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Dining in Edinburgh : Scottish, French Mix

August 16, 1987|PAUL LASLEY and ELIZABETH HARRYMAN | Lasley and Harryman are Beverly Hills free-lance writers

EDINBURGH, Scotland — The Scots are a no-nonsense people when it comes to eating, and the food of Edinburgh reflects this attitude.

"The old Scottish way o' makin' soups and porridges is, ye put ye'r meal in the pot wi' a wee bit o' salt, fill it up wi' water, and let it stand overrnight," says Mary Burns as we devoured a warm scone. "The next day ye put ye'r meat and vegetables in and fill the pot up wi' boilin' water. All the goodness jest comes burstin' forth."

Mary Burns is owner and chief cook of the Celtic Tea Room in Brodie's Close on High Street in Edinburgh. A friendly, straightforward Scotswoman with a pale, clear complexion and bright red hair, Burns makes most of the soups, quiches, scones and pastries served in the cozy tea shop set in a building that was built in 1646.

Scottish Specialties

Her shop is typical of many small restaurants and teahouses throughout the city that serve Scottish specialties.

Many jokes are made at the expense of Scotland's national dish, haggis. It is a kind of sausage or pudding made from the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, seasoned with spices and traditionally cooked in the sheep's stomach.

It is more palatable than it sounds, and is usually served with "chappit tatties" (mashed potatoes) and "bashed neeps" (mashed turnips).

Other favorites are cock-a-leekie soup, a robust soup of chicken broth, leeks and other vegetables; hotch potch, a mutton broth with vegetables, and finnan haddie, haddock originally smoked over the peat fires of Finnan, Aberdeenshire.

Scotch broth, potato soup and sandwiches of Scottish cheddar cheese are sold at Mary Burns' shop for 50 pence to 1.50 (about $2.38 U.S.).

"The scones are much better hot and buttered," Burns told us as we sat in front of the stone fireplace. Soon she brought us steaming cups of tea and a plate of warm scones dripping with melted butter.

The Celtic Tea Room is one of several small restaurants that make ideal stops for lunch or a snack while sightseeing. It is on the Royal Mile, the stretch of High Street and Canongate that runs from Edinburgh Castle down the hill to the Palace of Holyrood House.

Another good one is in the basement of historic St. Giles Cathedral, where John Knox once stood in the pulpit and railed against Mary Queen of Scots. A variety of salads, sandwiches and quiches, from 50 pence to 1.50, are sold in a small, whitewashed room with a vaulted ceiling.

Reminds of Burns

Farther down the Royal Mile is Clarinda's, a cheery little restaurant named for Clarinda McLehose, a correspondent of Robert Burns and the subject of one of his poems. Because the place was busy when we entered, we shared a table with a resident.

The table was covered with a white lace cloth and set with fresh flowers. The menu, which changes daily according to what's fresh, was hand-written in pencil on a sheet of notebook paper.

We had mince and potatoes (1.60)--ground beef cooked with spices and served with a huge potato so rich and flavorful that it didn't need butter--and kilted sausages (1.60), spicy Scottish sausages wrapped in lean bacon and also served with potatoes. Tea sandwiches run 78 to 88 pence, and the scones and rock buns (a gingerbread-like muffin) are homemade.

The Laigh Kitchen on Hanover Street, just two blocks from the main shopping thoroughfare of Princes Street, is a self-service tearoom housed in two small basement rooms that used to be the kitchen of an 18th-Century town house.

Visitors sit around an old trestle table or in Orkney chairs in front of the huge fireplace and nibble on freshly baked scones, oatcakes and gingerbreads from the Laigh Bakehouse next door. The whole-wheat scones (24 pence) are exceptional. Butter is 9 pence extra, but the scones are so rich that you don't really need any.

An Extensive Variety

Beyond the simpler fare offered in the small tearooms, Edinburgh offers an extensive variety of restaurants serving sophisticated food at prices about a third of those in London.

"Scottish produce has always been of the very highest quality," says Jeffrey Bland, executive chef at the Caledonian Hotel. "Angus beef is considered the best in the world, and Scottish salmon is superb; also our lobsters, oysters, mussels and scallops are excellent."

Handsel's, in a 19th-Century town house on a quiet street, offers a fixed-price dinner for 23 (about $36.34 U.S.) that might include Mallaig prawns, breast of wild pigeon with wild mushrooms and a juniper berry sauce, and a fillet of Aberdeen Angus Beef with Dutch veal sweetbreads and truffles.

Simpler fare is offered in the wine bar on the ground floor. We can recommend the Scottish seafood soup and the salmon with mussels in a ginger butter sauce at 4.10 (about $6.50 U.S.).

Another elegant restaurant is the Pompadour in the Caledonian Hotel. Although the name might indicate a French flavor, the influence comes not, as one might expect, from anything contemporary but rather from the days when Scotland was "knee-deep in French claret," as the locals say.

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