Glasgow: Give a girl a bad name...

By Pam Neville

Glasgow's culinary reputation for deep-fried Mars Bars and chips with everything is well past its use-by date, says Pam Neville.

Clean air and water in pristine locations such as the Isle of Arran nurture high-quality produce for Scotland's restaurants. This is Lochranza Castle on Arran, near the Lochranza whisky distillery. Photo / David Gordon
Clean air and water in pristine locations such as the Isle of Arran nurture high-quality produce for Scotland's restaurants. This is Lochranza Castle on Arran, near the Lochranza whisky distillery. Photo / David Gordon

A bad name can be difficult to shake off, as the city of Glasgow in Scotland well knows.

The whole country is a bountiful larder of quality fresh produce; the market gardeners and farmers embrace organics; the seas and rivers are clean and fish-filled; restaurants pride themselves on their modern take on traditional Scottish cooking; talented chefs have come home; and Glasgow has some of the hippest students, the most elegant buildings and the most exciting culture - street and classical - in Britain.

Yet bustling, sociable, intelligent, quirky and fun-filled Glasgow still carries the taint of its residents' penchant for cigarettes, booze and deep-fried anything.

"I've never seen a deep-fried Mars Bar in my life," says Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart at his restaurant at upmarket Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond. In the rejuvenating East End of Glasgow, home of Tennent's Lager, another chef admits to having seen one, "but that was in Manchester".

Yet the deep-fried Mars Bar is a slander that Glasgow has been trying for years to live down. Perhaps by the time the Commonwealth Games come to the city in 2014, tourism bosses will have succeeded in replacing the deep-fried reputation with a justified name for an astonishing array of fresh food, cooked simply with flair.

Glasgow was, after all, named European City of Culture in 1990 and that boosted the idea that there's more to it than the legendary, and sometimes vicious, rivalry between Celtic and Rangers. Now it is the turn of food to have its image polished.

"I just wish people would come to the right places," says Jacqueline O'Donnell, head chef at The Sisters restaurant in Glasgow. "We do have a bad reputation for food, but people wouldn't have bad experiences if they found out about the good restaurants."

Malcolm Wishart would like people to come to Scotland to taste whatever wild game is in season - perhaps pheasant, woodcock or partridge, but the best is grouse, a small bird available from August to November. The season opens on "The Glorious Twelfth" of August and some of the thousands of birds shot by the rich and famous from around Britain end up at Wishart's restaurants on Loch Lomond and in Edinburgh.

He serves grouse in classical style with "sauce Albert" - bread sauce with horseradish and mustard. Other signature dishes include a cerviche of halibut and a lobster souffle.

Haggis, of course, is everywhere. Wishart serves haggis bonbon as an amuse bouche; Cafe Source offers haggis burgers; there is vegetarian haggis (made largely from oats) at The Bothy; and venison haggis at the Ubiquitous Chip, a restaurant named in an ironic attempt to steer Glaswegians away from their chips-with-everything mentality.

Macaroni cheese with chips is a family favourite, and macaroni cheese in pastry is a popular pie - served with chips, of course. Indian takeaways compete with the chippy as the most popular dinner stop.

The restaurant chefs of Glasgow lean towards revitalising traditional food, rather than introducing "fusion". But takeaway shops have embraced their own fusion food - a mix of Scottish and Indian. Think curry pie, chicken tikka pizza and haggis vindaloo - often served with "Glasgow salad", a popular euphemism for chips.

A primary school teacher encountered on a stroll of the friendly Glasgow streets says the love of Indian takeaways is a good thing for poor Glasgow children.

"Eating a takeaway curry is the only time they encounter vegetables," she says. (A council scheme providing free fruit to primary schools is under threat because of budget cuts.)

But tourists to Glasgow will find many rewarding places to eat. The best advice is to do some research, then book in advance if possible.

The food business is battling to overcome a bad reputation, and - in the places listed below at least - it is winning.

WHERE TO EAT

The Sisters: Put The sisters at the top of your list. The signature dish is roast Limerick ham with champ tatties and buttered cabbage, but everything is good. Big sister Jacqueline O'Donnell will demonstrate at the table. As we eat lunch, she prepares scallops cured in whisky and lime, cooks Cullen skink, a fish soup, pan-fries black pudding, and makes a sauce for venison using wild brambles (blackberries) harvested on a family outing the previous day. A set three-course lunch costs about $35.

Cafe Source: Housed in an old church, it specialises in traditional Scottish food and is so named because it sources its produce close to home. Cafe Source does the best Cullen skink in town for $10. Cullen is a place name, skink is a soup of smoked haddock and potato. On the menu are whole haggis, haggis fritters and haggis burgers, as well as clapshot, a potato and turnip mash, and rumpledethumps, potato mash with cabbage and spring onion.

Martin Wishart: Your best option for fine dining, this restaurant at the grand Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond is a favourite of well-heeled Scottish folk who come for golf, boating, walks and luxurious accommodation.

* Red Onion (where one of the claims to fame of owner/chef John Quigley is that he introduced sushi to Glasgow) is lively and reliable. You will also be well-fed at The Bothy and at Cafe Gandolfi.

* For a Saturday treat, visit Clarkston Farmers' Market where vendors include Scotland's oldest bakery (Taylor's), its oldest soapmaker (Caurnie), and Thomson's, a purveyor of the square sausage.

Pam Neville travelled in Scotland with assistance from VisitBritain.

- NZ Herald

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