Archive for September, 2008

Finding Great Places to Eat While Traveling


[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.]

Before we left for Scotland, we heard many warnings about the horrors of Scottish and British food. People seem very keen on laughing at haggis and detailing horrible meals they’ve had or heard about in the UK (Spotted Dick anyone?). Well, I’m here to tell you that Scotland has some truly wonderful food. But, like anywhere else, it’s usually found in restaurants and inns that are run by discerning folk who like to purchase quality ingredients, often locally.

Although restaurants that offer well-prepared dishes from organic and/or local ingredients can be difficult to find once you leave your home turf, there are a few wonderful online sites that will do some of the groundwork for you. I spent some time on both TripAdvisor and Chowhound before we left town, and it paid off. The reviews on TripAdvisor led me to some great country inns with fantastic food, and Chowhound helped me find a restaurant or two in Edinburgh that we really loved. We also had the benefit of getting some sound advice from friends in the know — which is always the best option if you have it.

So here are some of the excellent places we found with the help of our fellow posters at TripAdvisor and Chowhound, as well as our beloved friends. We were even lucky enough to stumble upon one by ourselves. These culinary gems are definitely worth looking up if you’re traveling to Scotland. I would also love to hear about other sites people use to find great restaurants or inns while traveling.

The Barley Bree Restaurant with Rooms, just outside Crieff and about an hour north of Edinburgh. (Found using TripAdvisor) — This lovely inn has comfortable beds and a very nice host, Fabrice, who also happens to be a French chef. Fabrice makes everything from scratch, including the bread, and seeks out fresh local produce and meats. For dinner, he served one of the loveliest butternut squash soups I have ever had. It was velvety and creamy without being overly so. He also added slivers of some pickled ginger, which added a bit of spiciness. It was truly great.


This inn also offered the finest breakfast we had in Scotland. It was a sort of Scottish Breakfast/French petit dejeuner that started with yogurts, homemade stewed prunes, grapefruit slices, nuts and porridge, and finished with eggs, homemade sausage, back bacon, haggis (a lovely version created specially for the inn by a local butcher), roasted tomatoes and mushrooms. If you’re going to The Trossachs, this is definitely a great place to stay.


Heatherfield House, in Oban on the western coast about an hour outside Glasgow. (Found using TripAdvisor) — Heatherfield House is run by Gary and Sue, a very nice British couple. One of the reasons I chose Heatherfield is because they have their own chickens and use their eggs for their complimentary breakfasts. So, after a fantastic night’s sleep in the extremely comfortable beds and a shower in the nicest bathroom we saw in Scotland, we sat down to a full Scottish breakfast. We started with berries, yogurts, muesli, and English and Scottish cheeses, before digging into the main portion of the eggy meal. I cannot stress enough how perfect the eggs are at Heatherfield. They are laid either the morning they are served, or the morning before, and the freshness of flavor and texture prove it. The homemade sausage (made at the inn) and back bacon were also fantastic. The dish was also served with blood pudding, and from what I can tell, it was a great version of this dish. I, for one, found that I am not a blood pudding fan, however. No matter how nicely it was made and seasoned, in the end, I can barely suck on a cut finger, let alone eat something that was essentially blood and suet in a casing. After breakfast, my daughters frolicked in the garden while the chickens pecked at worms in the wet dirt. Gary and his wife were very gracious hosts. It was really a perfect place to stay.

The George Hotel, in Inveraray about 30 minutes outside Glasgow. (Found using TripAdvisor) — A small hotel run by the same family for the last couple of hundred years, this inn is nicely updated and has the quintessential Scottish pub on the main floor. The dining room is also nice, but as kids weren’t allowed inside for dinner we ate in the pub. This was just fine with me; the pub kitchen offered the best fish and chips we had on our entire trip. The full Scottish breakfast the next morning, which is included with a night’s stay, wasn’t nearly in the same league as Barley Bree or Heatherfield House, but I think at that point we were spoiled. Our room, however, was beautiful — complete with a whirlpool bathtub and view of Loch Awe.


Oink, in Edinburgh. (Discovered on a fluke while walking by) — Oink is a new restaurant on Victoria Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town district. Each morning the folks at Oink present an entire roasted pig in their front window, and by the end of the day, that pig is stripped clean. Oink offers sandwiches of pulled pork on white buns with crackling or without. I got one with the crackling, but wouldn’t do so again: it was so hard I thought it would crack my teeth. The pork, however, was beautifully cooked and very tasty, but I must admit that I was craving a vinegar and tomato-based Southern-BBQ sauce to go with it. When I asked if they had one, or at least some vinegar, they said that many Americans ask for it, but they instead had a “chili sauce.” Excited at the prospect of something resembling a Vietnamese or Thai chili paste, I instead found that their chili sauce was the equivalent of a jar of Picante salsa. Oh, well. The pork was still mighty fine.


The Mussel Inn, in Edinburgh’s New Town. (Found using Chowhound) — If you like mussels, this is a great place to go. There is a constant parade of heaping pots of fresh local mussels going from the kitchen to various tables in this small restaurant. In addition to the mussels, I ordered some freshly-made pasta with mushrooms for my daughters, which was quite good, and some fresh scallops for me. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they offer the entire scallop — not just the white meaty part Americans traditionally see, but also the roe, which is the coral-colored softer part not usually served here, despite its delicious flavor.


Urban Angel, in Edinburgh’s New Town. (Heard about from a friend) — If I could bring any restaurant home with me, it would be this one. Urban Angel provides Fair Trade, Free Trade, organic, and local fare at a fairly affordable price. I loved the natural and organic ingredients we found in our soups, salads and sandwiches at lunch and hear they have a spectacular dinner as well. I had an incredible frisée salad with couscous, white beans, almonds, and chorizo, while my daughters stole my delicious cream of mushroom soup and homemade bread out from under my nose. I dream of a restaurant like this opening within walking distance of my house.

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The Scottish Panini

[Also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.]

It’s probably not going to surprise anyone to hear that one of the things I love about being in a foreign country is experiencing the food. But this simple pleasure became far more complicated when I started traveling with kids. I have tried to raise daughters with a sense of gastronomic adventure — and for the most part they are willing and excited participants in our culinary outings — but when you’re in a different time zone, all bets are off as the crabby-child factor increases with each 1,000 miles you journey from home.

I know many parents who spend their first days on vacation seeking out food items that will be acceptable to — as the Scottish would say — their wee bairns. Even if a child eats a fairly healthy diet at home, they often recoil when plates of “exotic” foods are placed before them elsewhere. A friend of mine had to search out pinto beans and French fries on a recent Mexico vacation as her son refused to eat anything else, while another friend of mine was frustrated to find her normally food-compliant daughter would only eat chicken fingers and pasta during their summer holiday. My daughters are thankfully less demanding (which may be due to the fact that I become temporarily deaf when they try to become picky eaters). But although our girls were happy eaters during our recent trip to Scotland — devouring haggis, local mussels, scallops, and other fine local dishes — I think they were more willing to try new foods because we also strived to provide an equal amount of food they felt comfortable with.

So there we were, all four of us in Scotland, ready to explore castles, lochs, and the many culinary delights available, but also on the search for food that would be easy on a kid’s stomach. Thankfully, finding kid-friendly food turned out to be much easier than I could have ever dreamed as it turns out that Scotland is the land of the panini. Yes — the panini. Although there were also plenty of toasties (the UK equivalent of the grilled cheese sandwich), Italian paninis was available wherever we went. Imagine my sense of motherly relief when I found out I could get my children’s three favorite foods — mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil — melted in flat bread wherever we traveled, including small towns, large cities, and airports.

Although there were some variations of the panini we failed to try, such as the haggis panini, more often than not, my daughters had some sort of melted cheese sandwich for lunch. These little bundles of toasty goodness offered them the calories they needed to march around castles, up and down long streets, and through museums and galleries, while also providing a sense of culinary calm so they could branch out and explore other dishes at dinner. As a friend of mine told me when we got home, “There’s nothing like melted cheese to soothe a tired kid,” which is why I will be forever thankful to the person who brought the panini to Scotland.

I’m curious to know how other parents address food issues while on vacation. Also, has anyone else out there found something unexpected, and mercifully kid-friendly, on a recent vacation?

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B&Bs in Scotland

Well, we have now returned from our fabulous Scottish vacation. Before we left, we heard many warnings about how horrible Scottish food was. People seem very keen on laughing at haggis and detailing horrible meals they’ve had or heard about in the Northern part of the UK. Well, I’m here to tell you that Scotland has some truly wonderful food. But, like anywhere else, it’s usually found in restaurants and inns that are run by discerning folk who like to purchase quality ingredients, often locally.

We were lucky enough to stay at two such places, B&Bs that we had booked for our first two nights in Scotland. So, if you’re heading to Scotland any time soon, I highly recommend the Barley Bree Restaurant with Rooms in Mutthill (near Crieff and the Trossachs) and Heatherfield House in Oban (a lovely seaside village on the western coast). Here’s more on each:

Barley Bree Restaurant With Rooms

Mutthill is an easy 40 minutes from the Edinburgh airport and is set on the eastern edge of the lovely Trossachs, one of Scotland’s most beautiful national parks. Crieff, a hilly centuries old village with lots of beautiful shops and views, is a mere 5 minutes drive away.

The Barley Bree Inn is owned by Fabrice, his wife and their two children. What I didn’t know when I booked this inn, but was excited to find out while there, is that Fabrice is a classically trained French chef, and every meal we had there represented his skills. In addition to the delectable locally caught sea bass and risotto he served for dinner, he also presented us with one of the loveliest butternut squash soups I have ever had. It was velvety and creamy without being overtly so. He also added slivers of some homemade pickled ginger, which added a bit of spiciness. It was truly great.

For breakfast, we were presented with a sort of Scottish Breakfast/French petit dejeuner. The meal started with yogurts, homemade stewed prunes, grapefruit slices, and nuts. We then were given a steaming bowl of porridge, which I topped with some of the stewed prunes and nuts. I can’t tell you how good this was. I would never have purchased stewed prunes on my own, but am here to say I need to find a nice jar of them because once you have the delicate sweetness of stewed prunes with porridge, there’s no going back.

Although this would have been a full breakfast at my house, at the Barley Bree Inn, we were just getting started. After the yogurt, fruits and porridge, we found ourselves sitting in front of heaping plates of poached eggs (you can get the eggs fixed however you want), back bacon, homemade sausage, roasted tomatoes and mushrooms, homemade bread and butter, and, of course, haggis. Under the gentle care of Fabrice, we couldn’t have been introduced to this much maligned sausage any better. Ordered from a local butcher and made to Fabrice’s specifications, the haggis was equivalent to a rich calf liver pate. It had a nice tetxture and was served as a small sliver, so it accented the meal instead of taking it over. The bacon was nicely salted and the sausage perfectly seasoned. Overall, this was the best breakfast we had in Scotland, and I was very thankful we started our trip at the Barley Bree Inn.

Oh — the beds were also very comfortable and the rooms clean, although a wee bit small.

Heatherfield House

The next night we stayed in Oban, a beautiful historic village on the coast near the Isl of Mull. Heatherfield House is run by Gary and his lovely wife (whose name escapes me right now). They are actually English, and their inn is a gorgeous house set on a hill with views of the Atlantic and nearby isles. It’s also just a short walk to town (about 2 minutes downhill) where there are many restaurants and a whisky distillery.

One of the reasons I chose Heatherfield is because they have their own chickens and use their eggs for their breakfasts. So, after a fantastic night’s sleep in the extremely comfortable beds and a shower in the nicest bathroom we saw in Scotland, we sat down to a full Scottish breakfast.

After the initial yogurts, muesli, and English and Scottish cheeses, alongside some more stewed prunes and berries, we started in on the main portion of the meal. I cannot stress enough how perfect the eggs are at Heatherfield. They were laid either that morning or the morning before and the freshness of flavor and texture were incredible. The homemade sausage (made at the inn) and back bacon were also fantastic. The dish was also served with blood pudding, and from what I can tell, it was a great version of this dish. I, for one, found that I am not a blood pudding fan, however. No matter how nicely it was made and seasoned, in the end, I can barely suck on a cut finger, let alone eat something that was essentially blood and suet.

After breakfast my daughters frolicked in the garden where the chickens were. Gary and his wife were very gracious hosts. It was really a perfect place to stay.

So if you find yourself in Scotland, I highly recommend these two B&Bs. You won’t regret it.

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Airplane Food

[This is also published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites]

My family and I are flying to the UK this weekend, so in addition to trying to arrange our trip and get a bunch of work done before we go, I’m planning our in-flight menus. I’ve been a plane picnicker for years, even before most airlines stopped serving in-flight meals. It all started when I was pregnant and just couldn’t bear the thought of airplane or airport food. Before a short flight to San Diego, I brought along a prosciutto sandwich from my favorite deli along with a Stewart’s root beer (which wouldn’t be allowed anymore. No liquids!), and some fried artichoke hearts. As everyone around me munched pretzels, my husband and I split our delightful dinner. There was no going back after that.

Since that time, I’ve had to consider my children’s food intake in addition to my own. I remember a flight to Washington D.C. where I literally brought an entire grocery bag full of food. As my family and I munched on cobb salads, BLTs, brie, and chocolate, I caught the envious looks of my fellow passengers who were stuck eating Jet Blue potato chips and cookies. I ended up taking pity on a lovely Indian grandmother in a beautiful sari who sat a few seats away. Switching seats with my husband so I could sit next to her, she told me all about living in India, the food her cook would make her there, and how her saddened she was that her daughters didn’t make the same foods in their U.S. homes. It turns out she was a moderately famous singer in her native country, a widow, and extremely funny. I was so glad I had brought along that extra mozzarella and tomato sandwich to share.

I rarely make anything homemade for our flights. Unlike road trips, I want the food to be packaged and sealed when I make my way through the security lines. No muffins falling out of my carry on, just food from a restaurant or store in its own paper or plastic lining. Maybe it’s my stomach-twisting fear of flying, or the fact that being on a plane is such a dismal experience, but I just can’t cook before I fly. Our standard airplane repertoire is usually freshly-made sandwiches from a local deli, some Petit Ecolier dark chocolate cookies, a few apples and pears, maybe a salad or two in secure plastic containers, some cheese (often brie), and always a bar or two of good chocolate. Anything I can think of to ease the pain of having my legs in one position for hours with some guy’s reading light piercing my right eye as I try to sleep with my jacket over my face.

The return trip home is often a problem as I’m never as sure where to shop for airplane food while in a strange place, and I sometimes forget to buy food at all. I’m vowing not to let this happen this time around, however, as the last time I flew home from Europe, I was stuck eating a greasy and cardboard-inspired excuse for a piece of pizza in the Toronto airport while running from plane to plane. My goal is to find some nice meat pasties for the trip home, along with some shortbread and a few pieces of fruit. I’m hoping to extend the good feelings of Scotland with some treats for that long and boring plane ride home.

Does anyone else pack a picnic when they fly? I’d love to hear what you bring.

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