The Scran Situation
“We fry in bronze deodorised beef dripping,” reads a laminated sign behind the counter at Stonehaven’s Carron Fish Bar. It’s unclear whether this is supposed to deter or encourage more custom, but on a bright Tuesday lunchtime, the place could hardly be busier. About half of the people in this east coast chip-shop are tourists, tall Germanic types mostly, all of whom order the same thing. An almost perfectly spherical woman behind the till knows what they want before they’ve asked for it.
Another laminated page – closer to the door, less grease-spattered – details the reason the Carron is never entirely quiet; in various fonts at various sizes it tells the tale of one of the most unfortunate moments in Scottish history.
The story goes that in 1992 two schoolboys, daring each other to do stupid things the way schoolboys do, bet one another that they wouldn’t eat something disgusting. In a moment of vile inspiration, one suggested a battered chocolate bar. The wager was accepted, the owners of the Carron agreed to aid in the idiocy, and that was that – a new dish was born. “Ordered by John Twaddle, cooked by Evelyn Balgowan and eaten by Brian McDonald,” reads the epitaph inside the Carron today. “That is the true story of the DEEP-FRIED MARS BAR.”
Not that anyone would have known it in 1992, but thus, Scottish cuisine was damned for all time. The national newspapers picked it up in 1995, before the internet had really taken hold, but something about the detail struck a major chord and the story became what we’d now call viral.
In the intervening decades, the deep-fried Mars Bar has become an unfortunate emblem of Scotland, a byword for unhealthy living and a rod with which to beat the entire nation. I’ve had it referenced to me from Canberra to Calcutta to California, by people in disbelief that such a thing exists. Hearing it mentioned cuts deep, like being taunted by a half-forgotten nickname from childhood.
The truth is that the deep-fried Mars was never that popular (after an initial surge in interest, many chip-shop owners found the melting chocolate contaminated their fryers) and outside of the Carron, you’d be hard pushed to find it in many places today (even if molten chocolate and caramel with a salty exterior does sounds like something you might find on a serious menu in a serious restaurant).
But it’s what the thing represents that’s hard to justify and defend – especially when so many top quality chefs seem to be queuing up to praise Scottish produce. Speaking to Conde Nast Traveller recently, Anthony Bourdain said: “Scotland is, and deserves to be, a premiere site for enlightened tourism. It’s beautiful. The food—particularly the game, the seafood, and the cheese—is superb.”
He’s not alone in that kind of praise. A few years ago, I interviewed the multiple-Michelin star holding TV chef Michel Roux Jr and he was similarly effusive about Scottish produce, insisting that he uses it whenever possible at his establishments in London. However, he felt that what Scottish chefs chose to do with these wonderful ingredients let them down – the components are first rate, the execution was pitiful, like giving the parts of a Rolls Royce to a team of baboon mechanics.
“Perhaps Michel was trying to be a bit diplomatic, but while Scotland has always had amazing, world-class ingredients, we just didn’t have enough good chefs,” says Andrew Fairlie when I speak to him in his eponymous restaurant in Gleneagles Hotel in central Scotland. “But in the time since [you spoke to him], the standard of cooking within Scotland has changed beyond all recognition. You go to Edinburgh and there’re some fantastic restaurants at the top end, and now in the middle too… Exciting things are happening in Glasgow as well.”
You could argue that Fairlie knows what he’s talking about better than anyone else in the country. As the only holder of two Michelin stars in Scotland (there are no restaurants with three) he is by many measurements the nation’s best chef and certainly its most decorated. Eat at his place and it’s very easy to believe that those are the best bites on offer anywhere in Old Caledonia.
He says Scottish produce “drives the whole restaurant forward” and these days he has three-acre walled garden with four full-time gardeners growing as much as possible not just locally, but on-site. Of course there are still occasions when elements of dishes have to be imported – good luck growing the mango which pops up midway through the degustation menu anywhere in Scotland – but the overwhelming majority comes from within his country’s borders.
“I know that Tom makes a big thing of home-grown ingredients – from nature to plate – and that’s been a great strap-line for him, but without being cynical about it, I think that chefs should be doing that anyway, especially chefs in Scotland,” says Fairlie. “There’s no real excuse for going elsewhere.”
The Tom he’s referring to is fellow Scottish chef and Michelin-star holder Tom Kitchin, whose hugely successful Edinburgh restaurants have seen him become the face of the nation’s fare. While he tries not to let his television work get in the way of his restaurant – he appears regularly on BBC shows such as Masterchef and Saturday Kitchen – his profile has undoubtedly risen in the decade since he opened his restaurant in the Leith area of Edinburgh. Today it is a beacon for the best of Scottish produce and the meals are presented with a little map of the nation, showing from which part each ingredient hails.
“I’m very proud to be Scottish, but as a young chef I went away to learn from the masters,” says Kitchin. “From travelling and working in France for many years, I came back and used the produce here, but my cooking techniques are heaped in traditional French gastronomy.”
Even though both men had to travel abroad to train, to listen to Kitchin and Fairlie talk about Scottish food, it’s a wonder that it’s not held in the same regard as French, or perhaps Italian – or even English. But in other countries, particularly those on the Mediterranean, people traditionally had both the means and interest in eating well (they never had the deep-fried Mars dragging their reputation into the sewer, either). That simply isn’t the case in most of Scotland – ours is “typically peasant food” in the words of chef Fairlie, and the splendid produce used in the high-end restaurants today was not historically available to the majority of people.
Instead, folk came up with cheap, deeply unhealthy options, things like tablet, a kind of hyper-sweet fudge which only grandmothers can make competently, the ingredients for which are as simple as they are devastating: sugar, butter, condensed milk.
Haggis, the national dish that inspired Robert Burns to write one of his best and funniest poems is, for anyone with an inkling of national pride, something to be defended, enjoyed and even championed. But it’s also an offal-based cholesterol bomb, made with ingredients commonly found in pet food: a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, ground with oatmeal and boiled in its own stomach (most modern versions have a couple of other animals flurried and tossed in there too).
Rather than try to reconcile the wonderful, fresh produce and the deeply unhealthy way of eating preferred by so many Scots, perhaps it’s better not to look at Scotland as a finished dish, but as an enormous larder, one which more and more people are looking to raid. Ayrshire is renowned for its ham, Loch Fyne for its oysters, far-flung Stornoway for its black pudding… The salmon industry is the largest in Europe, worth over $1.2billion; the whisky industry is worth seven times that. There’s an astonishing amount to choose from, yet until very recently we’ve not known how good we’ve got it, that all these wonderful ingredients should be cherished and used as often and as creatively as possible. Now, finally, it seems punters and chefs alike are realising that it doesn’t take an intergalactic leap of imagination to think beyond Mars.