I recently had the pleasure of touching down in Glasgow, Scotland, for an extended weekend. It’s comforting to arrive in a place that feels familiar, and a bit like home in Nova Scotia. We are New Scotland, after all, Nova Scotia is the Latin word that reflects the origins of some of the early settlers. We share much beyond place names like Inverness and New Glasgow–from the rugged coastlines and icy cold waters of the Atlantic, to a love of whisky and Celtic music, add in a smattering of tartans and kilts and the dogged determination to stretch a root vegetable and keep it interesting until the first beats of spring.
“Would you like a wee dram or a gentleman’s pleasure?”
If this very phrase does not send an appreciative shiver up your spine, then perhaps read no further… a weekend in Glasgow may indeed not be for you. But if you wholeheartedly embrace the spirit and ethos behind Fork in the Map, which is to explore a place with a fervor through the lens of its cuisine, then please by all means… be my sweet, satiated guest. And for the record, a dram is a shot of whisky and a gentleman’s pleasure refers to a much more generous pour.
After a whirlwind, action-packed itinerary including 10 restaurants, 39 dishes (albeit shared) in three days, what can I even begin to tell you about Scottish food? How can I distill pages and pages down into one succinct sip for you here? During my stay, I had the opportunity to spend time with the people and restaurants who are shaping the scene.
When you think of cuisine in Scotland, you may conjure up images of shortbread, porridge, neeps & tatties (potatoes & turnips) and the infamous haggis as immortalized by the poet Robbie Burns; a personage we celebrate here in Nova Scotia to this day. Food in Scotland is rooted with the Ancient Celts who foraged, hunted wild game and fished the sea and the many lochs, rivers and streams of the countryside. Eventually, they moved on to raise sheep and cattle and grow their own vegetables.
The arrival of the Vikings marked the introduction of Scandinavian methods of preserving, salting and smoking foods. Then years pass to more modern times, when your freshest seafood is shipped away, people fall into a love of fried foods and pre-packaged, frozen convenience and you’re left with a cuisine that was really not too far off what Nova Scotia’s looked like some years ago–where you could always count on finding a decent, greasy fish and chips and a thick ‘n’ creamy, heart-stopping bowl of chowder.
And now, a reawakening… a return to old food ways and traditional dishes; thoughtfully re-imagined. A breaking open of the bountiful Scottish larder with a focus on fresh and sustainable seafood and hyper-local produce. And strikingly from the first menu I opened, a world of flavours invited in; a melting pot of cultures inspired by waves of immigration and the country’s leading chefs travelling in search of authentic flavours to work into their menus back home.
Scotland’s largest city Glasgow is a vibrant, cultural city with one of the fastest growing culinary scenes; whereas the nearby capital, the historic and venerated Edinburgh boasts more classic, Michelin-starred fare. Both have their rightful place and make the two cities an absolute joy to spend time in. Yes, I ate haggis, but I also had vegetarian haggis and, if you can imagine it, haggis bonbons. This bon bon plays out like an upscale, savoury canapé version of the classic.
The main downtown core is reasonably condensed making it easy to walk off your meals, or rather, walk with intent to your next meal. Let’s call this the explore-and-walk-to-eat-tour. Glasgow is a young, affordable city full of independent chefs and restaurants and nowhere is that evidenced more than the scene in Finnieston. A trip highlight was a dish crawl through three top restaurants in the quarter–Alchemilla, The Gannet and Ox and Finch. And naturally, there were many plates per location–at The Gannet we were treated to dishes with Inverness red deer, Borders lamb and a wild garlic agnolotti. This area was once a heavily industrial part of town with cheap rents, but still close to the coveted west end of the city.
When a large music venue opened, it had a halo effect, and today there are over 40 places to eat within a mile of that venue, most of which have opened in the just last five years. In terms of the drinking, it’s not just all about the whisky. There’s an expanding craft brewing scene and a flourishing cocktail culture with a focus on gin–where afternoon teas blur into happy hour gin drinks.
Glasgow is also an official UNESCO City of Music, boasting more live music than London and premiere concert venues including The Hydro, a 12,000-seat circular auditorium with a domed roof and direct sightlines and state of the art acoustics in every single seat. And though I used to look-up concerts when travelling to large cities like this, I now look up secret bars and restaurant pop-ups. Another trip score was a pop-up dinner from Fare Folk at bakery 47, featuring natural wines selected by Sommelier Solfinn Danielsen (Rødder og Vin) paired with a completely vegetarian menu highlighting seasonal Scottish produce by Chef Craig Grozier (Fallachan Dining). A delightful evening with an intimate crowd including Chef Peter McKenna from The Gannet where we had eaten the night before.
“At the Gannet, we have steeped ourselves in the Scottish larder, sourcing where possible, direct from local ethical farmers, using a variety of wild edible herbs, seashore plants/seaweeds to produce a modern take on Scottish fare. The Scottish, dare I say it “food scene” has had a tremendous boost over the past 3+ years thanks to young chefs and industry professionals taking risks and going out on their own, opening up restaurants, pop-ups, food trucks and even a food studio.” – Chef Peter McKenna, The Gannet, Glasgow
It’s hard to bid adieu to a place that you have hardly scratched the surface of… so the last moments were spent having one last wee dram, then one more last wee dram and one final last wee dram. This little sojourn in Scotland has me wanting for more.
Getting To Scotland
WestJet has a direct five-and-a-half-hour flight from Halifax to Glasgow from May through October. If you are interested in a quick side trip, it’s just a one-hour train ride between Glasgow and Edinburgh, taking you from the heart of one city centre to the other, for just £8 (approximately $13CAD).
Staying In Glasgow
Malmaison Glasgow – In the heart of the city, this former church is now a stylish boutique hotel with comfortable rooms and cheeky marketing throughout from the moment you walk into the front lobby to the trendy bar, Chez Mal. The fine-dining restaurant, The Honours, is helmed by Michelin-starred Chef Martin Wishart. Hot tip: Haggis bonbons, that is all.
Explore the City
For a great way to get your basic city bearings, grab a ride on the CitySightseeing Glasgow Hop On–Hop Off Bus, with over 20 stops city-wide and some seriously droll commentary, it’s £14 for the day (approx. $23CAD). Hot tip: Remember every stop at a museum or gallery is free. You can also track the bus real-time with the handy ‘find my bus’ feature on their website.
There’s many iconic buildings and destinations to explore around the city–the Clyde Auditorium, Riverside Museum (museum of transport), Glasgow Green, People’s Palace, Glasgow Botanic Gardens, the gorgeous Neo-Gothic cloisters at the University of Glasgow, the Gallery of Modern Art, Merchant City (the entertainment district) and shopping on Glasgow’s Style Mile with over 200 stores and the glitzy Buchanan Street Galleries.
Where to Eat
Riverhill Restaurant and Bar – Grab a coffee and a snack to fuel your shopping efforts on nearby Buchanan Street. Hot tip: It’s all about the cheese, order the hearty halloumi chips with Romesco sauce.
Alchemilla – Under a year old and already named in the top 100 restaurants to eat in the UK by The Times, Chef Rosie Healey, an Ottolenghi alum, serves up middle eastern-inspired, small plates featuring local seafood and seasonal produce. Hot tip: Try the seasonal ceviche.
The Gannet – The Gannet prides itself on sourcing and celebrating the region’s best ingredients and its landed them the title of 2016 Scottish Restaurant of the Year. Chefs Peter McKenna and Ivan Stein have built up an impressive menu featuring hyper-local fare. Hot tip: Spend a little time chatting with the chefs directly to hear what’s inspiring their nightly dishes, they’re a wealth of knowledge.
Ox and Finch – Another Finnieston classic, this award-winning resto features seasonal Scottish tapas and decadent desserts run by the former head chef for the McLaren Formula One Team. Hot tip: Make cheese your dessert, they serve up a fine selection of cheeses from George Mewes Cheese. I often seek out cheese shops and try to bring home a selection of regional cheeses (in this case I grabbed Isle of Mull & Blue Murder).
Stravaigin -In the west end of the city, Stravaigin (the younger sister to The Ubiquitous Chip) is the place to be and their motto ‘Think Global Eat Local’ pretty much summed up the whole trip for me. The menu was packed with cuisine the world over–Indonesian, Moroccan, Vietnamese, Korean, East Indian and more. Hot tip: Not just a café, restaurant and bar, Stravaigin hosts events year-round from Burns’ Brunch to film festivals.
A’Challtainn Bar & Kitchen at the BAaD (Barras Art & Design Centre) a brand new, multi-purpose venue. As we ate our way through many fresh fish and shellfish courses, the team were setting up for a film, food and music evening as part of the Glasgow Film Festival–The Big Easy with a Cajun meal and live zydeco. Hot tip: No shortage of fresh, local seafood here to order–from Cumbrae Oysters from the West Coast of Scotland, to steamed Shetland Mussels to a bowl of my beloved Cullen Skink (finally a name for my favourite style of chowder featuring leeks and finnan haddie–cold-smoked haddock).