Eat, Drink, Sleep Edinburgh
Story & photos by Deborah Loeb Bohren
Scotland captured my imagination with my high school’s production of Brigadoon and captured my heart on a recent trip to Edinburgh. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the city has been home to scientists, artists, writers, philosophers and inventors (as well as bootleggers and scallawags) for centuries. Idyllically situated on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh is where medieval meets modern to create a vibrant city that hasn’t forgotten its historic roots.
Edinburgh is easy to navigate with little need to venture beyond the walkable historic center comprised of the Old Town, built high atop Castle Rock during the middle ages, and the adjacent New Town, designed in 1767. The Old Town boasts the requisite 12th century castle which, sitting at 443 ft. above sea level, watches over the city much like the Eiffel Tower looms over Paris. Cobblestone streets, lands (some of the earliest 10+ story tenements), wynds (narrow, winding stone lanes) and closes (entryways into courtyards which lead to yet more buildings) stand in sharp contrast to the New Town, a testament to the best of Georgian architecture with wide streets and glorious stone façades. Uniting the two is Princes Street Gardens, an urban oasis of green.
Living in New York I regularly eat cuisines from around the world but, as I flew across the Atlantic, I realized I had a fair knowledge of Scotch whisky, but no idea what constituted Scottish cuisine, other than a vague awareness of something called haggis (more about that later). To get my culinary bearings I chose Context Travel’s “Eating Edinburgh Tour”. Context offers small group experiences for “curious travelers” led by docents boasting deep local knowledge, and oftentimes PhD’s! I spent the morning eating and drinking my way through the culinary history of Edinburgh with my docent, Petulia. Her knowledge and love of Edinburgh food through the ages came through with every step, every story and every bite. Forget those pre-packaged shortbread cookies and taste buttery artisan varieties like pistachio & rose, dark chocolate & almond and lavender & white chocolate baked by Pinnies & Poppy Seeds ; discover haggis made with Punjabi spices at The Pakora Bar (where there’s even a vegetarian version); indulge your inner-chocoholic at Coco Chocolatier with decidedly Scottish Haggis Spice or Hazelnut & Isle of Skye Sea Salt chocolate bars; and delight in an extensive array of locally-sourced and crafted Scottish food, drink and gifts at Cranachan & Crowdie, including local meats and cheeses, artisan spirits and dog coats cut from Harris Tweed.
Armed with my newfound culinary knowledge, I set out solo to do a deeper dive into Scotland’s most infamous – and oftentimes unfairly maligned dish: haggis. Haggis is a savory pudding of sheeps “innards” and the key to enjoying haggis is similar to eating escargot — eat it in its native language without translation. The first recorded reference of haggis dates back to 1430 but its claim to fame came when poet Robert Burns glorified and elevated the then peasant fare in his famous “Address to a Haggis” in 1787. Today, virtually every restaurant has its own unique twist on this classic dish. I ate it traditionally, topped with whisky laced cream sauce and “neets and tatties” (aka potatoes and turnips); as “bon bons”, bite-sized balls of haggis that reminded me of truffles with a creamy paté-like filling in lieu of chocolate; stuffed in the classic Scotch egg at the local farmers market; and on skewers, sort of a Scottish version of shish kabob. For a dish that’s almost 600 years old, every dish was innovative, ingenious true to its heritage, and delicious.
To round out my culinary experience there was that decidedly British and deliciously decadent tradition, afternoon tea. Dating back to the mid-1800s it evolved as a way to provide sustenance between lunch and a late dinner. I chose The Colonnades at the Signet Library in the heart of the Old Town. Surrounded by fluted Corinthian columns, meticulously restored ornate balustrades and rows and rows of books (after all it is a working library), I was instantly transported backwards in time. With a flute of champagne to start, over the next two hours delectable savory bites – finger sandwiches, mini quiches, pies and rolls—were delivered on sterling silver trays and, when they disappeared, decadent bite-sized sweets —pumpkin macaron, panna cotta, tarts and scones with clotted cream and jam — appeared. To complete the experience there was, of course, the Library’s signature tea. The ritual was the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle just outside on the Royal Mile.
Few things are as synonymous with Scotland as Scotch whisky and no visit to Edinburgh is complete without a visit to at least one of Scotlands 120+ distilleries. Not unlike wine, chocolate and coffee, the terroir of each of Scotland’s whisky regions influences the flavor of the whisky, giving each a unique identity from heathery to peaty, and from smokey to spicy. I chose Glengoyne Distillery with their stills in the Highlands and their maturing casks across the road in the Lowlands. Making whisky for nearly 200 years, “Scotlands most beautiful distillery” has the slowest stills in Scotland and uses water from the hidden waterfall in a miniature glen just steps from the stills. And, unlike many malt whisky distilleries today, Glengoyne does not use peat smoke to dry their barley, but instead uses warm air. Plus, on the practical side, it was easily accessible from Edinburgh.
I chose the Malt Master Tour (although I must admit the Whisky and Chocolate Tour was very tempting). We started with a dram of Glengoyne 12 Year Old to get us in the mood. Next was an incredibly in-depth tour of the distillery, including the still room and Warehouse No. 1, an ancient building with thick walls, a stone floor and pagoda roof where the distillery’s finest casks are left to mature behind a very serious – and locked – wrought iron door.
Then the real fun began in the Sample Room where, taking the role of the Malt Master, I was tasked with balancing the flavors of some or all of five different casks into a single bottle. The whiskies vary in color, from rich gold to deep amber to copper, and taste, reflecting the casks in which they were aged. I sample each flask and then part chef and part scientist, I select the whisky from Flask 1 for my base and then start experimenting to see what happens when I add a little from the other flasks to create a whisky that I like. The result was a one-of-a-kind, cask strength, un-chill filtered Glengoyne Single Malt creation – mine – bottled and boxed with a label and record of my recipe.
I might have come to Scotland for the whisky, but I stayed for the gin. Taking just weeks to distill (compared to years, if not decades for whisky), crisp, bright, innovative, craft gins are all the rage in Edinburgh today. To see what the buzz was all about I descended a steep staircase at the Edinburgh Gin Distillery on Rutland Place only to be met by a very imposing solid wood door, much like the gin parlors of the 1700 and 1800’s.
You must knock to enter and once inside, the below-grade, cavern-like rooms with low ceilings and arches made me feel like I was about to embark on an illicit adventure. Meeting the distillery’s two stills — named Flora and Caledonia — I learned that gin’s roots in Scotland can be traced to the early the 1700s when Scottish produce was traded for the fiery Dutch genever, the predecessor of what we know as gin. Over the centuries, the highs and lows of gin distilling and popularity was subject to the vagaries of excise tax schemes (popular when not taxed and out of favor when it was) and cultural mores, at times the drink of choice for women while at others blamed for all that was wrong with society. Edinburgh Gin utilizes local botanicals to create its line of gins and liqueurs, such as its’ Christmas Gin with hints of frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon and nutmeg, and its velvety Plum & Vanilla liqueur. With more than 50 gin distilleries in Scotland producing 100+ gins flavored with traditional and innovative organics and botanicals it’s definitely time to make gin a part of your Edinburgh experience.
I divided my stay between two equally fabulous but different hotel experiences. First up was the Inn on the Mile, a small boutique hotel in the restored 1923 British Linen Bank building right on the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare in the heart of the Old Town. You enter through their energetic pub and when my taxi dropped me off I thought I was in the wrong place. To get to the nine unique rooms you go through a large but discreet door at the back of the restaurant. The rooms are hip, intimate, and sleek and the pub serves quintessential Scottish fare. One warning: there’s no lift so be prepared to ascend a beautiful staircase to get to your room but I promise it’s worth it.
For my last two nights I booked myself into that grand dame of Edinburgh hotels, the Balmoral situated on the edge of the New Town. Built in 1902 adjacent to Waverley Station as a railway hotel, today it exudes luxury and tradition at every turn without being stuffy. The staff excels, the Palm Court for tea is the stuff of legends, and the kilted waiters in the Scotch bar expertly help you navigate the lengthy whisky menu.
The rooms are perfectly appointed with every amenity you would expect at a Rocco Forte hotel but for me, it was sharing the elegant oversized marbled bathroom with nearly life-sized photos of Scottish icon Sean Connery as 007 that made for the perfect end note to my trip.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York.