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  • Tamlyn Currin
Written by
  • Tamlyn Currin
19 Aug 2015

About 17 years ago I drove north from London in a clapped-out Nissan Micra on my way to a new job in Edinburgh, the AA rescuing me roadside twice on the 15-hour journey. I spent a year there – the wettest year of my life – and came away with Edinburgh and the colour grey indelibly linked in my mind. Grey skies, grey buildings, grey food. I almost wept with relief when the company sent me back to London (although I'm not sure, looking back now, whether Brent Cross could be described as a step up). 

I took the same journey last week, much older, a little wiser, and in a more reliable car. Just eight hours on the road this time, with a rather more cheerful delay in the form of lunch at the George & Dragon in Cumbria, where Nick's 2012 review has pride of place amidst the plethora of awards and reviews on the wall outside the loos. I didn't need the AA to rescue me, but I did need to be prised away from the table.

We arrived to ominous skies, the threat of rain, and I had to remind myself that we were there for culture and drama and not the weather. (Drama in the form of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in particular a performance of UKIP! The Musical written and produced by our very own Alex Hunt's girlfriend Cath Day, and musically arranged by Alex himself (and featured on BBC Radio 4's arts review Front Row on Monday evening). I have no shame, at this point, in taking a moment to vigorously plug the production. It is brilliant. Go see it if you can.) Back to the grey skies. Nothing had changed in 17 years it seemed: the grey buildings were still beautiful, grand, and very grey; the castle loomed gloriously grim, like a great grey stone lion crouched over the city; the soft grey rain pooled on the pavements.

What did take me by surprise was the food, which exploded across our three days there with more colour and drama than the Tattoo fireworks that lit up the sky every night.

First stop: Caffeine Drip. We gingerly walked down some unprepossessing concrete steps into a basement room wallpapered with coffee sacks. Concrete floor, rough wooden tables with bright red and blue metal stools, pop-bright African artwork, and the rich smell of coffee underpinned the cheery welcome of our Hungarian waiter. It almost felt as though we were hunkering down in a roadside African shack, and the only things missing were mbira music blaring from a tinny radio and dust. Item one on the breakfast menu certainly brightened the day of my carnivorous South African husband: Boerie breakfast – boerewors sausage, tomato relish, scrambled eggs and bacon on a roll. Good boerewors north of the Zimbabwean border is regrettably rare, and we're always excited by a find. We certainly didn't expect to find it in Scotland. Nor swathed in the creamiest of scrambled eggs. One of our hungry number tucked into maple-syrup-soused French toast so generously portioned that he could barely manage half. Did they do doggie bags, we wondered, with sustenance for our day of tramping in the Trossachs in mind. The healthy breakfast option of barely wilted spinach perfectly seasoned, poached eggs and sweet cherry tomatoes was so fresh and flavourful that I could have licked my white and blue enamelware plate. It was impossible not to undo the goodness of that breakfast with a bite of drippingly honeyed koeksister – an Akrikaans delicacy that sounds horrific (deep-fried doughnut in sugar syrup, anyone?) but once you've bitten into the crisp, fragrantly spiced sweetness, it's hard to stop. We could have gone back there every day for two weeks to work our way through the menu. The coffee, it seems almost needless to say, was excellent.

As I found out over the next couple of days, Edinburgh takes its coffee very seriously indeed. Artisan Roast, Brew Lab, Cairngorm Coffee, Filament and Machina Espresso are just a few of the dozens of independent coffee shops, along with a plethora of pop-ups and beans on bikes that are grinding and steaming their way into the morning cups and hearts of Edinburghers and the many tourists.

Our second remarkable breakfast took place in a totally different environment and was thanks to a recommendation from BBC Radio 4's Food Programme. Away from the aristocratic grandeur of central Edinburgh, across a frenetically busy dual carriageway, on the slightly scuffed heel of the somewhat faded beach resort Portobello, with a shop front so simple and understated that at first we thought we'd come to the wrong place, is Breadshare.

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This former Indian takeaway was gutted in January 2015 and given a bakery-café makeover by co-founders Debra Riddell and Geoff Crowe, IT consultants who, realising that employment prospects for their 20-year-old autistic son Alex were limited, sold up everything in homeland Australia to travel the world, and then came to the UK in 2011 'to start some sort of food business'.

They headed to Scotland to do one of Andrew Whitley's bread-making courses and on the back of something Andrew suggested, they started a community bakery. Running a registered Community Interest Company, Debra and Geoff are not in it for the money. Rather, the profits that they make go into what Debra calls 'social objectives', working with the local community to bring about positive change. They see bread – real bread, made without chemicals or preservatives, with less salt and sugar, using locally sourced ingredients whenever possible – as a medium to employ the unemployable (including, among others, recovering drug addicts and those without work experience), teach skills to those who don't have any skills, bread-making as therapy, bread-making for the bereaved, bread-making to bring people together. They hold one-hour workshops for kids to teach them where bread comes from and send them home with sourdough starters. They campaign for real bread and support community projects wherever they can.

We popped our heads in at 10 am, breathing deeply as the heady smell of warm baking wheat enveloped us like a hug. There were three tables, a small chalk board, racks of round, fragrant loaves and, through a door, lots of gleaming equipment and flour dust. Just a simple menu: soup, salad, stew (all served with bread) and toast. One of the toast options was their Borodinsky bread – a Russian sourdough rye bread with a deep baritone sweetness from molasses and a crisp citric note from crushed coriander. It was so good that it seemed sacrilege to eat it with anything else, but it was hard to resist melting some (local) butter into the hot crusts and dipping them in this summer's strawberry jam made by Tiphereth, another community project in Edinburgh, employing people with disabilities. A Scottish bran scone, brought out from the oven as we waited for our coffees, was so light that even I, a scone-sceptic who thinks they just stick in the throat unless drowned in cream, could have greedily eaten the entire scone myself. My father would have fought me for it. Everyone tucked into cheese swirls and then we looked longingly at the polenta orange cake that we were just too full to seriously contemplate.

People popped in every few minutes for their regular orders and Debra greeted everyone by name. We met Alex, who recalled with animation his experience of sitting in a Zambezi rock pool on the edge of Victoria Falls, his feet being nibbled by fish. Debra is down to earth and seems laidback, even nonchalant, about the enormity of what they have accomplished and their vision for the future. She just shrugs, casually laughs about the fact that there's no money left for globe-trotting now, and disappears into the back to come through with another piping-hot batch of loaves.

Liquid comfort

It was Debra who sent us to the Foodies Festival, on earlier this month in Edinburgh. There in the grounds of Inverleith Park was a little silver horsebox kitted out with fridge and wine glasses where Gillian Snowden, banker turned wine merchant, runs her mobile wine bar - the Bijou Wine Co. She quite rightly came to the conclusion that sporting, cultural and musical events and festivals often serve interesting beers and cocktails, but terrible wine. She's out to change that. She probably will.

It seems that whisky is not the only spirit that's being distilled with ambition in Scotland. We spotted at least three local artisan gin producers at the festival, but it was Daffy's gin that caught my eye. Mignonne Khazaka, part Lebanese, met and married winemaker-turned-whisky-distiller Chris Molyneaux. Together they spent four years coming up with the recipe for their own gin. They call it an 'Edinburgh gin', but as Mignonne admitted, the wheat comes from France, the first distillation is in France, the botanicals come from Scotland, Lebanon and all over the globe, the second distillation takes place in England, and it's bottled with Scottish water in Edinburgh where they are based. The special ingredient, linking to Mignonne's heritage, is Lebanese mint grown in the Bekaa Valley (where her father has a vineyard). It gives the gin remarkable freshness. Mignonne tells me that the best way to serve Daffy's is the D&T – tonic, lime, fresh mint – and I tend to agree. A gin like this needs little adornment and would be wasted in a syrupy cocktail. Actually, it's a gin that makes me think of food – smoked Scottish salmon, perhaps?

Cocktails, however, did feature in our brief trip to Edinburgh. Ears and veins still reverberating with the spine-tingling massed pipes and drums, swirling colour and fireworks of the Tattoo, we sent the parents to bed and stepped into a quirky little bar just a hundred metres from where we were staying. I wasn't expecting any more than a bit of a dive and an overpriced martini. We were in Grassmarket, after all. Instead we found a rather dim shabby-glam, empire-colonial interior with old glass chandeliers and big old mirrors – great for people-watching from a curl-up couch on the upstairs balcony. Instead of stressed, harassed tot-pourers, the young bar staff worked the bar with the sort of zen-like calm, skill, humour and deft flair that I have seen before only in New York and New Orleans. The cocktail menu, far from most laminated lists of Bloody Marys and Cosmopolitans, kicked off with an outrageously well-priced Hendricks gin and tonic with cucumber at £3.70, and then moved on through concoctions such as Sparkling Tatanka (Zubrowka bison grass vodka with apple juice, topped with Prosecco) to the stunningly delicious cucumber and eggwhite cocktail that tasted so healthy I could have got away with putting myself on a liquid diet and seeming virtuous.

Wine featured. Of course it did. We had to drive/walk past far, far too many wonderful-looking wine shops, packed with wooden racks of interesting selections that I was itching to browse through. I had to remind myself, again, that we had come to Scotland to take my parents down memory lane and to sing Scotland the Brave loud and lustily, not to spend hours browsing bottle labels. Edinburgh deserves an article of its own describing all the little wine shops that are springing up throughout the city (will anyone volunteer to write us an 'Edinburgh for wine lovers?'). We sadly missed a rendezvous at Virginie and Ghislain Brouard's Le Di-Vin with over 160 wines to choose from and tasting flights available. Next time. In lieu, we went to Timberyard.

We nearly missed it. Twice. Once, because our booking was at 6 pm, and at 5 pm we were stuck on a narrow winding road leading down from the Trossachs behind a two- or three-mile tailback of cars creeping along at 5 mph. Luckily they were kind enough to take my embarrassed phone call with a reassurance that they'd keep our table for us (and urged us to get here as soon as possible, but please drive safely). We almost missed it for a second time because if you didn't have VERY sharp eyes, you'd drive right past it. There is just one tiny pale sign on a street where nothing seems to be happening with an entrance set far enough back that you wouldn't notice it if you walked past it (which we did, unwittingly).

Quiet understatement seems to be the hallmark of the Radford family who run Timberyard. The beautiful, high-ceilinged space, once a timber yard (of course), has been renovated with minimal fuss incorporating old scarred floorboards, fat white church candles leaving their smoky streaks up whitewashed walls, salvage radiators with scratched enamel. Tartan blankets are hung over chairs for chilly nights. The garden courtyard drew people and their glasses of wine to chat in the sunlight.

My quandary began when we opened the drinks list. The cocktails read more like starters (charred tomato, lovage, burnt birch bark, rye? Or bone marrow, salted caramel, cider, cider brandy?). Beers and ciders included a barrel-aged lager, a Somerset County wild beer, and a London mead. The whisky list was epic. I hadn't even got to the wine list. There are exclusively European wines, many of which are biodynamic, organic or natural, simply arranged by colour, country and then region, including champagne from Jacques Lassaigne, Penedès sparkling wine from Colet-Navazos, seven sherries and vins jaunes (which you could also have by the glass). Tenerife, Jura, Savoie, Corsica, Liguria and Lazio feature. Patrick Piuze, Radikon, Dario Princic, Loxarel, Mas Coutelou, Clemens Busch, Fanny Sabre - a rollcall of rebels, mavericks and wunderkinds - read like poetry. I'm holding everyone up while I agonise. It's usually pretty easy to choose from most wine lists: you knock out the 60% that you can't afford, you knock out another 30% for being predictable, then you look at what you're eating and that leaves one or two options. Job done. This wine list seemed staggeringly affordable to this southerner, with several bottles coming in under £30 (the cheapest being £22 for a Costières de Nîmes from Dom de Périllière), leaving me with about 150 wines between £30 and £70, all the more extraordinary considering the calibre and diversity of the list. Many of the wines over £100 were in magnum. This collection is clearly a labour of great love, thought and knowledge, a wine list drawn up by someone who loves food and wants, above all, others to delight in wine. I found out afterwards that it was the work of Jo Radford, youngest son of Andrew and Lisa Radford - one of those 'crazy (but brilliant)' sommeliers of whom Julia writes with so much affection.

Timberyard is a family affair. Chef Andrew Radford and his wife Lisa ran Atrium and Blue for many years in Edinburgh, and while they've brought with them their experience and skill (and presumably some local customers), their three children are very much in the forefront. Daughter Abi does social media, front of house and marketing. Ben heads up the kitchens, producing a clever menu that manages to avoid the now-ubiquitous meze-style sharing plates, and yet one can try several things without having to loosen the belt. It's split four ways, into 'Bite' (bigger than amuse-bouches, too refined to be bar snacks), 'Small' (smaller than a typical starter), 'Large' (smaller than a typical main) and 'Sweet'. The bite described as 'pea, curd, spelt, lovage, shoots' was three mouthfuls so piquant, fresh and green it was like an infusion of spring. Cep, goat's curd, hen's yolk, pear, scallion and rye (pictured below) was rich and velvety, with sweet top notes and earthy undertow. Each dish came delicately arranged, sharp colours and textures contrasting with the rustic earthen plates on which they were served. Unusual foraged ingredients (birch bolete, bramble, woodruff) were smartly fused with more traditional combinations, the flavours were layered and long. Every mouthful was a discovery. My husband ate his beef (cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, onion, birch bolete) dish with his eyes closed in reverence.

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Eating farewell

Our last morning in Edinburgh was bathed in bright sunshine. The castle looked almost cheerful, and there on Castle Terrace we unexpectedly walked into the Edinburgh Farmers' Market. We leaned over stalls redolent with the scent of just-picked bright red strawberries and raspberries, thick green cavolo nero leaves jostling with milky-white fennel and fat orange carrots, striped beetroot and bunches of herbs – all organic. A rainbow of macaroons vied with glistening pastries. Packs of pale pink veal cuts lay next to the dark Rhône-red hues of highland venison. I filled brown paper bags with juicy green- and yellow-striped heirloom tomatoes, and absolved myself of cooking duties with Pie Not?'s generously packed pies (chorizo and black pudding; haggis, tatties and neeps; and spicy roasted butternut).

Dan Inglis, the sole roaster of Northern Edge Coffee, handed out perfectly made flat whites and espressos from his tiny mobile coffee cart. Tim James of Creelers, with a fierce sea-weathered face, shucked two oysters for me (breakfast) as he weighed out fish he'd caught that morning on his boat, and all the while giving a someone storage advice for the salmon smoked in his own smokehouse on the Isle of Arran. Everyone else opted for steak or sausage baps from the Buffalo Farm BBQ, from where sizzling rich smells pervaded Castle Terrace. We perched at a little aluminium table and chairs in the sunlight, looking up at the castle, and my father – not given to hyperbole, grand statements or rhapsodising about food – declared it the best sausage bap he'd ever tasted.

Our last taste of Edinburgh was in our garden back in Buckinghamshire, thanks to Craig Johnstone of Kitsch Soda. His cheeky grin, studious spectacles and unassuming brown bottles caught my eye, amid the offers of locally brewed/distilled/fermented whiskies, beers, homemade fruit wine, liqueurs and fruit juices. 'Fennel and cucumber soda', announced the handwritten chalk board on the stand. 'Strawberry and balsamic vinegar', I read further down, 'rhubarb and thai basil, saffron and cardamom lemonade'. I could hardly walk past without at least a taste. Craig, who looks as though he's barely out of uni and might be related to Harry Potter, started making his own soda for fun because, he shrugs, commercial sodas are 'boring'. It took some trial and error but his friends liked it, started asking for it, and then he decided to try selling it. The ingredients are simple, fresh and sourced from local markets. No chemicals. Recycled glass for his bottles. They're extraordinarily good. They make a fantastic lunchtime gin cocktail. If I ran a wine bar, I'd have drawn up a supply contract with him right there and then. For now, Edinburgh's got the monopoly on the finest craft soda in the United Kingdom. In fact, Edinburgh's got a lot of fine stuff tucked under her grey mantle.