Surprise, there’s more than haggis and fish ‘n chips in Scotland. “There’s no good food in Scotland,” we heard countless times before we embarked on a European Waterways/Art in Voyage barge up the Caledonian Canal through the stunning Scottish Highlands.
We boarded the Spirit of Scotland (pictured below) in Fort William and happily meandered the length of the canal for six (mostly) sunny days to Inverness, stopping to tour distilleries and castles, hike jaw-dropping trails and simply take in the profound beauty of places like Loch Ness. And the communal meals shared around the table on the barge turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the journey, where Chef Dave Lawrence told tales of Scotland through his extraordinary cuisine.
From a perfect oyster at Michelin-starred Number One at The Balmoral in Edinburgh at the start of our journey to the simplicity of a warm sausage roll at MacDougall Butchers in Fort Augustus, we found a surprising array of meats, seafood and produce all along the way. Young farmers along the canal delivered boxes of vegetables to the barge with carrots, broccoli, sweet peppers and squash. We foraged for nettles and wild garlic, and snacked on gorse flowers, a thorny yellow flower that grows on hillsides. A friendly Scotsman shared rhubarb picked from his front yard where we moored one night, served the next day with a silky buttermilk sauce.
There were slabs of salmon and thick steamed cod in smoked corn butter. Hand-dived scallops with the roe still attached (pictured at right). Whisky-braised pork belly, fresh fried sardines and fennel, petite lamb chops and thick prime rib, all sourced locally. We tasted cullen skink (Scottish smoked fish chowder), a perfect Scotch egg with the warm yolk still oozing (pictured below), sweet cranachan and haggis, nips & tatties. Scottish tablet, the sweet candy made with condensed milk, butter and sugar, was perfect with espresso.
Then there was the cheese: Smoked Dunlop, organic cumin Gouda, Blue Murder and organic Clava Brie from Connage Highland Dairy. Taste of Arran Cheddar with crushed stem ginger, Isle of Arran Smokey Garlic Cheddar, Isle of Kintyre Highland Applesmoke Cheddar, Morangie Brie, Strathdon Blue and Village Maid Waterloo. And those magical little oatcakes that intensify the cheese flavors.
Whisky is a whole other story. And Scottish gin, the new darling of the distilleries. The barge had a well-stocked lounge with unusual Scottish sips, and an ace mixologist at the ready.
Lawrence, a young chef from Tasmania, cooked in a kitchen the size of the one in my first apartment, and this kid turned out some of the finest tastes of Scotland we had on our two-week journey, including a Michelin-starred restaurant and other highly recommended eateries. He’s mostly self-taught, but credits his mother, who had a “massive vegetable garden, a wood-fired oven and loved to preserve.” By the time he was 10 years old, he was cooking family dinner one night a week for his allowance. He started cooking in Australia at this brother-in-law’s restaurant, then traveled the globe cooking in kitchens in Japan, France, California and New Zealand. He landed a “more permanent” position at the Four Seasons in Sydney, Australia, where he credits Chef Matt Germanchis with “teaching me everything.”
He describes his fresh style of cooking as “simple and off the cuff,” and he does as little as possible to the ingredients, fusing flavors and textures in delicious ways. A favorite lunch dish was salmon (smoked on the barge), crunchy broccoli, fresh peas, dill and a dollop or two of his house-made fermented chili (pictured at right).
Lawrence’s present job with European Waterways is in part wanderlust and in part a way to learn another new cuisine. He approaches every meal with a zest for discovering new ingredients, and experimenting with new techniques for classic dishes. He and his partner Michelle Allpress, who runs the front of the house on the barge, dream of some day opening their own restaurant in Australia, “all wood fired, on the beach.” Try one of Chef Dave’s recipes here.