Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Let's Eat

A “travel blog” is difficult to generate when I’m not traveling (and the two day visit to our timeshare on the Oregon coast doesn’t really count).  We have now, though, paid for our spring tickets to Scotland and reserved our main B&B.  I have a list of golf courses I want to visit and some new-to-us historic sites to visit.  [Would “new historic sites” be an oxymoron?]  With the planning for our spring trip already begun, I feel ready to tackle a couple of travel topics in this blog entry.  
Gastro Pubs
From one extreme (Anderson’s Restaurant in Boat of Garten, Scotland)

to the other (a roadside stand near Perth, Scotland)

and this entry is about those places in between (Kippin Inn near Stirling, Scotland).

The vision of the local tavern/bar as a dark, dank, smelly, smoke-filled, beer-splattered  drinking establishment frequented by society’s dregs and losers is a B-grade film noir scene even in America.  (Bar in Ballyferriter, Ireland.)

Oh, you can find those bars about in the inner cities, but local taverns have never really been like that, at least not in my 66 years.  In Scotland, though, local pubs have been a breed different from even the American local tavern.  When we began touring Scotland in 2000 we discovered that the village pub was closer to our cafe or greasy spoon than to any local tavern.  The pub was truly a public house--a place for people to meet, share a pint, a dram, or a coffee, read the tabloids, tell stories, and catch up on the local gossip.  The pub was also a place for a family to have a meal out--kids needed to be out of the pub by eight or ten in the evening (depending upon local laws).  That really brings me to the crux of this discussion: pub food in Scotland, England, and Wales.  (Dreel Tavern, Anstruther, Scotland.)

On all our trips to the UK we’ve eaten predominately in three types of places: tea rooms, restaurants, and pubs, with pubs being the majority of our main meals.  Especially during the first few years our lunches or dinners were in pubs, bars or taverns that in the main were drinking places.  Food was secondary.  “Pub grub” consisted of standard pre-packaged fare with dishes like fish and chips (greasy), shepherd’s pie, steak and ale pie (soggy), bangers and mash, lasagna (tasteless), and Sunday joint or roast on almost every menu.  Early in our travels, though, we began to notice an improvement in bar meals including more freshly made specials and the Gastropub concept (the idea of a pub as a restaurant) became more prevalent.  (Poacher’s Rest, Ellon, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.)

It’s getting far more difficult to distinguish between a pub which cares about its food (the gastropub) and a restaurant which cares for its drinkers (Should we call it an inbiberaunt?), but it has definitely made a difference in the meals we can order.  Fresh roasted chicken, curries in great variety, specialty steaks and chops, gourmet sandwiches, as well as better prepared versions of all the pub favorites.  Several of our favorite “pubs” have or are developing reputations for great food to go along with their real ales, specialty drinks, and atmosphere,  The oldest licensed public house in Scotland, The Clachan Inn [] in Drymen, was established in 1734 and today offers only the traditional pub menu until you look on the “Specials” board.  The range of specials of chicken and roasts effectively doubles the menu.  Craik is good with locals and tourists and the food is superb.  While The Clachan Inn interior is white, light and airy, the atmosphere at one of our other favorite pubs is dark and heavy, but the beers brewed on premises at the Moulin Inn [] just outside Pitlochry at the edge of the Highlands easily brighten the atmosphere.  The local golfer who suggested we visit the Moulin Inn said it was “the most English pub in Scotland.”  We never did quite figure out what that meant, but we will acknowledge that Moulin Inn (est. 1695) fits the stereotype of a real village pub.  With a peat or coal fire in the fireplace of the small bar area and dark wood booths the length of pub, Moulin is almost always crowded.  Plenty are there to drink the five Moulin ales, but most are visiting for the food.  The menu (a great souvenir) is anything but typical. Favorites include  Skye mussels, Scotsman’s Bunnet (batter pudding filled with Highland meat and veg stew) Game Casserole McDuff, Vrackie Grostel (sauted potatoes and bacon topped with a fried egg, an anytime breakfast), and a specials board reflecting seasonal offerings.  Have a brew while you wait for a table.  In southern Wales it was the golf pro at Pyle and Kenfig GC who put us onto the Prince of Wales Pub [] nearby, named originally Ty Newydd Tavern (New House).  [You will find Prince of Wales pubs or restaurants throughout Wales, England, and Scotland.  As far as I know they aren’t connected; it just seems like a popular name.]  This supposedly very haunted 15th century hotel has a large pub room filled with heavy tables and chairs and flanked by smaller booths or snugs--picturesque comes to mind.  The pub is a drinker’s haven, but the food is not of the pre-packaged variety.  All the meat, produce, and dairy is local--including whatever was shot, trapped, or brought in that day.  A specialty is Braised Welsh Faggots (similar to Scottish haggis, but much richer, served with onion gravy and chips or mash).  The food and atmosphere is good enough to leave us saying, “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts.”  (Black Boy, Caernarfon, Wales.)

Besides the afore mentioned gastropubs, we have others to recommend. In England we’d suggest The George Inn in Lacock near Bath (be sure to get a close look at the dog wheel spit turner), the Hest Bank Inn near Lancaster, the Hope and Anchor in Port of Carlisle, and the Kings Arms in Bowness-on-Solway.  In Wales try the Black Boy in Caernarfon, and King Arthur’s Hotel in Reynoldston in south Wales.  In Scotland our favorites include Poacher’s Rest just outside Ellon near Aberdeen, the Port Bar at the Lake of Menteith Hotel  in the Port of Menteith, Perthshire, The Kimberley Inn in Findhorn on the Morayshire coast, and The Dreel Tavern in Anstruther.
If you work hard you can still find typical fatty, poorly prepared pre-packaged “pub grub,” but whether called Gastropub or Inbiberaunt, the pub food in Scotland has definitely taken a turn for the better.   
Would You Like Music with Your Meal?
Restaurants make choices about the music (or lack of music) to go with the diner’s meal.  Too often they make poor choices.  Just outside of Tralee, Ireland, is the well known Oyster Tavern.  Highly rated in the tourist guide books, the Oyster Tavern is a lovely, high class bar and restaurant, all except their choice of music.  When we visited the ambience cried for light jazz or classical, instead of the Christmas tunes we got in late May.  Was this someone’s idea of a joke?  Seafood chowder and Jingle Bells don’t mix in May.  We’ve found this same lack of attention to the tunes playing in other restaurants.  Our B&B in Cirencester, England, recommended Jessie’s as the best meal in town.  We walked down to town early to book a table and returned at 7:00 for our reservation.  The dinner was superb (although slightly dainty and expensive for my taste) and the decor classy and comfortable.  (Jessie’s, Cirencester, England.)

The music, though, was abominable!  Again in a setting appropriate to light jazz, classical, or mellow ballads, the well-placed (right above our heads) speakers blared out rap and gangsta-rap.  Even the scallops on my plate were screaming to get back in their shells.  We cannot fathom the thinking of a restaurant owner who would spend a fortune to build a fine-dining establishment just to ruin it with bad music.