29 May 2010

My big afternoon at The Taste of Edinburgh Festival

It was one of those things I had been meaning to do for years, always somehow letting it slip past and then regretting it. I knew if I didn’t go this year that it would continue to loom in my mind like a giant culinary “what if,” so I took the bus to Inverleith Park, bought a ticket, and I went.

Despite the lightness of the paper that would grant me entry to Edinburgh’s most popular annual food event, I couldn’t help feeling slightly weighed down by the cost (£16 at the door, and that was before buying £10 worth of “crowns” to spend at the restaurants).

While the bulk of the companies represented were Scottish, I was still surprised by the number of non-Scottish companies on site. For me this was an opportunity to seek out Scottish food producers with whom I was unfamiliar, so I left my radar firmly on Scotland while I wandered.

There were samples aplenty everywhere I went, and there were many foods that I loved and people who intrigued me, whether because of the quality and uniqueness of their products or the infectious nature of their dedication and enthusiasm.

I met lovely Anne from Hebridean Liqueurs, who let me sample their Spiced Rum Liqueur and their Hebridean Whisky Liqueur. I am not usually one for alcohol, but I loved that rum, which rounded inside my mouth like a ball floating on a warm sea.

I know instinctively when a food or drink is very good because a pleasurable energy will sweep through my body, followed by my mind’s immediate desire to devise stories to wrap around the feeling. This rum has just such an affect on me.

Several of the other surprises of the day were also alcoholic in nature, starting with the simply stunning flavours of Thistly Cross Cider.

Hannah had me try the whisky variety, which I found both subtle and comforting, but the Strawberry Cider made me want to sit down in a lush garden and pen long letters to far-away friends. I never thought cider could be beautiful. It is gorgeous.
Next up, fancy some Raspberry Vodka? How about some Dansom Gin? I tried neither of these but did fall madly in love with Scots’ Cheer Ltd’s other offering: their new Rhubarb Rum, which is just as warm and homely as it sounds. This is the kind of thing I would save for a cold winter’s day, to swirl together the seasons in delicious combat inside my mouth.

I discovered the delights of alcoholic Ginger Beer thanks to Heather Ale Ltd, run by the Williams Brothers Brewing Company. The Ginger Beer is a new product for the company, which is more widely known for its historic ales like Heather Ale, Elderberry Black Ale and Kelp Ale. I shall be making it my mission in the future to try them all.

Some of the other highlights of my day included meeting the fine folk at Findlay’s of Portobello and trying their new Asian Haggis, a recipe they were asked to devise for a wedding and which they have continued to make along with their traditional and spicy varieties. Like Findlay’s other haggis, the Asian variety is delicious, and packs a little extra India-inspired punch, with notes of cumin, coriander and garam masala.

I regret not trying any seafood. I missed my chances owing to either not wanting to queue or to pay for the pleasure. I did enjoy watching the purveyor at Ballimore Oysters work deftly with his knife, scooping out sample after sample for a steady stream of curious tasters.
Wandering into the Taste of Stockbridge booth I suddenly felt more at ease that I had in many of the other areas of the event.

Pretension evaporated and there was an informality about this little nook that made me feel relieved. I tried some lovely olive tapenade on some highly flavourful, slow baked bread. I vowed to explore the idea of doing a foodie tour of Stockbridge someday soon.

I did shell out for two food samples from restaurants. I visited Amber, but I was so hungry when I tucked into my "Saddle of roe deer and redcurrant Wellington served on a potato scone with treacle and Speyside malt sauce," that I forgot to take a photo. Believe me that I could have happily drunk the sauce with a ladle.

My other taste adventure was at The Rutland Hotel tent, where I enjoyed “Slowly cooked shoulder of Orkney Gold lamb with cumin, feta and lemon, Carrolls Heritage salad blue potatoes, with cucumber and mint yoghurt dressing.” Because of the way everything else on the plate worked to showcase the perfect tenderness of the lamb, it gets the gold star as the best thing I ate all day. Yum. Behold:
This brings me to my favourite moments of the day. The first was watching a demonstration by my favourite Scottish cookery writer, Sue Lawrence.

I sat in the front row as she gave us tips on cooking the perfect steak. Here she is showing us the “finger test” method of determining how much time to give a steak in order to cook it to just the level you want it. It's all about the springiness. The more it springs, the more well done it is.

To go with two separate steak dishes she also prepared a simple but fragrant (scent plumes of parsley, basil and mint swept past me on several occasions) salsa verde.
Arriving early for today’s afternoon session meant I was in time to sign up for one of the free (FREE!) cooking classes being led by an enthusiastic team from Nick Nairn’s Cook School. We were handed aprons and paired up at our tables where our prepared ingredients were laid out for us.

The goal was to make grilled asparagus with a poached egg and parmesan cheese. After a nervous start we quickly got into the swing of things, and following the lead of our fantastic instructor Tristan, the results were rather delicious, if I do say so myself.
Overall it was a good day, but in truth I mostly felt out of my depth, like I just didn’t fit in. I think I would have needed a substantially deeper wallet in order to extract a sense of bounty out of the experience, and even if a cavernous wallet was a reality, I still have my doubts.

Money overshadowed everything for me, and I tried not to think about how many goodies £26 would have gotten me at the farmers’ market, or if I had just visited one of the farm shops highlighted in my beloved copy of the magazine, The Larder.

I’ve done it now, so I can check it off my list. Will I go again? No, I don’t think so. Next year I will seek out smaller, more informal food events, forgoing the chance to see foodie royalty for the more enjoyable (for me, anyway) opportunity to speak to the remarkable, creative people working behind the scenes with some of Scotland’s most exciting food and drink.

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