Brian Viner: 'Scottish grub, on the whole, is not one of the country's myriad charms'

Home And Away
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The Independent Online

Let me preface this column by saying that I love Scotland, that I spent four of the happiest years of my life there as a student, that several of my closest friends are Scots, and that I return whenever possible. Last week I was there to cover the Open Championship at Turnberry on the glorious Ayrshire coast, and was reminded anew of myriad Caledonian charms. But Scottish grub, on the whole, is not one of them.

Now, before indignant Scottish readers reach for their keyboards, I must add that I yield to absolutely nobody in my admiration for Aberdeen Angus steak, Loch Fyne oysters, Inverawe smoked salmon, Achiltibuie kippers, and even Ecclefechan butter tart. Nor do I subscribe to the sassenach notion that haggis is revolting. As made by Macsween of Edinburgh, it is almost a thing of nobility. But since we have alighted in "Auld Reekie", as Scotland's great capital city is sometimes known, let me also relate the story told by a colleague of mine, who some years ago took a distinguished Canadian journalist called Hal Quinn for a slap-up breakfast in a cafe just off the Royal Mile. Quinn asked for some fresh orange juice and was duly brought a sturdy glass of fizzy orangeade. "Holy cow, what's this?" he exclaimed, and tried to explain to the semi-detached waitress the difference between fresh and freshly-opened.

The Scottish caff can, I'm afraid, be a dismal place. So can the Scottish hotel. During the Open, this newspaper's small troupe of sports writers were accommodated in an establishment in Girvan, a holiday resort somewhat down on its luck a few miles south of Turnberry. It would be cruel of me to list the hotel's many deficiencies, and still crueller to name it, but suffice to say that a colleague lamented the absence of a comments book, in which he had hoped to suggest that the place should, in the interests of humanity, be blown up.

In fairness, it is wrong to finger only Scotland. Seaside resorts around Britain are full of such hotels, shabby Victorian villas in which the concept of organising life to suit the guest rather than the staff is as threadbare as the towels and curtains. I was once despatched to Blackpool to cover the Tory Party Conference, and was billeted in a gloomy place just off the promenade. Having arrived tired and hungry just after 6pm, I optimistically asked the hangdog proprietor whether they served evening meals. The ghost of a smile illuminated his lugubrious face. "We do," he said, "but you're too late. We stopped serving at 5.45 sharp."

I was reminded of that exchange at our Girvan hotel, where breakfast was served between 8.30 and 9am and if you missed that narrow window of opportunity, you went hungry. Or went, in my case on Saturday, to chance your arm on the high street. Outside the grandly-named Café Royale I found a sandwich board advertising a £5.20 breakfast of "sausage, egg, bacon, potato scone, tomato, black pudding, beans and a portion of chips". I walked swiftly, biliously, on and found another caff, where I ordered a bacon roll that was an affront to every pig ever put to death for its meat. Boiled, pallid, fatty bacon on the worst kind of white roll – the kind that sticks to the roof of your mouth – rendered even more disgusting by a thick layer of butter-substitute, it was a disgrace.

And yet, for all that, my stomach will remember Girvan fondly. The hatchet-faced woman who ran our dreadful hotel did us only one favour but it was a gigantic one; she pointed us towards the nearby Harbourhead restaurant, where we ate every night. Pebble-dashed and unpromising on the outside, and scarcely more promising within, the Harbourhead produced seafood fit for the gods, including the best fish and chips – haddock from the Irish Sea so fresh its mates probably hadn't even noticed it was gone, enclosed in the lightest imaginable tempura batter – that I have ever tasted in a lifetime of eating fish and chips.

Moreover, the staff were charming and, when two ravenous scribes from The Observer looked in well after 10 one night, the chef cheerfully ploughed back into his closed kitchen and rustled up two huge platefuls of top-notch curry. The Harbourhead achieved what I had considered impossible, all but obliterating the memories of some truly horrible gastronomic experiences north of the border. I probably shouldn't add that the chef comes from Manchester.