We Scots don't have the best reputation when it comes to what we put into our bodies. It is said that smoke too much, take too little exercise, and that what most of us eat and drink would make our French and Italian comrades wince. When Scottish food and drink comes up in conversation the jibes about tonic wine, unspeakable parts of animals crammed into sausage skins, and deep-fried Mars Bars are never too far away. Even though the Scottish Government did some excellent work throughout 2015 with its Year of Food and Drink programme to promote the best we have, the spectre of mockery still abides. However, when considering any reputation it is important to keep in mind the prescient words of Mark Twain who said that we can "give a man a reputation as an early riser, and he can sleep 'til noon."
I reflected on these words of the Huckleberry Finn author on Saturday evening as I made my way into Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms for the North Hop Edinburgh Festival. I also realised just how true they are. There I was, in a nation infamous for its awful food and drink, surrounded by the very best in both. The Assembly Rooms is a palatial venue with carpets thick enough to lose your children in and gorgeous chandeliers hanging from every available inch of ceiling. It is a venue perfectly suited to stuffy lawyers and political party conferences. However, on this occasion the ultra-luxury of the George Street venue was hilariously juxtaposed with hay bail seating, rickety wooden tables, and the hoodie and beard uniform worn by most of the menfolk in attendance. Tonight, I said to myself, the foodies and drink-buffs are doing things their way.
And rightly so, because the products speak for themselves!
As a foodie and somewhat of drink I found myself in as close to nirvana as a cynical young skeptic could be. I stopped by to see the fine folks from the Borders-based Tempest Brew Co. who provided me with a sample of their Marmalade on Rye, a decadent jammy and spicy tipple with a superb olfactory experience. Furthermore, it provided an excellent accompaniment to the finely crafted chocolates created by Stacy Hannah, aka Ms Sugar Wings, who manages to combine bacon, cashew and caramel into a treat so sublime that it borders on indecent.
I carried on to the slick and professional stall laid out by Six Degrees North, a firm specialising in brewing in a Belgian style. I note upfront that I am normally not a fan of Belgian-style wheat beer - I usually find it to have a plastic taste and an offensive, aggressive mouthfeel. Their HopClassic forced me to reconsider that opinion. Also worthy of a special mention are the gents at the Drygate Brewing Co. whose Ax Man Rye IPA is to the taste buds what the guitar solo in Sweet Child of Mine is to the ears.
The word limit I have for these entries prevents me from being able to mention, by name, every delicious drop I sampled that evening as I moved from stall to stall; but the reader ought to rest assured that the bounty did not stop at the treasure listed above. Let's just say that I capped the evening off with a plate of the best brisket burnt-ends I've ever tasted (and I worked in Texas for a summer), complete with Irn-Bru BBQ sauce courtesy of Reekie's Smokehouse.
However, it would be remiss of me to omit mention of my own personal highlight of the evening. If there is one brand that I would urge you to try then it would be the East Lothian-based Thistly Cross Cider. Their stall was tucked into an intimate corner of the main room where their friendly staff combined a superlative knowledge of their craft with a passion for what they do - and of course a top-notch set of products. They had several options available but two stuck out as their superstar players. First, their original Thistly Cross cider, a true masterclass in what good cider ought to taste like and a must for anyone who, like me, was been put off the idea of cider by something served to them in a warm plastic bottle in their youth. It is crisp, balanced, and gently warming but lacks the metallic, obnoxious and overpowering flavour of other ciders. I also recommend their Strawberry variant - of the same high standard but with the luxurious, almost decadent, addition of strawberry juice. Sublime!
As impressive as the food and drink at the North Hop Edinburgh Festival was; the mood was the most intoxicating thing to imbibe in the room. At a time when other industries seem to be struggling; the craft food and drink industry bristles with a relentless and refreshing optimism. Every person I spoke to that evening answered my question on the future of the industry in the same way; things are good now and they're only going to get better. It seems that with the increasing role of the Internet in our lives people are informed and are therefore more discerning as to what they eat drink; and Scotland is at the forefront of satisfying this new type of demand. There is genuine belief that the dominance of mass-market lager, uninspiring junk food and the other things that have contributed to Scotland's unfortunate and undeserved gastro-reputation will come to an end.
Based on the fervour, passion, quality and belief that I encountered at the North Hop Edinburgh Festival - I find it hard to disagree.