A Year of Learning to Eat in the Scottish Highlands
Taking the advice of an 18th-century rent collector—and appreciating burnt-black rolls
“Is this a joke?” I ask my husband, Paul, holding up a package of blackened buns. The label describes its contents, scorched beyond salvage: Well Fired Rolls.
“It’s a Scottish thing,” he shrugs.
“You can’t be serious.” I’m incredulous. “Why would anyone pay for burnt bread, let alone eat it?”
We’ve just driven forty minutes through 50-mile-per-hour winds, over icy mountain roads, to get to our nearest proper grocery store, where the situation is dire. Half of the aisles are bare. Rows of empty crates sit where fruits and vegetables would normally be. There’s no lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, or berries. A few zucchini molder next to some browning bags of kale. Heaps of beaten-up turnips and potatoes seem to be the only produce not in short supply. Around the corner, there aren’t any eggs.
It’s the charred baked goods though, that might be my breaking point.
When I moved to the Scottish Highlands, after nearly two decades in New York, I was elated to leave. I’d had enough of the city—its towering stacks of garbage, the concrete and crowds. I wanted nature and silence, a different way of life. So, taking up residence in a small mountain village near Paul’s hometown, 100 miles from any major city or airport, seemed blissfully destined. I’d found love and one of the last truly wild places. A universe of primeval forests, mist-shrouded peaks, and endless expanses of river and sea, where real solitude could still be found.
I knew a remote way of life would have its challenges. Locals told me as much from the moment I arrived. Somehow, I didn’t think that finding high quality food would be one of them. Scotland is famous for its produce, after all. Much of the seafood, game, and dairy products from its pasturelands and lochs are designated Protected Geographical Indication by the EU. In other words, they must meet the most rigorous quality standards if they’re to be worthy of being called Scottish. So, I’ve had a hard time understanding why decent fresh food is hard to come by.
During the spring and summer months—when hikers and tourists in camper vans descend on the small towns and villages here, the outdoor capital of the UK—it’s not unusual to encounter less food at shops by midday. Everyone knows to anticipate an influx of out-of-towners who inevitably cram every bit of bread and bottle of water into backpacks bound for the summit of Ben Nevis or a long-distance trek on the West Highland Way. But even in the off-season lately, barren shelves have lasted for days.
In New York, a substantially plant-based flexitarian diet was easy, with at least one farmers’ market, good health food store, or high-end bodega in every neighborhood. I could have fresh seasonal produce from a local farm—with prepared foods that rivaled most cafés— brought to my door by a grocery delivery service. And when I didn’t want to cook, there was an award-winning restaurant nearby, wherever I went. Because it was so quotidian, I’d taken for granted just how accessible great food was. I’m not sure how to adjust to the opposite.
When I first arrived in the Highlands, I approached these limitations as inspiration. With few restaurants nearby, I did my best at home, perfecting simple preparations of the repetitive items available. When it was my turn to cook, I learned new methods for pan frying, roasting, and braising things like eggplant, sea bass, and fennel. I combined minimal ingredients with pantry staples to make what I could—Spanish tortilla; Bombay aloo; brown rice salad with asparagus and mushrooms; white beans and sautéed kale; avocado toast; lentil soup. “How did you make this with what was in the refrigerator?” Paul often remarked. But it was hard to eat the way I was used to.
Staples of my New York kitchen like quinoa or sherry vinegar or fresh sage were hard to come by, appearing sporadically on shelves, if ever. I started hoarding white miso paste. It wasn’t long before I was sick of food altogether.