I have let my Food Reviewed tag totally lapse and I regret my laziness. I have eaten out A LOT this year but when asked recently about my favourite dish I blanked. Really, I regret my poor memory and recall - if there was less of an active need for me to record my experiences there might be less of a sense of disappointment when I failed to do so. It is a strain to remember much beyond a week and although, if asked, I could probably tell you exactly what I ordered at the Modern Pantry that time I would struggle to spontaneously name it as a restaurant I ate at in 2014. Food is the greatest and it is probably my greatest luxury expenditure (I know that food is a right and a necessity, I am talking about restaurants and fancy baked goods here) and, as such, it is sad that I don't have a better record of food eaten and enjoyed. I have a book book and a Lovefilm watch list (2014 highlights to come) but I don't have an equivalent for food. I am going to try and remedy this in 2015. Starting now. Best foot forward and all that.
R and I recently spent a long weekend in Edinburgh and it was bliss. Edinburgh is a wonderful city in its own right but it is also a place where I have only ever been happy and that is a rare luxury. That sounds melodramatic, I suppose, but it is true. Home is home and I am very fond of Bristol and there are things I love about London but real life leaves scars. Home is where I cried snotty tears of adolescent heartbreak, Bristol is where I endured my own inadequacies and panicked about deadlines and grade boundaries and read books that I hated, London is where nobody paid or valued me and I couldn't afford anything and I learnt that my real life, post-recession career would not be what I had grown up to expect. Besides, London is not a city that can be loved in its entirety. Not by me. It is too big and expensive and crowded and impersonal. London is a city to be loved in villages and corners, food and art exhibitions, if it is to be loved at all. I have never studied or worked or lived in Edinburgh but I have spent enough time there to know it a little. I can objectively and subjectively say that it is lovely and we stayed, on this latest visit, in a really beautiful Airbnb.
We re-visited my favourite restaurant in Edinburgh and probably one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, The Gardener's Cottage. Double thumbs up for location. The name of the restaurant isn't ironic or designed to capture a mood - this is a Victorian gardener's cottage. A tiny bungalow in a city park into which they have managed to cram two rooms of seating and a tiny kitchen. We sat at a shared table and I was practically in my neighbour's lap. Sometimes I get cross about London's over-enthusiasm for shoving too many people into too little space but I was on holiday and I felt generous towards the world. Our neighbours were definitely not having as much fun as us but it couldn't have been the menu and although we were happy we weren't rowdy or disruptive. I got the impression they didn't know each other very well and were struggling to make conversation. They didn't linger despite ordering the full set menu. We managed to draw lunch out over about three and a half lovely hours. I think that, quite quickly, the staff realised that we were in no hurry and de-prioritised us which suited us fine. Courses came at a leisurely pace and we cuddled our red wine. To say that time is a luxury is a modern cliché but it is hard to beat a very long lunch when you have good company and nowhere particular to be.
The food at the Gardener's Cottage is local and seasonal without being aggressively trendy or sacrificing taste or elegance. There is a lot of beautiful food being grown and reared in Scotland and the Gardener's Cottage endeavours to make the most of those resources in thoughtful and delicious ways. My meal was everything you could want on a crisp December day - it was warm and rich and wintery without being overwhelming. It was a testament to why eating seasonally can be such a pleasure as well as a good deed, because what grows in any given season suits that season. Obviously there could be a thousand caveats to that statement but I don't want strawberries and salad in midwinter, I want root vegetables and bitter greens. I want foods that relish being cooked long and slow so the heat of the hob or the oven seeps out of the kitchen.
My love of sweet, carby squashes and the skill of the chefs trumped my general dislike of pumpkin and I ate it twice in one meal and it was delicious on both plates and totally different. I had pumpkin and gingerbread agnolotti (indistinguishable, as far as I can see, from ravioli but excellent nonetheless) which was creamy and spiced and sweet but not overly so. The crumbled gingerbread was crunchy and the sauce was satiny and I nobly resisted licking the plate because, whatever my mother may say, I do occasionally heed dining propriety. Mallard followed, accompanied by a plethora of roasted carrots and beetroots and potatoes, and, I think, roasted hazelnuts. Goddamn, roasted hazelnuts are a fine addition to a savoury dish. They are a fine addition to a sweet dish too. I would never pick hazelnuts as my favourite nut (a very highly contested field - the salted almond and pistachio duke it out for top snack nut, I love a cashew and I eat large quantities of peanut butter daily) but they really do enliven and perfect other foods. Also, beetroots. I came late to beetroots because a cold, boiled, vinegary beetroot is a disgusting thing but roast them until their earthy sweetness comes to the fore and they are all depth and gorgeous fuchsia joy. I have yet to cook one myself without ending up looking like a blood crazed murderer and ruining whatever I'm wearing but one day...
Pudding was smoked pumpkin cake with sea buckthorn ice cream and, I think, yoghurt cream. I don't remember much about the cake beyond a wave of pleasure and an enjoyable stickiness. It was warm and light and not disappointing in the way that cake sometimes can be. I baked many many cakes as a child and I love cake but I am only interested in it very fresh and still echoing the heat of the oven. By the time a cake has achieved room temperature I have generally lost interest. I very rarely order cake when I am out and about because slightly stale cake is both horribly common and horribly horrible. I can't guarantee that my pumpkin cake was fresh from the oven or just judiciously reheated but, if the latter, it was well done. The sea buckthorn ice cream remains the most vivid element. It was delicate and surprisingly citric. I want to say there was a slight salinity to it but I might be misremembering, romanticising, imagining windswept sea paths. It was certainly a lovely foil to the sweetness of the cake.
We swirled the last of the wine around our glasses and decided, sensibly, that we were too full for cheese or coffee. I don't really understand coffee at the end of a meal. It buys you more time but it wipes out everything you ate before it and shatters the delightfully soporific effects of a warm room and an excess of food. I suppose if you have strenuous activities to return to that might be desirable but I try and avoid such unpleasantness. Besides, the Gardener's Cottage needed us to leave - we had outstayed our welcome, there was a dinner shift to prepare. I can accept that, they did right by us food and service-wise and I am fond and grateful.
It was already dark by the time we left the restaurant. Not quite night time but well past dusk. The air was sharp and it wormed past the best intentioned scarves and gloves and socks, biting at bone; ankles, wrists, clavicles. I don't like being cold, I like to be hot all the time, wrapped in thick duvets or Sicilian sun, but there is something so particular and renewing about the contrast. That moment where you step out and everything is fresh and shocking, before you register the discomfort. It is tempting to write that you feel reborn but I don't think it is quite what I mean, it just sounds good, it is an echo of someone else's elegant sentiment. I do not wish to be insincere. Anne Carson write so perfectly about cold winds and I just want to say that it is nice to be on holiday and walking out of a lovely restaurant where you gorged yourself on lovely food and into a Scottish winter night. Oh well, any opportunity to link to The Glass Essay.
Edinburgh, as ever, was a pleasure; the Gardener's Cottage was a pleasure. We ate well. I'm not sure if I ate my favourite dish of 2014 over the course of that Friday lunch but it was certainly one of my favourite meals. And it is here on my blog and now I can't forget it.