Saturday, 21 April 2012

Give Us a (Scottish) Break!

The hamlet of Tyndrum, although just 55 miles north of Glasgow, is well into the Highlands and surrounded by Munros. It straddles both the A82 trunk road and the West Highland Way footpath, drawing its economic lifeblood from all who stop by - which includes me.

I had made the mistake of choosing porridge for breakfast and was desperate for coffee to wash it down. I found it in the Real Food Cafe where, as I was savouring a surprisingly decent cappuccino, I heard a woman behind me place her order in broad Scottish:”Two portions of cheesy chips with buttered rolls and two cans of Fanta please.” Knowing the Scots’ reputation for unhealthy diets I was unsurprised until, getting up to leave, I turned and saw that the Scot in question was a sari-clad woman of Indian descent. Things have really changed in Scotland: cappuccino never used to be available except at Valvona & Crolla’s Edinburgh deli.

There is a long way to go before the reign of beige food is overthrown in the tourist cafes of Scotland. The Real Food Cafe may be heading in the right direction but the best efforts of its barrista were overshadowed by the kitchen’s main activity - the frying of fish and chips. I should have realised that not much had changed when, at a stopover in the border town of Gretna Green, I was offered the choice of chips or boiled potatoes with my ravioli. The sign there which welcomes travellers from England to Scotland ought to incorporate a warning of Enhanced Levels of Carbohydrate.

Of course there are outposts of gastronomic excellence one of which, the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, we drove past while on a coach excursion to the coastal resort of Dunoon, our driver informing us, en passant, that the oysters were so good that they are sent daily to Claridges in London. There was also a micro-brewery attached. “Perhaps there’s an outlet in Dunoon” said a fellow traveller, turning to glimpse the disappearing venue.

But Dunoon which, like most British coastal resorts, has seen better times boasts neither oyster bars nor real ale pubs. As I tramped the streets looking for the best place to lunch I came across a small group of young women evidently with the same dilemma.  One of them was peering into a window “Is it one of those ‘old man’ pubs?” asked another. I could not have described it better myself.

I found help in an unlikely place - the community centre on the high street - where a travelling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs was showing. It wasn’t busy so the lady curator had time to talk to me about the work, the benefactor (Anthony D’Offay), public reaction to the show and the perversity of those who pronounce the name Maplethorpe. She seemed like a woman whose judgment I could trust so I asked her if there was a decent pub in town. She denounced them all as ‘old man’ pubs - with the exception of the newly refurbished Braes, up the hill and beside the church. She was right: there I feasted on goat’s cheese salad, washed down with a crisp sauvignon blanc. In fact it was so nouvelle cuisine I had practically to beg for a piece of bread to accompany it.

Back in Tyndrum I resolved the dinner-dilemma by wandering in to Paddy’s Rock and Roll Bar. The joint was jumping - alive with beery hikers, bemused Japanese, a party of wary French tourists and several locals - and with a soundtrack of juke-box favourites stitching them all together. There was also steak on the menu - and good steak is one thing Scotland can produce.

I fell into conversation with a local couple and learned that Paddy had absconded and the bar was being run, on behalf of the receivers, by a jolly Jamaican chap and a couple of young women from somewhere in Eastern Europe. A few drinks later and Tyndrum, it seemed, was a more interesting place than it might first appear.

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