As Scotland’s signature purple heather faded from the hills, signaling the end of summer, another symbol marked the scenery: the blue and white “Yes” signs supporting independence from the United Kingdom. The debate over whether Scotland could stand on its own formed a poignant backdrop to my food tour of the country, where I discovered a cuisine that impressed and surprised at every turn. As I traveled from restaurant to dairy farm, coffee shop to fishing boat, everything I tasted proved, if one could judge by its food alone, that Scotland is a force to be reckoned with.
To outsiders, what it means to be Scottish has often been narrowly defined in culinary terms. “I imagine many people think first of haggis, fish and chips, and all things deep-fried,” says Helena Edwards of The Gardener’s Cottage in Edinburgh, adding, “but there is so much more than that!” While the reputation of Scottish cuisine hasn’t always paid tribute to the quality of food that its shores are home to, that has changed in recent years with a renewed focus on local and seasonal cooking. From restaurants like Field or The Three Chimneys, to Gardener’s Cottage, Monachyle Mhor, or the Isle of Eriska Restaurant , chefs are showcasing the country’s larder in a uniquely Scottish way.
Nowhere is this mission better executed than at Timberyard in Edinburgh. Restaurant veterans Andrew and Lisa Radford opened the restaurant as a family affair: eldest son Ben is the chef, younger brother Jo runs the bar, and sister Amy does the marketing. The space is a study in transformation. Once an abandoned timber warehouse, today it’s an expansive, light-filled room, with an adjoining courtyard, herb patch, and converted shed for private dining. The kitchen does its own smoking, drying, butchering, and foraging, and the bar could stand alone as one of the most innovative watering holes in Edinburgh.
Above all, the focus at Timberyard is on the ingredients. Organized into four sections — bite, small, large, and sweet — the menu is a simple presentation of the elements in each dish. “Scallop, smoked roe, potato, dill,” reads one item. “Red deer, elderberry, cabbage, celeriac, tarragon, chanterelle, salsify.” That same approach is taken with the beverages: “We want to take the focus away from the base spirit and bring more focus on the ingredients,” Joe Radford explains. Both the food and drinks make use of seasonal ingredients from local producers, seamlessly blending together both tradition and obscurity.
“There are many great restaurants in Scotland and Edinburgh, but a lot are based on classical French cuisine, and the dishes are quite heavy,” owner Andrew Radford says. “Ben takes what is good and in season, but handles it lightly, producing on the plate what is very simple yet technically excellent.” Artful though its presentation may be, the food at Timberyard is never so complicated as to overshadow the nuances of Scotland’s seasonal bounty. Though you might taste the influences of new Nordic, contemporary, or French cuisines, the food at Timberyard evades simple categorization. Above all, you can taste a sense of place.
“Scotland has tremendous resources that the world wants,” argued one BBC commentator in favor of Scottish independence on the eve of my meal at Timberyard. Across the spectrum I heard chefs echo this claim. “There are producers all over Scotland rivaling those from all over the world; this is what Scottish food culture should be about,” says Ross Stovold, head chef at the Isle of Eriska Restaurant. What it means to be Scottish hasn’t been simple to define these days, which might explain why people like the Radfords let the ingredients speak for themselves.
“The seasons guide us, because Scotland is an abundant larder,” Andrew says.