It was getting embarrassing to admit that, at the age of 29, I had never been to Scotland, my shame growing more acute every time the imminent, history-making referendum came up in conversation. So, I decided to eat and drink my way around as much of Caledonia as possible in the space of a week, meeting as many foodie characters, small-scale producers, chefs and, hopefully, wildlife as I could for a new documentary.
Ask any Scottish person about identity and they'll tell you about pride. This extends to their food. This was certainly evident at the recent Commonwealth Games, where food and drink was a major focal point. Their main sponsor was Irn-Bru (Scotland's "other national drink", or, as some people I met suggested, their other blood type) and mascots dressed as giant Tunnock's teacakes took centre stage at the opening ceremony.
Such was the power of this not-so-subtle advertisement that BBC News reported that, in the 24 hours following the ceremony, sales of the chocolate-coated mini marshmallow clouds rose by 62 per cent at Waitrose.
Clearly even small treats take their toll; Scotland is the second most overweight population in the developed world after America. But there must be more to a nation than radioactive fizzy pop and deep-fried Mars Bars. So I set out to find it.
My indulgent pilgrimage would take me from the cities, along the choppy west coast to a few Hebridean islands, to wind up in the majesty of the Highlands. I hoped to discover Scotland's beautiful natural larder of game, salmon and its coveted whiskies. I wanted to meet the chippies that take such pride in being the best that they get into turf wars with their rivals, and the makers of Arbroath Smokies, a type of haddock beloved by high-end restaurants and unique to a tiny fishing village called Auchmithie.
My journey began in the urban environs of Glasgow and Aberdeen. Almost everyone that I spoke to about food told me to try a "Clootie Dumpling", something that sounds vaguely gynaecological but tastes a bit like a Christmas pudding. I learned very quickly, too, that the pie has deity-like status in Scotland – steak pie, Scotch pie, haggis pie, white and black pudding pie and mince pie, you name it, if it tastes good, it'll taste even better encased in thick pastry.
To my unbridled delight, I discovered a piece of fusion cooking that I had never found down south – the mac 'n' cheese pie. In London, you would wind up paying upwards of eight quid for something like this, sold in a dude food joint as a slice of Anglo-Americana. Here, they sit winking at you and breaking your heart from inside cosy café windows, and will set you back less than the cost of a bus fare.
It quickly became evident that if there was one word you could throw at Scottish cuisine, it was honesty. They don't muck about. Good food is good food. But if you do want to eat the so-called "dirty" stuff, the deep-fried fare, it's not hard to find. Just follow the booze.
On a night out with a bunch of Glaswegian lads, I was taken to a kebab shop for an after-hours staple, the notorious, much-fabled "Munchy Box". Nothing could have prepared me for this Scottish speciality – a pizza box brimming with pakoras, onion rings, naan, doner meat and chips (I was told that the latter was a "Glasgow Salad"). These men knew what they were doing, and there wasn't a fried chicken wing of dubious origin in sight.
The following day, I met a man with more pride for Scotland than I've ever known anyone to have pride over anything. Danny McLaren, aka "The Mad Chef", runs a place called Bar Bloc. The Glaswegians I spoke to said that he's their Heston Blumenthal. He told me that the Scottish workforce would collapse without Irn-Bru, and I believed him. You couldn't not. He made me some Buckfast ice-cream and an Irn-Bru marinated pulled pork sandwich (see recipe, right) and I had something of a Damascene moment.
My next stop was the countryside, where I had some of the most memorable gastronomic experiences of my life. Two of these were at The Green Shack, an unassuming seafood joint perched on Oban harbour run as a tight ship by fisherman John Ogden. Here, I ate ambrosial, freshly caught local scallops and a deep-fill fresh crab sandwich that pretty much had me on my knees.
Then it was time to go on a killing spree. Off the Isle of Mull, I caught and cooked my own lobster, which I learned were once deemed peasant food in Scotland. That the same magnificent lobster, at home among white tablecloths and silver platters, is available to catch along the coast of the same green and pleasant island I live on, blew my mind a bit. I also had no idea that cult products such as Arbroath Smokies are made on such a small scale. The man I visited, Iain Spink, dug a hole in the ground and smoked his haddock by the roadside. Again, a distinct lack of messing around – just people wanting to make something great, and getting on with it.
Towards the end of my seven-day culinary odyssey, and for the first time in my life, I was made to confront my carnivorous ways and invited to stalk roe deer in the aptly named Huntly region of the Highlands. I headed out at twilight under the diligent supervision of a man called Steve Wright and, call it beginner's luck, but I pulled off a textbook dispatch, breaking the animal's heart from 60 metres away.
Shooting wild deer is not something I'll be making a habit of, but the venison meat acquired and produced by Steve and his wife is in a league of its own. Succulent medallions of mineral-y meat that, just by looking at it, you know is going to do you good.
One key thing I learned from them is that slicing high-quality meat into petal-fine carpaccio is not just a way, but the only way to eat it. This was a first for me and something I will definitely think about next time I fork out on some decent flesh. Then it was my turn to have my heart broken – they don't ship to London.
You would be forgiven for thinking, when Scots have food this good, why the need for anything else? Why, when they have access to supreme-quality produce on their doorsteps, are people still queuing around the block for oily things in polystyrene trays?
But we're not talking about a social ill specific to Scotland here. And Scottish cuisine originally evolved in order to sustain people through countless hostile Arctic winters. Highland life was one where soul and body needed to be bolstered by simple, uncomplicated fare – oats, neeps, tatties, mince, haggis. Rib-sticking things that would allow people to carry on with life, warmed inside, in harsh environs.
The need for cheap, quick sustenance was, and still is, something we all need in hard times. What I learned in Scotland was that the deep-fried culture is but a small thread in a huge tapestry of culinary delight. Any stereotypes I had in my mind were wrong, of course. People are not eating this stuff all the time – they just like it sometimes. It is nostalgic, quick, cheap and, let's face it, delicious.
The main thing I took with me, though, was that word again – pride. Whether it's fishing for lobster every day in the same, rickety old boat, on the same, stomach-churning seas, or being so dedicated to a fizzy drink that they find ways to infuse it into the menu wherever they can, Scottish people are really proud of their food.
Charlet Duboc's documentary 'Munchies Guide to Scotland' is on VICE's new online food channel, munchies.tv
Irn-Bru Pulled pork by Danny McLaren from Bar Bloc, Glasgow
For the Irn-Bru marinade:
4 tablespoons garlic powder
4 tablespoons onion powder
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
4 cans Irn-Bru
½ cup beef stock
½ cup vegetable stock
2 tins tomato puree
For the pork and vegetables:
6 1/2 lbs pork shoulder unrolled, fat trimmed off
6 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
3 large onions, peeled and roughly chopped
Place all marinade ingredients into a large bowl and whisk until it becomes saucy. Make incisions into the pork shoulder with a sharp knife so that the marinade can penetrate the meat, ensuring maximum flavour.
Rub the marinade into all the incisions in the pork, and massage on to the meat. Chop your carrots and onions and place them on to a large roasting tray, add the pork, and pour the marinade over everything.
Cover with tin foil and slow cook in the oven for four to five hours at 400°F. For a slower, deeper flavour, cook for six to eight hours at 200°F.
Eat by itself or put into a sandwich.