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Hello Asheville!

Well, Summer is wrapping-up, winding down, moving on, and effing off for another year. I hope you had a good one! I did, that’s for sure, and one of the main reasons for my good Summer was the wonderful overseas vacation that I went on with 8 members of my immediate family.  Also known as: #familytrip

As I reported the last time I wrote for you guys, my mom & step-dad, my sister, bro-in-law & two nephews, as well as Dawn Roe and I all got on an airplane… or several… for a family trip to Scotland, where we occupied a 5-story, 5 bedroom castle called Aikwood Tower, in an area near the English border called “The Borders.” After a week in Scotland, we all split-up into three sub-units, and went in different directions for another week of travel. Dawn and I flew to Italy, where we stayed in a Northern city called Bozen-Bolzano, and then we took a train to Venice, where we mostly attended a giant art festival called The Biennale. We also ate. A lot. Of food. Both in Italy and Scotland. For now, let’s just talk about the Scottish food.

What is there to say? Scottish food is homey. As fuck. Like, the homiest, Yo. Meat pies, baked goods, cream …y things… lots and lots of creamy things. There was haggis of course, and I ate some. In fact, I couldn’t wait to tuck into some world-famous Scottish haggis, and I had some haggis at my earliest convenience. I was NOT going to Scotland and missing out on haggis! What is haggis, you ask? Well, actually, it’s best not to ask, but since you did…

According to Wikipedia: “Haggis is a savoury [sic] pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead.”

Yum! Suet! And lungs. Encased in stomach. ._. Well, whatever. I got an appetizer of deep fried haggis balls — or what we might call “fritters” down here in the South —  at dinner one night, and they were great. Very much like scrapple in some ways, and just kind of generally organ-meaty in flavor for the most part. Now… there was a time in my life when I would never have even considered eating the “pluck” of a lamb, and even the term “organ-meaty” would have been enough to turn my stomach just a little bit. But, being a grown-up now, and an omnivore, and a resident of Asheville, North Cackalacky, I have no fear of organ meat. Pluck me, Scotland! Nom nom! I love it! Shout-out here to two local Asheville Chefs, Steven Goff (formerly of King James Pub), and David Van Tassel (The Junction) who both helped me to get over some of the “ick” factor involved with eating odd bits of animals.

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Deep fried balls of heart, lungs, and liver with cherry tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and a sour berry sauce. YUM!

Anyhoodles, back to Scotland…

Historic Aikwood Tower is located in the super-cute, tiny, quaint, adorable, olde-tyme village of Selkirk… that is straight out of a horror movie. Being well-condition by such movies, I expected the people to be cold, unfriendly, impossible to understand, and generally hostile towards outsiders. Y’know, the kind of townsfolk who might rise up as one at midnight to sacrifice a stranger to the Old Gods? And it was all true! Well, not all of it. Only the part about it being almost impossible to understanding the good people of Selkirk, because their Scottish accents were like, holy… Whaaahhht? But other than that, they were super-friendly and nice and patient while we blathered on in our slick American lingo about things they seemed to have never heard of before, like the “rest room,” (just say “toilet”), or a “fly swatter” (just catch them with your hands!), or 1/2 and 1/2 (forget about it). All in all, I would assess the level of friendliness toward me and my family in Scotland to be very high. There was no Wicker Man scenario.

It’s cold, cloudy, and usually raining in Selkirk, even in the Summer time. I fucking loved it, and I even thought, “I could totally live here.” Sure, I might get bored with the food after a while, but maybe not. Maybe I would settle into a life of meat pies, and never look back. Of course, if I lived in a town here in the USA that was as small as Selkirk, I’d probably want to shoot myself in the head from the fast-food-chains-only “choices” facing me daily. At least in Selkirk there are two authentic family butchers and two authentic old-school bakeries selling cakes, and cookies, and bread and all those creamy things I mentioned. There was also a couple of little indie cafes, a nifty “boutique” hotel cafe, and even a nice little restaurant/deli/cafe that sold espresso drinks and very nice sandwiches, salads, and cheese plates.

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(top) By far the two most attractive dishes we ate in Scotland. (above) Theee very first thing we saw upon entering Selkirk was a meat delivery to the local butcher shop.

There were no chain restaurants in Selkirk, or Ashkirk, or Hawick (pronounced “Howk”), or any of the small towns that we drove to or through in The Borders region of Scotland. Not even a Jimmy John’s… Asheville…

I mean, c’mon. How can we have a fucking Jimmy John’s right in the middle of downtown “Foodtopia?” WTF? Boo. As a bike rider, I have a personal gripe against Jimmy John’s because they have built a lot of their business on bicycle delivery, and yet they seem okay with allowing their young delivery people to ride the streets of our city with no helmets on, and I often see them riding up onto the busy sidewalks of downtown, especially Pack Square. Wrong and wrong.

Helmets are not required by law for grown-ups in Asheville, only for those under 15 years old, but they should certainly be required by Jimmy John’s for their employees! Riding on the sidewalk, on the other hand, is not legal (again unless you are under 15) so eff Jimmy John’s for putting their workers, as well as pedestrians at risk, all in the name of delivering crap sandwiches, while lining the pockets of this (alleged) douchebag.

Ummm… what was I talkin’ about?  Oh yeah, Scotland!

So… those meat pies were actually really good, and were sold just about everywhere, from the family butcher, to restaurants, to the weird convenience/grocery stores that were in most towns. They came in beef, chicken, and lamb, and regular or “curry” flavored. Curry is kind of a big thing over there in Great Britain, and I figure that’s maybe got something to do with the whole British Empire and occupation of India thing that happened. I suck at knowing stuff, but it does seem to be the case that the horrible oppression of the “subcontinent” has resulted in some pretty dang good kebab up there in Scotland. Even the teeny-tiny towns seem to have a kebab shop or two, and we randomly picked one that looked pretty rinky-dink, but turned out to be great. We got a fresh chicken kebab, grilled to order, on pita bread, with lettuce, tomato, chili sauce, and… mayonnaise. Mayonaise? Yep. They put it on kebab, and salad, and  just about everything over there, and it’s different than the mayo we’re used to here in The States. It’s pure white, not yellowy, lighter in texture, and has a fresh creamy taste, rather than a heavy eggy taste. It was great on the kebab, and everything else it was on.

The only sit-down restaurant meal we had as an 8-member family unit involved lamb, haggis, fish ‘n’ chips, meat pie (of course) and something that was variously identified as “yorkshire pudding” or “toad in a hole.” The least interesting dish was definitely the lamb, which was disappointing because it was the special of the day, and the Borders’ countryside is fairly littered with fluffy, white, delicious looking lambs. It’s big time lamb country up there, and lambs are everywhere! Naturally we all assumed this “special” lamb dinner was gonna be The Mack, but yeah, no, not so much. Sliced thin and served with an unremarkable gravy, and some boiled (or maybe even micro-waved) vegetables, it was “homey” alright… if you grew up in a home were the food was super-mediocre. The meat-pie and toad-in-hole/Yorkshire pudding-thingy were both outstanding however, if not much to look at.

"Toad in a hole" or "Yorkshire pudding," or neither, depending on who you ask.
“Toad in a hole” or “Yorkshire pudding,” or neither, depending on who you ask.

Presentation of food in the restaurants we went to in Europe was generally not what we’re used to here in Asheville. A lot of it was just plain ugly to look at, and seemingly tossed onto the plate or bowl with haphazard randomness. Even the fancier joints just threw some chopped parsley on the plate as a garnish, and there were no cute little micro greens or pickled bits added on as a bonus. It was more like, here’s your meat pie, it looks like ass, and here’s a bowl of plain, soft, carrots as your side.

We did eat one super-fance-tastic meal in Scotland, at a giant, awesome castle that made our little awesome castle look positively paleolithic in comparison. The meal was Dawn’s special treat for me and “the ladies” to a super-tradish Afternoon Tea! Now, y’see, my sad, clueless, dude-bro friends, this is just one of the many perks of being an honorary lady. I get to do fancy-ass-muhfuckin’ shit like afternoon tea at a princess palace with finger sandwiches and a three-tiered cake tray. You? No. Because you’re gruff and uncouth.

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Afternoon Tea, y’awwwwlllll!

“Afternoon Tea” as an event is a traditional thing in all over Great Britain and is always the same: One gets unlimited cups of tea (what, no coffee?), and 2 rounds of food: The savory round and the sweet round.

The savory round always consists of finger sandwiches made with white bread, no crusts. The 3 types of finger sandwiches we got were typical: Egg salad, smoked salmon, and cucumber. All good. I ate a bunch of them. One for each finger maybe.

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These sandwiches had no crusts. Crusts are for peasants. In fact, I hope they fed our crusts to some peasants. Or pheasants. Whichever.

The sweet round of Afternoon Tea always involves a three-tiered tray of cakes. If they try to bring you a two-tiered tray of cakes, storm out, gather an army, and lay siege to that palace until they acquiesce to your demands, and that third tier is forthcoming. If they try giving you cookies…  raze the countryside. Thankfully, we got the 3-tiered tray, and the cakes were awesome, if very sweet and “trashy’ in their confectionary-ness (nothing hearty or organic here).  I ate a bunch of them, but there were way too many for any group of proper ladies to finish, so as part of the tradition, they brought us a box for the rest. Yeah, Man. Afternoon tea. Thanks, Dawn!

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Along with your cakes come some cream puffs, and a couple of proper english scones with currents and clotted cream. They like their “creamies” over there in Scotland.

Let’s see now…  what else did we eat in Scotland? 

Oh yeah, crisps. I devoured my fair share of crisps, which is just a British word for potato chips. In Great Britain, the word “chips” refers to French fries. In France, French fries are called pommes frittes. “Pomme” is the French word for apple. When you travel, everything is fucked-up, Yo, but you can still get all your fave snack-food items, just as long as you know the secret words. They go crazy for their variously-flavored crisps over there in Great Britain, and I personally tasted Aberdeen angus beef flavored, scotch bonnet pepper flavored, and “mature” cheddar and onion flavored crisps. The shelves of every food store contained many other flavors, including bacon, ketchup, prawn cocktail, and mac ‘n’ cheese, and be assured, those flavors are achieved through the magic of modern science, and these crisps were as trashy if not trashier than any chips we have here at home. They were tasty in their own way, but I’ll never eat them again.

The guy in charge of renting out Aikwood Tower told us that we we had to try Irn Bru, which is the local soda-pop. When I asked if it was good, he frowned and said, “Not really,” and sure enough, when we tried the Irn Bru, it was not really good. All those who took a sip agreed that it was way too sweet and tasted kinda like bubblegum, but more cloying.

Even more cloying than Irn Bru was the “famous” Tablet candy bar that Dawn bought and then tried to pawn-off on ever single family member. Each person took one small bite, and recoiled immediately, faces scrunched into a “too sweet!” grimace. When your 13 year-old nephew makes the “too sweet” face, that means shit is definitely too fucking sweet.

The Selkirk Bannock bread is the final “local” product that we tried, and though it was a hit with most members of my family, I found it to be (quoting myself) “too raisiny.” Can I have more bread with my raisins please, Selkirk?

Aaany-MacHoodles… That was Scotland. I loved it, I loved the people, and I loved the food, despite my complaints above. I really do think I could eat a meat pie every day for the rest of my life, as long as I could also get a decent kebab every once in a while, and a coffee. Gotta have coffee.

Aaand speaking of coffee…

Next: Italy! Where I realized — because I am a genius — that “cappuccino” is an Italian word, that means the same thing in Italy that it does here in America!

Ciao for now, Asheville!

Oh, and BTW: You can watch the entire Wicker Man film on YouTube by going HERE. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor, it’s one of the greatest horror movies ever, and stars the recently deceased Christopher Lee.

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stu_helm_2013Stu Helm is an artist and writer living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook. 

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