Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Food Flashback: Edinburgh, Scotland

(this post could also be called “The Most Scottish 24 Hours Ever”)

My first trip to Europe was of the whirlwind variety: four countries in sixteen days, nonstop sightseeing, drinking and eating, very little sleep. It wasn’t, however, your standard backpack-stuffed-with-dirty-clothes, hostel-sleeping, hungover, post-college affair.

In May 2001, I was 25 years old, nearing the end of an excruciatingly long career as a part-time MBA candidate (had to hone my love for spreadsheets somewhere). I’d suffered through countless finance and accounting classes, mind-numbing group projects, and more eating in the car while driving to class than anyone should ever have to face. Finally, I was about to graduate.

All those hours of commuting and reading and group work were about to pay off. Even before graduation, actually. I was going to Europe.

Every year, the Loyola part-time MBA program offers this amazing class: a sixteen day trip to Europe - three or four cities – visiting companies (and bars) in each. And, for this, we each received three credits. Amazing.

In 2001, the Study Tour cavalry was 25-strong: 22 students, a tour coordinator (also a professor), our professor and his wife. We tore our way through Europe, randomly meeting Bill Clinton in Stockholm, joining protests (and meeting Elle MacPherson, who was so gorgeous she glowed) in London, and celebrating the 35th anniversary of our professor and his wife in Paris.

And, finally, after countless hours in bars and cafes – and a few office buildings – and an extra-long delay at Charles de Gaulle, we limped, exhausted, hungover, and wearing dirty, Febrezed business suits, into the last few days of our trip, and into the Most Scottish 24 Hours Ever. We were in Edinburgh.

When we finally arrived in Scotland, sometime in the mid-afternoon, we were herded onto a tour bus – a routine that was so familiar to us by that point, we could have done it in our sleep. Before depositing us at our hotel, we were taken on a “cultural tour” of the city. We drove around the lovely old streets for a bit, dozing as our guide explained the historical significance of various buildings. The tour ended with a trip to the Edinburgh Castle, a well preserved monument to the days of William Wallace. We spent an hour or so wandering around, peeking in various rooms, admiring the view of the city and, of course, having our photos taken with the guards:

edinburgh castle
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

(Don’t I look showered? And well-rested? The night before, our last night in Paris, was the stuff legends are made of.)

And so began our total immersion in all things Scottish. Several hours later, after refreshing naps and much-needed showers, a core group of us congregated in the hotel lobby to get back out and explore the city. Exploration didn’t last long…before we even left the hotel, the concierge stopped us in our tracks with an announcement: there was a rugby game that evening.

Two taxis and an unfortunately long walk later, we found ourselves at Murrayfield, a large stadium that’s home to the Scotland national rugby team. Today, Scotland would be playing the Barbarians, a team made up of great rugby players from all over the world. The stars were mostly from New Zealand.

rugby ticket
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

We were surprised (and, good travelers that we were, disappointed) to learn that Murrayfield allowed no drinking outside of the beer garden, dashing our hopes to become drunk and unruly rugby hooligans, and to drink away our 13-day hangovers. Somehow, we muddled through, our attention held by the rough game and need for total concentration. As was expected, the Barbarians trounced Scotland, but it was a fun time, nonetheless.

rugby match
Originally uploaded by Kit Pollard.

And could not have been more Scottish.

An hour later, we reconvened at the Three Sisters for a post-game pint or two (and, I believe, some snacks. I realize I’ve mentioned absolutely no food so far in this post.) We chose the bar on the recommendation of a friendly waiter at O’Sullivans in Paris. Patrick was a Scot, and had nothing but good things to say about his homeland. “A group like you,” he said, “is really going to enjoy Edinburgh.”

Naturally, he was right, and his recommendation of the Three Sisters was spot on. A big, rowdy, quintessentially Scottish pub, the Three Sisters is home to some of the friendlier people we met on the trip. We sat outside at big picnic tables until it got dark and chilly, when we moved inside to continue our revelry. All night long, other patrons, native Edinburghers, introduced themselves to us, making friends right away.

In fact, that’s how it was the entire time we spent in Scotland. In sharp contrast to the obnoxious cosmopolitan Londoners and the supremely difficult Parisians, the people we met in Edinburgh could not have been nicer. (To be fair, all of the Australians we met in London and everybody in Stockholm was super nice, as well.)

Around 11 pm, we had to call it a night: we had a big day starting early in the morning – the second half of The Most Scottish 24 Hours Ever.

After an early wake-up call followed by frantic primping and a hotel breakfast, we once again piled onto our trusty tour bus, this time, to take us to our first company visit of the day: McCann Erickson Scotland.

The next three hours, we snacked on pastries (yum) as we laughed our asses off learning about McCann’s research programs from the two amazingly charming, knowledgeable leaders of the Scotland office. We also learned where the SNL skit “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap” was born. Our hosts were intentionally hilarious in their nationalistic cockiness – and they were serious, too.

By the time we broke for lunch, we were mostly too broken down to go very far – exhausted from laughing, and from the night before, and from all the nights before that. Three friends and I made our way down towards the water, where we found a pub where we could eat. We sunk into the hard wooden benches, Dido coming from the speakers and nearly putting us to sleep. Then we opened our menus.

This would be our first real meal in Scotland – and we were determined to do it up right. No chicken fingers or hamburgers for us (not to mention that these were the Mad Cow days): we wanted haggis.

Yes, haggis, that great Scottish classic that Robert Burns so memorably called the “Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race.” That mysterious combination of sheep’s stomach and pig’s parts that has the Scottish waxing poetic while the rest of the world nervously tries to calm their gag reflexes. Fabulous, famous haggis.

We ordered our haggis with tatties, the vaguely dirty sounding Scottish name for potatoes, though without tatties’ usual accompaniment, the also dirty-sounding nips (turnips).

And…it was delicious. At least, I thought so. Then again, I’m a big fan of scrapple, which is certainly a cousin of haggis’. The taste of haggis, salty and rich and meaty, takes a page right out of scrapple’s book. I loved it. Vastly outperforms all other members of the puddin’-race, as far as I’m concerned.

We topped our traditional meal off with a little dessert of warm sticky toffee pud which, as the name implies, is warm and sticky and toffee-like, but in pudding form (I suppose this is yet another member of the puddin’-race). Then we sat and stared at each other, eyes glazed over, still listening to Dido, for the twenty minutes we had left until our next company visit.

Our next company visit – the last company we’d visit on our trip. Our final school-related task, and the close to The Most Scottish 24 Hours Ever: The Scotch Malt Whiskey Society.

If you ever get the chance to visit Edinburgh, do everything you can to try to visit the Society (they also have clubs around the world, so you might be able to score a visit in your hometown.) The building was vintage Scotland: dark woods, leather armchairs, the smell of pipes. Our guide, a round, middle-aged lady with a sweet lilting voice and the sunniest disposition ever, walked us through not only the marketing and business organization of the club (as was her MBA-driven task), she also gave us a less on how Scotch is made, how to buy Scotch (only single malts will do), and how to distinguish one from another by taste.

We left that day, after having tasted four of Scotland’s best whiskeys, a little bit toastier inside and a lot more knowledgeable. The booklet she gave us, called “What do you nose?” outlined the five stages of tasting Scotch Whiskey, which are not unlike the steps involved in tasting wine. At the time, the whiskey was too strong for me, and still today, I can only take a few sips of Scotch before I’ve had too much. But still, those two hours were quintessentially Scottish, and couldn’t have been more enjoyable.

And so ended the most Scottish 24 Hours Ever. Over the next two days, we scrambled to do as much as we could in our final hours together in Europe, hiking for better views of the Firth of Forth (not me), lounging in parks (me), shopping (also me) and, of course, eating and drinking.

Once on the plane back to the US, I could finally relax, and hope that I’d be back again. Because, after all, if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap.

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