Location: St Katherine’s Dock
By Boeing: 1559 miles
By Boris Bike: 3.8 miles
I admit it was very tempting to follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared tourists and position my posterior on the red, velvety plumpness of an Angus Steak House booth to celebrate the culture and cuisine of our northern neighbour. The dry, flavourless steak, the portion of grilled tomato, the ludicrous prices all make for, one can only imagine, an unforgettable evening. But I resisted. Neither did I re-mortgage my flat to make funds available for an evening of venison, single malts, cigars and smooth jazz at Boisdale, London’s only Scottish restaurant of renown. Instead I sought out an itinerant pop-up, beloved of many a hung-over hipster, to see how Scottish food is branding itself against more exotic fare new to our shores.
Denney’s, which tours food villages in London like a pink Floyd tribute act tours the satellite towns of Leeds, resides on a Friday in Saint Catherine’s Dock. Surrounded by exclusive apartments, super yachts and long lunching city folk the food village nestles beneath the awnings of the oddly charming giant Swiss chalet style pub. There must be over twenty stalls in all, offering delicacies from across the world served by suitably eclectic and strangely dressed twentysomethings. The smells that wafted through the still summer air were exotic, spice laden and new to the nose. That is except two stalls, one selling Isle of Man burgers and the other haggis toasties.
In amongst the cultural melee Denney’s plays the no-nonsense card and plays it rather well. Unlike the elaborate, and in some cases scarcely legible, menus of its neighbouring stalls Denney’s is simple. A hungry man can relate to it easily. Essentially you can order a toasted cheese, haggis and bacon griddled sandwich or you can omit two of those ingredients. While the jury may be out on whether such an offering is nutritious few would deny that it is filling. It is a manly lunch that for all but the most gluttonous precludes the necessity of dinner. I ordered the ‘Hamish MacBeth’, or to use the jargon of a greasy spoon café ‘the full works’.
I was in awe as I watched it being constructed by a thin man in translucent gloves. An angry spread of mustard first, followed by a mountain of cheese, then a mound of dark brooding haggis and some griddled rashers to finish. All of this was pressed into what looked like a monument from the industrial revolution, a blackened steel hotplate with all the hallmarks of an 18th century patented loom. And there it sizzled and spat and oozed its way to readiness. I was sated after the first bite, full after the second and berating myself with spiteful mutterings of self-loathing by the ninth and last. I simply wouldn’t have had that sensation with a Mediterranean wrap or West African curry. It was a Scottish experience, undeniably.
The Scots are very fond of cholesterol as we know and few are able to resist the urge to deep fry anything within their arm span. And this of course is fair enough given the relentless rain and battering winds that make up a Scottish summer. They seek solace in a diet that leaves doctors bewildered and growers of vegetables dismayed. The blossoming generations of a cosmopolitan elite are simply not meant to eat like this. But their rebellion is Denney’s’ profit margin and Scotland’s place at the culinary table.
There are no doubt many who love the taste of haggis. The lungy tang keeps them coming back for more. Others, I expect, like the idea of haggis as a simple, homespun food whose consumption is a celebration of Scottishness. South of the border where such patriotic preferences count for nought it is benefitting from the very pretentious rediscovery of offal. Celebrity chefs like nothing more it seems than taking the cheapest cuts available, typically organs that process waste products, and exhorting the biggest mark-ups available at their spartanly furnished restaurants. It is all about taste, we are told in the sermons newspapers print in Sunday supplements.
Offal has a distinctive taste, and whether that taste is welcome or abhorrent matters little. I tried a haggis bite last year in the mull of Kintyre and the strong aftertaste of lung lingered for seven hours, ruining my evening. But Denney’s have been clever in tempering their haggis, so it is more like a hybrid of a burger and black pudding. And without the ominous lung the combination of meat, mustard and melting cheese is a winner.
After I’d eaten my Hamish MacBeth I lurked in the vicinity to see how many customers they lured from Argentine, African, Mexican and Spanish offerings. And I’m pleased to say that they lured their fair share. And that is no mean feat. Scotland can do fine dining, with its oysters, salmon and game. It also has the irreverent humour to cast a crème egg into a vat of oil. I admire both approaches, but just wish trousers with elasticated waistbands were acceptable in civilised circles.