Kate Muir on Glasgow
My relations with Scottish food begin as a horror story, but end as a romance. Growing up in the 1970s in Glasgow, we ate the sort of meals that would now have you imprisoned by government health inspectors: square sausage butties, Vesta boil-in-the-bag chicken curry consumed in front of the black and white telly, Irn-Bru and Cremola Foam, a sub-nuclear orange powdered drink that fizzed when stirred into water.
Unlike many families who were chained to their chip pans, we did cook vegetables, mostly just the two regularly sold in the Co-op supermarket: cabbage and carrots. Oh, and frozen peas with Birds Eye fishfingers. The only salad dressing available was Heinz Salad Cream. We distinguished ourselves by buying Mother’s Pride ‘pan’ sliced white bread, with a pale soft crust, rather than ‘plain’ bread, with a nasty dark crust. In Glasgow, this gave rise to the saying ‘she’s very pan loaf’, which meant you had airs and graces above your station.
Every week, without fail, we had a dinner of salty mince with wee bits of carrot chopped up in it and mashed potatoes, which I always mushed together into a sort of sandcastle to avoid eating it. On Saturday, from about the age of eight, I proudly made macaroni cheese for my dad, with bright orange Cheddar.
But it was for dinner parties that Glaswegians really pulled out the stops – and the kaftans, hostess trollies and Babycham. I enjoyed revisiting the scary territory of 1970s food when I was writing my novel, West Coast, which is mostly set in Scotland. My protagonist, Fergus MacFarlane, is raised on chip-shop fare. So he tries to better himself by learning to cook fancy food with his uncle, who specialises in making asparagus roulade, spears of floppy tinned asparagus wrapped in rolls of thin pink ham. ‘It was magic, and stayed warm on the hostess trolley while Jim served sherry and whisky to his guests, Mr and Mrs Catani, who appreciated foreign food. Fergus was allowed to bring in the pudding he’d helped make: Black Forest trifle, using a whole tin of black cherries in syrup and fresh whipped cream, not the UHT stuff.’
For me, exotica like asparagus and black cherries always came from tins, until I got a job as a student in the 1980s in one of Glasgow’s first delicatessens. There, I nearly gave the parsimonious deli owner a heart attack by slicing the expensive Parma ham in thick slabs instead of wafer-thin slices, but I did learn that the pungent, unpasteurised Brie de Meaux – which I would previously have described as ‘honking’ or ‘bowfin’ – was at its delicious peak when running all over the plate. The delis and little Italian cafés owned by Glasgow’s by-then second generation of immigrants were wonderful. Indeed, more recent immigration from Asia and England has helped steer Scottish restaurants away from deep-fried Mars Bar and back to good local ingredients.
Incidentally, my local fish and chip shop where we holiday in Argyll suggests: ‘If you have to fry a Mars Bar – and I wouldn’t advise it – you need to freeze it first so the chocolate doesn’t melt in the chip pan.’ Nice.
Now my food choices are largely a reaction against the heart-stopping meals of my youth. I grow my own vegetables on an allotment near my home in London. And Scotland has changed so much for the better. We enjoy the freshest seafood at the Oyster Bar at Loch Fyne, and my favourite restaurant is the Kilberry Inn, in a tiny white cottage on a single track road with fantastic views over to Jura. Locals supply the inn: Jim catches the mackerel, Hector the crab, salad comes from Mary’s garden and beef from the farm next door. Food miles are non-existent; everything tastes fantastic. Why couldn’t we have done this 30 years ago?
Kate Muir’s novel West Coast (£6.99, Headline Review) is out now.
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Contributors: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Yotam Ottolenghi, Justin Cartwright, Kate Muir