Sunday, 23 January 2011

You take the high road ...

Glasgow: extremely cold and, by and large, either very cloudy or just downright foggy. Although somehow, ‘A foggy day, in Glasgow town’ ... doesn’t carry quite as much charm when one is standing outside a hotel/conference centre right next to the river, gasping at a fag and freezing one’s metaphoricals off. But then again, Gershwin never wrote about it and the lady Ella never sang about it.

But outside of the business that brought me here, there has been plenty to experience – and much to make my foodie heart sing.

It all began at Heathrow on Friday morning - I had to leave home at 5.30am, for goodness sake! - with a still-early breakfast after I’d got through security.

I went to Hawley’s and ordered eggs Benedict. Eggs okay, muffin so-so (sodden with sauce), ham not bad, but hollandaise most definitely not the best I’ve had. Well, I could taste the vinegar, that was for sure.

Having said that, looking at the breakfast that they then offered us in flight (I didn’t need anything other than tea, thankfully), I’d made the best choice. Not the complimentary one, but the best one.

When we arrived, Glasgow was bathed in a brittle sunshine, with a thick frost everywhere reminding you that yes, it is still winter.

My cab driver from the airport made cursory conversation to start with and then settled into an odd silence that was punctuated at apparently random points with: “Aye” and “aye” and even “aye”, for good measure.

Despite the varied intonation, I remain clueless as to the meaning or purpose – although I was later informed that that is the default sound made at regular intervals by any Glasgwegian husband.

Arriving at the hotel with a little time to spare before my work started, I needed lunch and, since there’s nothing near enough to use as an easy alternative, it was a case of selecting something from the bar menu in the hotel, with that old staple of scampi and chips winning out.

The scampi was reformed but at least hot and freshly cooked; the chips were equally okay (but not handcut). And it was all hotel expensive. In other words, with a diet Coke, over £11.

Things absolutely had to get better.

After an afternoon’s work, I tidied up, ordered a cab and sat down to wait with a pre-meal G&T.

Rogano, an Art Deco restaurant that first opened its doors in 1935, while the Queen Mary was being built on the Clyde, was calling.

On the flight up, I had started reading A Taste of My Life by Raymond Blanc. I already sense that it might become a personal bible.

One of the things that had already struck me, by the time I left for Rogano, was Blanc’s initial thoughts on taste. No, not the: ‘I’ve got good taste and you haven’t’ sort of snobbishness, but the whole idea of taking the time to think and really experience what we eat: to taste.

One of the joys about eating on your own is that that is easier to do. Although I realised quite early on at Rogano that I still have a tendency to rush my food rather than relish it when alone. I made a deliberate effort to deal with that.

I had already ordered when they planted in front of me a complimentary espresso cup of scallop bisque with chives.

Now that was a bit special – a heady, intense taste of scallop (from the corals, presumably, given the rich colour).

And then came my ‘real’ starter, a plate of Marrbury smoked salmon. I had enquired for more detail. A charming young waiter went off and got it for me: this was salmon from Dumfries, oak smoked, with juniper and whisky.

And what did it taste like? Well, I shut my eyes and tasted. And worked at taking my time. And worked at thinking and letting the food work its magic on me. And the taste was incredible.

There was the wonderfully subtle smokiness first – and then slowly I found myself getting the whisky. This was an extraordinarily long taste. And there was the oiliness of the fish, contrasted with the sharpness of the lemon (presented as a half of a fruit, wrapped in muslin and tied with a bow, which meant you could squeeze all you liked, but it wasn’t going to spit pips onto your fish. And it looked lovely too). A sense of the muscularity of the fish – having been farmed in an environment where tides were at play.

This was a very special experience – like seeing in technicolour or 3D for the first time: dizzying, almost. Magnificent produce, superbly prepared and then combined with a sense of really learning; of progressing.

I had, however, made the mistake of ordering the fish of the day for my main, a fresh water trout with vermouth butter. The sauce was wonderful, but the fish seemed a little dry and flavourless. It suffered, I think, by comparison with the salmon – a fight it was never going to win.

There were only quite heavy desserts on the menu, so I asked if they’d got ice cream. They had. It was hardly spectacular, but it would be churlish to whinge. They were gracious enough to find what I needed at that exact juncture.

The setting was wonderful. The service was its equal: young staff, almost all from Scotland; attentive and helpful and friendly. And I was allowed to create a little bubble around myself to relish the food.

It’s not cheap – but then the main issue on this score is the wine. It's a fine list, but little that I could see by the glass. I had a small bottle of 2008 Gewurztraminer from Gustave Lorentz in Alsace and it was very nice indeed, but it did the most damage to my purse.

However, finally we were really on track. I returned to my hotel a happy bunny.

The next morning, I awoke to freezing fog on the Clyde and a greater variety of food products at breakfast than I have ever seen, including haggis, black pudding and square sausage. And no, I am not making the latter up.

I pigged out at breakfast (it saves money at lunchtime). I settled for haggis, bacon, black pudding and square sausage. The pudding was crozzled pretty much beyond eating. The ‘square’ sausage (which was rectangular) was rather heavy. The haggis was over spicy for me.

Lunch was a skimped affair – two choc chip shortbread biscuits in my room as I did some work.

Then, in the evening, it was off to Rab Ha’s. It started in chaos. The hotel said there was no need to book a cab – there’d always be one outside. Come the hour, there was a distinct absence of any cab. They had to order. I was 10 minutes late (having rung to advise). Then it simply seemed like a crowded and noisy pub before I was finally guided to the restaurant downstairs.

Once there, it was time to relax. The décor might be tartan wallpaper, but it’s remarkably subtly done and feels incredibly snug and welcoming.

Indeed, by and large, Rab Ha’s might not be big, but it is clever.

I made the ‘mistake’ of choosing cullen skink as my starter – an absolutely delightful classic Scottish soup of smoked haddock, onion, potato and cream. Really rustic stuff. Soothing (see the smoked haddock risotto at Brasserie Blanc in Bristol) and, of course, rather filling.

Given my notoriously small capacity, it was a mistake, but not in any other way – and indeed, it was on my list of specific dishes that I wanted to taste while here. I was not disappointed.

But it did ruin my appetite for a second course, for which I’d selected venison on a rooty mash, with a deep, dark gravy.

The meat seemed rather grainy in texture and was a tad over-cooked – hardly any remaining pink, even in the middle – and the mash was odd really, being smooth in places and rather chunky and stringy in others.

But they had decent wine by the glass. Which avoided the issues of the night before. And given that I couldn’t get through anywhere near all my venison, I skipped dessert entirely – partly in shame from not having been able to eat as much of the venison as I would have liked.

However, night two and in essence, we’re doing well. I will remember the cullen skink at Rab Ha's. I will remember the smoked salmon at Rogano for a very long time as, I think, a seminal moment in my understanding of food (and thanks to Mary for the recommendation).

This Scottish food odyssey is certainly not a disaster. And hopefully, there’s plenty more to come.

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