Travel Eats: Smoked Fish and Bagpipes

In the summer of 2019 we spent two weeks in Scotland.

My wife and daughter are competitive Highland Dancers with a dance school here in Canada, and every four years or so the school makes the trip overseas with a busload of dancers, parents, and teachers to participate in an authentic Scottish Highland Games.

They all get to stress about dance. I get to wander around, take photos, and eat interesting foods.

for whatever one photo is worth:

In early August 2019 I found myself on a rain-soaked morning meandering around the muddy grass of Strathallan Games Park in Bridge of Allan, UK, where the annual Bridge of Allan Highland Games are held in the shadow of the Wallace Monument towering in the misty, rolling hills a few kilometers away.

The games themselves are wrapped around a race track. Running and cycling field events that happen on the track itself are more modern additions to the more familiar caber tossing and hammer throws that take place midfield. The dancers huddle around a stage at one end of the inside field, the bagpipe bands set up at the far opposite end (though their warmup hum can be heard forever away.) Scattered in the empty spaces between food and craft vendors find customers like me wandering through the games action.

The column of smoke can be seen from nearly everywhere, and I found myself organically attracted to the action to see what was cooking at its base.

From an article on the website itself this is what I found:

Arbroath Smokies are famed throughout Britain and beyond for their wonderful flavour and smooth, flaky texture. For those new to this particular delicacy, smokies are smoked haddock, prepared according to highly traditional methods by a number of producers in and around the wee North East fishing community of Arbroath.

I stood at the back of a very long line and when I reached the front I ordered two.

Delicious. Amazing. Perfect food for a perfect morning.

If (or when) we return for another Highland Games in a couple years, I’ll be saving some room for a second round.

I’m a huge fan of smoked fish… which is a difficult kind of fan to be when you live in a city on the land-locked Canadian prairies. I’ve been thinking a lot about cooking (and maybe even smoking) fish over an open fire. In an upcoming sequel and follow-up post to my Suburban Fire Craft (Part One), I recently purchased a new movable fire pit for my backyard. I’ll be doing some cooking on it (so long as the weather cooperates) this coming weekend and writing about it here. It probably will not be fish. I’ll save that for when I’ve practiced a bit more. It will be backyard cooking over an open fire, though, and that’s almost as exciting as a day of Highland Games.

Almost.

Now, obviously, my new fire bowl isn’t an old whiskey barrel, nor is it the foundation for a multi-generational history of smoking famous fish. But my neighbours might soon be wondering what cooking at the base of a column of smoke from my backyard. I’ll save the bagpipes for another year.

Cooking an Easy Stovetop Paella

I want to tread carefully into the waters of writing about certain foods. Food always … always, always, always… has rich cultural roots that wrap around people and their own personal and shared histories. I respect that.

I write this because I am aware that some (if not all) of the recipes I make and (often) write about online are steeped in the cultures of other people. And I share these recipes, writing about them here and other places, simply to express the joy I’ve been given in learning to cook those things (and then sharing the results with my family.) It is a way for me to attempt to honour and more deeply understand those cultures, and hopefully pass along that respect. It also makes me long to visit the homelands of these dishes and see how accurately the recipes have traversed time and distance to reach me here in the middle of the Canadian prairies.

For example, Paella.

To me Paella is a dish that feels like it has deep cultural roots, well-known and tracing back through Spanish origins.

We inherited a paella recipe somewhere along the way that recipe has become a regular staple in our kitchen. It’s one we thoroughly enjoy making and eating even though I cannot lay claim to even a single drop of Spanish blood in my veins.

Our Paella Recipe

1mL saffron
1mL salt
1mL paprika

500g boneless skinless chicken thighs (chunked)
150g chorizo
sausage (chunked)
1 whole red bell pepper (diced)
1 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
2 tablespoons fresh parsley
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 cup Arborio
rice
125mL (cheap) white wine
175mL chicken stock

olive oil for pan

The broth and the saffron need to come together for a start.

The chicken then needs to be browned, and separately sweat the onion and pepper. I do this in batches in the same four quart braiser and everything turns out just a little nicer.

The veggies all in the pan, the tomato paste and garlic should be mixed in and fried up together to coat. Shortly after drop in the rice and let that coat up and come together with everything else in the pan. These two steps shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes.

The saffron broth, wine, water, spices, chorizo, and cooked chicken now all go into the pan, come to a light boil, and then are simmered while covered to let the rice cook. You may need to stir this every five minutes or so just so the rice doesn’t get too crunchy on the bottom of the pan.

Stir in the parsley when the rice is cooked and let it stand for a few minutes to set up before serving.

This becomes a rich and delicious one-pan meal and it definitely makes me hope that some day I’ll find my way to Spain to compare it to a more traditionally authentic version of the recipe.