's a combination of rice (as the name suggests) with a rich tomato sauce, plantain, and topped with a fried egg.  Uncomplicated, certainly, but definitely tasty.

Squid and potato salad, Rosa Pinky, Barcelona.
Squid and potato salad, Rosa Pinky, Barcelona.
Heading to the quaint and character-full Gracia district we happened across a delightful restaurant Rosa Pinky, nestled down an unremarkable side street, and (bar ourselves) seemingly entirely populated by Barcelonans.  This provided another menu del dia insight into how reasonably-priced food, composed of a few simple ingredients, can be really flavoursome.  Combine steamed potatoes with parsley, garlic, paprika, olive oil and octopus and the outcome is a super salad which is certainly greater than the sum of its constituent parts.  Similarly the simplicity of perfectly baked dorrada (a fish not often found on menus in the UK), confit potatoes, and red peppers roasted until soft and sweet was uncomplicated but a really great dish as a result.  So the moral of the story is, if you are in Catalunya  - or even elsewhere in Spain - eat like a local and make lunch your main meal, reserving the evening for grazing on tapas.  You certainly won't regret it.

Mercats (markets)

Jamon, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Jamon, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
If you love food, you will find the markets in Barcelona utterly wondrous.  When I last wrote about the city I made mention of the place's biggest and most renowned 'mercat' - La Boqueria located halfway down Las Ramblas.  It offers food retail on an almost industrial scale, and the range of produce to be found there is unimaginably diverse.  There are, however, some mumblings that - like a lot of places in central Barcelona - it is becoming overrun with tourists, who food gawk rather than buy something for dinner.  So for a somewhat less crowded experience - especially if you are looking to fill your shopping basket - there are a number of smaller, yet equally impressive, market venues that are certainly worth checking out.

At the heart of the El Born / La Ribera / Sant Pere district is the beautifully stylish Mercat Santa Caterina.  The original market building was inventively renovated a decade or so ago by the architectural team behind the Scottish Parliament building and the sinuous roof-line and slatted timber façade they bestowed upon the building is just as striking as many of the city's Modernista structures.  Or head to the Dreta de l'Eixample to find the beautiful, 19th century, wrought iron structure that houses the Mercat de la Concepcio, ornately fronted by picturesque flower-vending establishments.

Take time to wander around either of the above markets and you will find pretty much any type of foodstuff you might wish to cook with and consume.  Stalls piled high with great Spanish and international cheeses, a bewildering array of fish and seafood, tubs full to bursting with a multitude of different olives, the freshest fruit and vegetables, including a dazzling range of tomato varieties. I could go on and on...

Bacalao, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Bacalao, Mercat Santa Caterina, Barcelona.
Yet in any market in Barcelona there are two types of vendor I always seem magnetically pulled towards, because what they have on offer is so typical of Catalonia, and indeed Spain.  I'm always mesmerised by stalls serving a plethora of Ibérico, air-dried hams of various origins and appellations.  And I love the ghostly-white produce on offer at those stalls that specialise in bacalao - or salt cod, to give it it's much less glamorous Anglicised moniker - both as bone-dry fillets, or re-hydrated portions that are ready to cook with.  Both are ingredients that lend themselves to inclusion in a plethora of dishes, especially crisply coated, silkily smooth-filled croquetas.

So a decade since my last visit, is Barcelona still a 'must visit' location for anyone who is a lover of food and drink?  The simple answer to that question is 'absolutely!'  So if you have never ventured to the city before, or even if it's a while since you have, do think about spending at least a long weekend there.  Wander round the wonderful architecture, lose an hour or two in one of the city's superb markets, discover an unfamiliar dish courtesy of a menu del dia, and graze on excellent tapas accompanied by a chilled glass of vermouth or cava.  For it is true to say that for food lovers everywhere, Barcelona never ceases to be one of the best culinary destinations in the world.

This post is dedicated to families of all types, everywhere. Treat them with love, and never take them for granted.

Borough Market – Love food, feed love

Borough Market Bread
Borough Market bread.
When writing about food I don't tend to be overtly political, unless there is something directly important to say that's relevant to the politics of food itself. Sometimes though, food, drink, and the enjoyment of these can be overtaken by events that are ‘political’ in the very broadest sense. Events that simply cannot be allowed to pass without comment.

On Saturday 3 June 2017, My partner JML and I spent a blissful few hours wandering around Borough Market.  It’s a place we almost invariably make time for whenever we travel from Scotland to visit London. I even remember it from when I worked in the metropolis in the late 1980s, when it was still one of the capital's main wholesale fruit and veg markets, but experiencing decline and under threat of closure and demolition. It remains important as a wholesale venue even now. Yet it has transformed itself so that many people – and especially those of us considered to be ‘foodies’ – would now certainly equate Borough Market as being one of the best places in the UK to sample an almost incomprehensibly wide range of fine food and ingredients drawn and inspired from across the globe.

That Saturday morning and afternoon, wandering Borough Market we encountered Spanish and Croatian delicatessen delights, charcuterie and cheese from France and Italy, casseroles from Ethiopia, Pakistani spiced lamb, and mezze from Turkey.  There was the best range of dried Mexican chilies – all beautifully described – that you could hope to encounter, well, outside Mexico. There was coffee so good that people were prepared to queue for over 20 minutes, just for a flat white.  And possibly somewhat unusually for London, whilst they were waiting folk were chatting; not just to those they knew, but to other random, fleeting acquaintances with a similar and shared passion for food and drink.

And that’s what food and drink does. It’s a universal leveller, a shared language. We all have to eat. The gastronomic dialect might vary a bit, but that is what makes it so joyous. As a child, I remember encountering the exoticism of lasagne for the first time, the acid unfamiliarity of limes, the alluring alieness of fresh chill. Effectively all new terms in my gastronomic vocabulary. And I now realise that what I was experiencing was a sort of culinary conversation, an exchange of food driven-passion and ideas. I think it's something practically everyone experiences one way or another, and it's a dialogue that reaches beyond single cultures and nations. Why else would we Brits be lovingly referred to as “Le Roast Beef” in France if it wasn’t for an understanding of, and passion for, food?

Borough Market has grown from its ancient, wholesale, origins to become something that superbly nourishes and facilitates this wider culinary conversation. It brings together Londoners of all types and backgrounds, draws in people from across the rest of the UK - frequently including we two lads from Scotland, and also attracts umpteenth visitors from across the world. At every stall, shop, bar and restaurant that now resides there, each enjoyed by a superbly diverse clientele, you can hear the flavoursome chatter, both actual and metaphoric, that constitutes this gastronomic conversation.

On Saturday 3 June, just a few hours after our visit, people with a dreadfully warped sense of humanity purposely chose to try and silence this culinary conversation, with horrific consequences. Understandably the stalls, shops, bars and restaurants of Borough Market have been forced to pause for breath. Rightly, there is a need to contemplate what has happened in this usually exuberant part of South London, and the reasons why anyone would seek to so brutally curtail, even to try to temporarily destroy, what folk across the planet have and do in common - they come together to bond over shared food and drink. Yet it is a pause.

For this joyous cacophony of gastronomic voices that are harmonised by Borough Market, and a multitude of similar venues globally, will never fall silent. The people who run and frequent the place have a common, passionate language when it comes to food. It is a universal tongue. Wandering around the railway arches of Southwark that Saturday, it could be heard everywhere, yet I didn’t need a translator to work out what was being said. I only needed to look at what everyone’s faces so clearly exhibited. The message they conveyed was clear:

‘Love food, feed love.’

Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review – Delightful dining that ticks all the right (veg) boxes

Vegan caramel slice - Henderson's Edinburgh
Vegan caramel slice - oh yes please!

Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, Edinburgh review - "Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such 'vital' ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter?"

Hello.  My name is Chris. I, I recently went out for an entirely vegan meal.  And... erm… I very much enjoyed it.  There, I've admitted it!  You're possibly wondering how someone who purports to love dining, and writing about the experience, could seemingly be so jokingly reticent about a dinner that happens to feature no animal-derived produce?  I shall try to explain.

Back in my youth I was vegetarian for several years and, because of an inaccurate assessment that I might have an intolerance to dairy products, vegan for several months.  This was a time when the range of vegan ingredients, and recipes that guided how best to utilise what was available, seemed much more limited than today. And consequently, I did struggle with a vegan diet.
Fast forward to the present, and the currently vogueish movement described as ‘clean eating’ has gained substantial interest, as well as some not insignificant criticism.  And whilst not exclusively focused on veganism, the diet does feature in several books and websites that enthusiastically promote the eating of ‘clean’ food.

However, all this being said, when JML and I arranged to dine with a couple of friends, one of whom is a vegan, Henderson's Vegan Restaurant, on Edinburgh’s Thistle Street, seemed like the obvious choice.  Yet still little doubts crept into my mind. Would the food be sufficiently appetising?  Might the venue be a veritable temple where beautiful types who wished to eat themselves ‘clean’ came to worship?  I need not have been concerned on either count.

Cauliflower "steaks" and mushroom and peppercorn sauce - Henderson's Edinburgh.
Tasty cauliflower 'steaks' with mushroom & pepper sauce.
Formerly a bistro forming part of the larger Henderson’s warren-like restaurant/deli/takeaway premises, this particular part of the establishment has been exclusively vegan since 2015. Walking through the door, ‘veganist’ preconception number one was immediately shattered, as the cosy restaurant displayed no trace of being perfumed by incense, scattered with organic bean bags, or sound tracked by whale song. Instead, we were greeted by a casually-trendy, Scandi-Scottish space featuring Nordic-inspired furniture, funky tweed-upholstered banquets, and ‘crazy-paving’ parquet.

So, the restaurant may have achieved a big tick for style, but might that be concealing a menu that was as dull as the vegan cooking of my student days? I shall let what we were served answer that particular clichéd, veganist question.  JML and our friend JW both started with the soup of the day, which happened to be roast red pepper and butternut squash, accompanied by sourdough bread. Rich, smooth and hearty this was really flavoursome, with the sweetness of the roast veg being highlighted by the addition of an earthy hint derived from delicate spices. The sourdough was very good too, whether baked on the premises or bought in.

Vegan haggis - Henderson's Edinburgh
Tasty haggis - meat free.
As our dining conversation centred on music, I shall refer to the fourth member of our group as Siouxsie, who began with a dish of oblongs of crispy grilled polenta – nicely seasoned and possibly enhanced with a pinch of paprika – accompanied by a generous serving of garlic-tastic tofu aioli, which was as creamy and flavoursome as any equivalent made from non-vegan ingredients.  If the soup and polenta were good, I think the real star of our entrées was my freekeh (a cracked and roasted young green wheat for those not in the know) salad, with kale, butternut squash, pear, grapes, and almond flakes, all doused in a cumin-maple dressing.  This dish – which Siouxsie also chose as bathtub-sized main – was a superb take on the Middle Eastern culinary art of contrasting sweet, savoury, and multitudinous textures.  I would gladly make a return visit for this dish alone.

So we were clearly off to a very promising start with – appropriately enough – our starters, but would our meat-free mains be equally impressive?  JW and JML were again in synchrony with their choice of haggis and root mash with red wine gravy and chantenay carrots.  This was a dish that both looked and tasted terrific. Rather than using some non-descript vegetable protein that tried to be a facsimile of flesh, the haggis was pulse-based, which gave it a pleasant texture whilst still retaining the spicy flavour base to be found in 'normal' haggis, and it was an approach that really worked.  The root mash combined with a deeply flavoursome wine-based sauce were the perfect accompaniments to the haggis, with the sweet carrots providing further, tasteful gilding.

Siouxsie agreed with my assessment that the ‘freaky’ salad was just as delicious served as a main, even if her portion could have easily fed a small family.  My choice of principal dish may have subconsciously resulted from the only overt mention of something meaty on the menu.  The cauliflower 'steaks' – though in no way carnivorous – were delicious, consisting of a couple of slabs of perfectly roast brassica that were further enhanced through subtle addition of spice, either cumin or fennel in this case. Accompanied by a mushroom and peppercorn sauce that was so tastily creamy it was hard to believe there was no dairy involved in its production, and freshly pickled red cabbage, which provided a lovely fresh acidity, this was a great dish.

Avocado and lime cheese cake - Henderson's Edinburgh.
Avocado and lime 'cheese' cake - who'd have thought?
Two courses in, and everyone around the table agreed that this had been a splendid meal thus far. Yet surely the weak point of a vegan menu had to be pudding, bereft as it would be of such 'vital' ingredients as eggs, cream, cream cheese and butter? Well that would be another veganist cliché busted, as the three sweets we ordered proved this certainly was not the case. Chocolate nut cake – as the name might suggest – was moist, nutty and packed a cocoa-laden punch, made all the more lovely by the accompanying vanilla ice 'cream' (which I assume might have been soya based).  The caramel slice had a nicely crisp – possibly oatie – base, topped by a gooey wedge of toffee-flavoured fondant. Possibly a wee bit denser than a 'school-dinner classic' version, but not diminished by that fact at all.  Avocado and lime 'cheese' cake was a revelation. Silky smooth, but again with an oatie base crunch, the balance of spiky lime and the grassy creaminess of the avocado was as satisfyingly rich as any traditional cheesecake I have encountered, and nicely complemented by a tangy fruit coulis.

Finishing our meal by supping some excellent espressos, we mulled over how enjoyable our food had been, as well as the very palatable glasses of Rioja, and excellent organic cider and perry we had variously chosen to accompany our meal.  And mention was also made of the friendly and efficient service, too. 

I must confess that in places this review has pandered to stereotypes on what it means to eat vegan. Purposely so.  All too often, those of us who choose to eat animals or their products view those who don’t with ignorant curiosity, dismissiveness, or a mixture of both. Yet the politics behind abstaining from consuming animals – in whatever form – cannot be ignored. At the very least there must be an acceptance that, with a changing global climate, and an ever-expanding global population, deriving nutrition substantially from animal sources is utterly unsustainable.  Those eating vegan are usually more than aware of this. Maybe it's time those of us who aren't vegan put aside our prejudices, and gave such issues more consideration.

Whatever the politics, judging by our experience, a vegan meal at Henderson’s is as memorable as it is delicious.  The place most definitely holds its own amongst non-vegan equivalents. So much so that I hope to be a regular visitor.

Food  8/10
Drink 8/10
Service 7.5/10
Value 7.5/10

Ambience – Expect a trendily relaxed bistro.  

Henderson's Vegan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato