I’ve never tried haggis and I don’t like whisky. And yet here I am, in Edinburgh. 2015 marks the year of food and drink in Edinburgh, so if there was ever a time to taste the best of Scotland, this is it.
Often rivalling London in terms of best destinations in the UK, Edinburgh is a city that buzzes with trendy restaurants, cafes and bars. But it’s the traditional tastes that I’m here to get to know, so I decided to dive into the deep end with a visit to the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School.
Cooking with cream, potatoes and haggis
While the school puts on an array of classes, I’m taking part in a lesson on Scottish inspired dishes run by Fiona Burrell. With aprons on and utensils at the ready, Fiona runs through the day’s menu, featuring all of Scotland’s traditional (and delicious) ingredients; potatoes, whisky, cream, raspberries, local honey, haddock and of course, haggis.
Did you know? It has been illegal to import haggis into the US from the UK since 1971 due to a ban on food containing sheep lung.
While the notion of haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs) may not sound so appealing, tasting it was a pleasant surprise, like a peppery blend of stuffing and sausage.
Fiona explains that while Haggis is typically served with ‘neeps’ (turnips) and ‘tatties’ (potatoes), for the class we were going to approach it with a modern twist and make haggis filo parcels. I get stuck into handling the haggis, before stirring up another traditional dish, Cullen Skink - a creamy soup with potato and haddock.
The cream didn’t stop there either. Also on the menu was Cranachan, a traditional pudding featuring cream, honey, whisky and a crumbled oatmeal biscuit - reminiscent of an ANZAC biscuit. Fiona delicately layered the mixture with raspberries, then I proceeded to eat the entire thing. Note: Edinburgh is not a city to visit while on a diet.
Tasting the best of Scotland’s whiskies
I didn’t object to the whisky in the Cranachan, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sip on it straight. Deciding to dive in the deep end once again, I headed to the city’s famed Scottish Whisky Experience (brilliantly located on the Royal Mile just steps from the Edinburgh Castle), to take part in the platinum tour.
Our group, a mixture of couples, older families and friends, made its way to the first part of the night - a barrel ride that literally took us through the process of how whisky is made. For whisky connoisseurs this may mean time wasted not drinking whisky, but for a novice like me it helped to grasp the process and learn how flavours can vary as a result.
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We were then ushered into a tasting room lined with glasses of whisky where our guide for the night, Jamie, talked us through the different regions for whisky in Scotland, describing how the country’s coastal region produces salty tasting whiskey, while the whisky from the Highlands typically tastes of vanilla, custard, honey.
Did you know? To taste whisky properly, you should look at the colour first, swirl it around the glass to assess the body, smell it three times so the flavours come through, then sip…
My first sip stung my tongue and scrunched my face up like I was going to sneeze. In my defence, whisky is typically 40 percent alcohol or more. Jamie advised I add a few drops of water and amazingly, it made a huge difference.
I could taste the vanilla and even some dried fruit. The whisky was revealed as Balvenie Double Wood, and it continued to be my favourite brew throughout the tasting. I grew so fond of it I even took my glass into the next part of the tasting - the incredible whisky room.
Lining the room from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, the whisky room features 3,384 bottles - the largest collection of whisky in the world. From novelty bottles to designs literally fit for a Queen, the room is practically a museum for not just whisky, but also bottle design over the years.
The oldest bottle in the collection dates back to 1897. The most expensive? $1,000, bought in 1969. Unexpectedly, the mass of whisky was actually collected over the years by a Brazilian, Claive Vidiz. Today the collection is priceless and no, you can not drink any of the bottles behind the glass.
After the tasting
After the tasting I opted to dine at the downstairs Amber Restaurant for the taste of Scotland menu. True to name, bite by bite I literally tasted my way around Scotland; vegetarian haggis, smoked salmon, Cullen Skink (this time with John Dory), steak, chicken stuffed with haggis, and then my favourite, Cranachan pudding matched with Bellevue Whisky.
And just like that, I became a lover of haggis and whisky.