Edinburgh, renowned for its castle, JK Rowling and being a place “you really must visit”. I’m immediately put off when people tell me I must go somewhere not because I dislike travel, quite the opposite, but usually because I rarely agree with the general population on where is worth visiting and if I decide to go I’ll end up using my days leading up to the trip researching the worthwhile local restaurants and delicacies and still worry that I wont be able to find the good stuff to eat. As it turned out Edinburgh’s food scene has a limited online presence and so research was thankfully cut short. Of course the downside to this was the inevitable worry about ravenously wandering the streets of Edinburgh in the depths of winter in search of a restaurant that didn’t boast about being Scotland’s best restaurant or having the world’s greatest Haggis, the type of places locals would snub for a Big Mac and fries (not that there’s anything wrong with that, I am after all a self-professed lover of fast food). In preparation for the trip I called my friend Tom in a desperate hope that his eating habits had advanced ever so slightly. The last time I saw him, a meal consisting of reheated fish cuisine with a side of oven chips was described as “beautiful”, and there was the time he consulted Mr.Breakfast.com for instructions on how to make an omelet and when that failed he consulted his 11-year-old sister who, one can only imagine, rolled her eyes while talking a grown man through the process of beating eggs. I’m glad to report that his eating habits have changed, he lives with his girlfriend who cooks a lot, however, his information on good local eats was restricted to chippers none of which he specifically advised visiting but assured me they were all great for fish and chips. As someone who lives in Dublin, a city loaded with chippers all boasting to do great fish and chips I can positively say there are only two worth visiting. My deductions lead me to believe chippers in every city follow this trend and only the locals know the good ones.
We touched down at 7:10am, only Ryanair would even consider flying at such an uncivilised hour. Tired, hungry and without all faculties working we opted to have breakfast in McDonalds, don’t scoff until you’re forced to wander a strange city at dawn because your hotel room isn’t ready in search of some place warm and smelling faintly of food. The thought of a bacon and egg mcmuffin with a hash brown filled me with excitement largely because it had been years since I had one and it made me feel nostalgic for past holidays and early mornings in airports. The bacon was flabby, as though they had sliced off a slab from a boiled ham, I love boiled ham but I like crispy bacon on my mcmuffin. The hash browns were comfortingly greasy as I remember them to be. Our first meal was not a disaster start but hardly a taste of Edinburgh. Later at Tom’s house I passed on dinner in favour of a few cans of Belhaven Best, a creamy Scottish beer not unlike draught Guinness but with a milder and not too disagreeable flavour. Too tired to carry out the usual antics of meandering around streets peering in restaurant windows trying to catch a glimpse of people’s plates we regrettably retired to our room with a pizza yet another un-Scottish foodstuff.
After lunch the following day I was beginning to feel as though we would not uncover a single local delicacy. Through no fault of our own we were forced to eat lunch in a pub on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s equivalent of Hollywood Boulevard but rather more dignified. The Scottish smoked cheddar sandwich was decent but forgettable and the club sandwich was one you wish to forget. As it turns out the flabby bacon at McDonalds was not an accident, just as limp pale bacon is not tolerated in most places crispy bacon is not tolerated in Edinburgh and their version is clearly an acquired taste that I’m not willing to procure. When all hope seemed lost we spotted an entire roasted pig with perfectly brown crisp skin lying in a shop window. Too full after a mediocre lunch we showed some real restraint and waited an agonising 24 hours before returning to the pork sandwich shop. In the meantime I had an excellent Haggis at a bar that looked exactly like the bars I imagined would be in Edinburgh; warm and friendly, shelves loaded with hundreds of whiskies with names that made me think of farmers herding sheep in arctic winds on some remote Scottish highland brewing great whisky in small hillside huts in order to appease their hard lifestyle. The haggis arrived already out of its casing depriving me of the satisfaction of cutting open a sheep’s stomach. Otherwise the combination of heart, liver, lungs and oatmeal tasted superb accompanied by an equally tasty whiskey sauce leading me to believe there is a use for whiskey after all.
Before we set off for the airport we made a detour to Oink, the shop in which we saw the hog resting in the window. To my delight they serve only three sandwiches and the difference is merely size, as if I had needed any more assurance that this place was going to be the culinary highlight of Edinburgh. I have always felt that a place that does something well tend not to do anything else because they understand the travail of achieving perfection just once and tend not to temp fate.
The counterman spread haggis on one half of the roll and apple sauce on the other before dumping an enormous handful of pulled pork into the middle and asked “would you like some crackling on top of that?” a question that makes me weak at the knees even now. I initially thought this was a rhetorical question because in my mind only a man suffering from temporary lack of sanity could refuse such an offer. I think I responded with something more akin to a grunt than “yes please”, too excited and hungry to go through all the usual niceties. To describe the taste would do Oink a serious injustice, my only regret is that I didn’t order a second for the flight home.