This time, last year, I was a week into a three-week travel writing program with Citytravelreview in Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom. I applied for the program because of my desire to return to a country I fell in love with in high school and because of a hope that my experiences during the program would give me a little boost with my job search. I boarded a plane in early Sept. 2012 with absolutely no idea what to expect…I certainly had my assumptions: a group of writer-wannabes from the U.S. and U.K. working as a team with graphic designers and professional editors and writers to create an in-depth travel guide for the city all while experiencing the sights and sounds (and tastes!) of the area. In reality, our group, consisting of twenty Germans and three Americans (all women, and one man), were mostly young college students looking for English-speaking and English-writing experience and, with the exception of short, daily workshops with a professional editor from the U.K. and the occasional visit from our somewhat incompetent program coordinators, we were mostly left to our own devices. In the end, despite the very loose structure of the program, we put together a pretty cool travel guide (Unveiling Secret Edinburgh) and I got the chance to write and publish articles in the guide as well as do the editing for some of the major sections of the publication (which was quite a challenge, as most were written by native German speakers).
I enjoyed working on a publication, but the best part of the trip was simply the act of living in a foreign city. I lived with one of the Americans and two Germans in a flat with a view of Edinburgh Castle from our bedrooms, just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from the Royal Mile and Princes Street Gardens. We walked to our rented office space each day for workshops and spent most our afternoons roaming the city. I walked every inch of the Royal Mile, visited the Parliament building and the Palace of Holyroodhouse, drove to the Highlands on a Hairy Coo Tour, and hiked up to Arthur’s Seat. I chatted about hockey with a Canadian working in a sandwich shop, talked beer with bartenders at local pubs, and made friends with a folk band at a hole-in-the-wall pub in a seedier part of town. I was witness to nights of weekday drinking that started at 4:00 in the afternoon and heard bagpipes played every day in every part of the city. I did and saw and visited and participated in as much as I could in the city, and that includes partaking in the food, whether traditional Scottish dishes, like haggis, or meals from very un-Scottish restaurants. Our flat was just steps away from the weekend farmers market, and we had fantastic restaurants on all sides. I attempted to cook in our flat just once, but after the difficulty that comes from trying to cook in a space about the size of a small walk-in closet with hardly a pot or pan in sight, I came to rely on the local restaurants and food vendors for my meals during the trip, and these experiences with food in the city gave me plenty of opportunities to write and talk about my passion for cooking (and eating).
Perhaps my favorite foods were traditional Scottish dishes, which is only proper. Near the Grassmarket, we ate the most amazing meat pies, made with flaky, buttery crusts and tender beef and lamb. The farmers market had an amazing collection of vendors, and we always made sure to get breakfast from Stoat’s Porridge—porridge has been making a comeback in the U.K. and Stoat’s had endless combinations of mix-ins, like fresh fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips. I satisfied my sweet tooth with homemade fudge from a shop on the Royal Mile and chunks of melty, sugary tablet (a mixture of sugar, condensed milk, and butter) from a vendor at the farmers market. While out for lunch one day, one of my roommates and I discovered Scottish Cream Tea: Scottish Breakfast Tea with milk and sugar, served alongside a homemade scone with clotted cream (similar to whipped cream, but much better) and homemade jam. Now, lemme just take a moment to gush about Scottish scones….we don’t make scones right stateside; we should take a lesson from the Scots (and Brits, for that matter). Their scones are more like large biscuits with a rough, crunchy outside, and fluffy center. Served warm, with cool clotted cream and sweet jam, they were always the perfect afternoon snack. Haggis and black pudding (blood sausage) were two traditional dishes, that many think are “gross,” that I happen to adore and happily ate while in Scotland. Haggis is a mixture of minced sheep innards, onion, oats, and seasoning, cooked in and then removed from a sheep’s intestine (or more often, synthetic casing), and served, often with “neeps and tatties” (turnips and potatoes). It’s essentially very flavorful ground meat and I promise it’s harmless and absolutely delicious. Black pudding, or blood sausage, is made by cooking blood (usually sheep or pig; cooking it thickens it) with oats, barley, onion and seasoning. Once again, sounds weird, tastes delicious. What I’m trying to say is, Scottish food is quite lovely, despite all the flack that the UK gets for it’s “bland and heavy” food.
I truly believe that food and dining are as important to travel as the activities and sights added to a trip’s itinerary. Experiencing new and local dishes and anticipating each night’s restaurant choice are some of the really fun parts of vacations, and dining in Scotland was a big part of what made this trip successful in my mind (though, the amazing museums and galleries, beautiful churches and historical buildings, friendly people, and group activities didn’t hurt). While the program I participated in may not have been the most well thought out or executed, the experience of living (and eating) in Scotland is one I wouldn’t trade for the world—I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I left! I miss that amazing country and I can’t wait to go back!