“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”.
It might seem an odd way to bid farewell to 2021 by quoting Dickens in a food column.
But food isn’t just what you had for dinner last night (if you could afford dinner at all), nor is it how much a pint of milk costs or whether you can choose to buy organic or local produce, important as these things can be.
Food is so much more than what’s on your plate – economics, logistics, standards, laws, health, ethics, sustainability, hope, sustenance, collaboration, memories, friendship, passion, creativity and resourcefulness are all elements of what we eat every day and thus it’s impossible to think about food in 2021 without acknowledging that we’re living in desperately turbulent times.
Not that we can ever forget that right now.
Unless you are completely self-sufficient then food is political, just like the air we breathe and the water we drink.
2021 was a truly hideous year and I can’t be the only one whose mental health has suffered.
More happily, at least some of the year was made bearable by periods of respite when the sun shone, the pandemic seemed to be retreating and we remembered the joy of human contact and interaction.
Now we’re plunged back into a state close to lockdown, we must reflect on a year of joy and pain, hoping 2022 will be better. It has to be!
Despite occasional moments of Gordon Brown dourness I’m largely a pragmatic optimist and will spend tonight thinking about the good times I had in 2021 and many of these thoughts will involve food, wine, friends, cats, tea, Torres truffle crisps and discovering self esteem and jazz.
Restaurants have naturally been the playgrounds of much joy this year although some food has inspired its fair share of dolour – Dickensian, Brownian or simply culinary.
Here are some of my food high points of 2021, the year when we all lived dangerously, whether we liked it or not.
Best restaurant in Fife
I reported on Kinneuchar Inn the night it opened in 2019, so keen was I to be the first reviewer through their doors. I gave it the highest score possible because, at once, it seemed to eclipse everywhere else nearby.
It was marvellous then and it’s even better now.
Chef James Ferguson and manager Alethea Palmer have created a truly classic restaurant in a tiny village in the East Neuk that now draws a knowing clientele locally, nationally and internationally.
Someone once asked me why I mentioned Kinneuchar so often, especially in the barren months of lockdown when many places were forced to close. The truth is it became emblematic of happier times for me.
Kinneuchar is to be credited with keeping the home fires burning during these dark times, serving quite the most glorious takeaway food to villagers and local Fifers alike.
Ordering food from there was such a treat that finding places to eat it nearby became somehow part of the fun of the whole experience.
I have vivid memories of eating one of James Ferguson’s incredible pies as I stood in the graveyard of the church opposite the restaurant last winter. Snow fell around us and our food dribbled over the gloves keeping our hands from freezing as we devoured our lunch, feeling like this was the best food in the world.
When normality returned, it became obvious that here was a place that most other restaurants in the region needed to view as an example of how it’s possible to get everything right. It’s a game changer.
As such, Kinneuchar more resembles classic London restaurants like St John and the Quality Chop House than it does other restaurants in the area. It’s simply a class above.
Firstly, James cooks what he wants to cook, based on the best ingredients he has that day. That the restaurant sits within the huge Balkaskie Estate means it has access to the most wonderful produce, from the superlative Butchery at Bowhouse to the fresh crops from the East Neuk Market Garden. Stellar fishmonger David Lowrie is minutes away.
I recently spoke to the FT magazine about what makes this part of Fife such a foodie paradise and I had to say that, for me, everything centred around the arrival of this ace restaurant – because here is where the freshest, most seasonal ingredients are cooked with such precision and love.
You can’t ask for more, except this gorgeous environment to eat this food in, and service so slick it glides. A gem.
Best restaurants in Dundee
Dundee has a problem with good food in that there’s a wealth of good produce in and around the city but there doesn’t seem to be many chefs who are inspired to do anything interesting with it.
For a city trying to compete on the international stage I’m afraid it’s just not good enough.
A walk through the centre of town looking for somewhere reasonable to have lunch is a dispiriting experience; there are coffee bars and fast-food outlets ad nauseum but hardly anywhere to get something good to eat for lunch.
Franks is the exception for a decent bowl of pasta but their menu needs to change more and expand. A few specials would be a start but what Franks do, they do well – and owner Phil Donaldson (Draffens/The King of Islington/The Blue Room) deserves much praise for bringing a metropolitan buzz to the centre of town.
A proposed private members club within the same building as Franks and Draffens will be an interesting development in Dundee.
Shining like a beacon above the rubbish being served in many Dundee restaurants is Adam Newth and the Tayberry which is the only place I would wholeheartedly recommend to any foodies visiting the city.
Adam is a great cook and the Tayberry is lovely – a casual fine dining restaurant that doesn’t pander to cliches. Set across from the sand dunes of Broughty Ferry, the Tayberry is currently offering a Hogmanay menu including a crispy brawn fritter with celeriac, madras curry dressing and spiced peanuts as part of a special menu also including a short rib beef pie (£65 including canapés and Champagne on arrival).
Adam has kept Dundee’s culinary flag flying for a long time and lang may his oven roast.
An honourable mention in Dundee must also go to Collinsons, also in Broughty Ferry – an understated gem that deserves more attention.
Best restaurant in Perth
For me it’s impossible to judge between two restaurants in the Fair City – both excellent and both owned and run by great chefs. The meals I had in the North Port (first meal out after lockdown) and, more recently, 63 Tay Street were masterclasses in classic cookery. These two places are special – and also amazing value for this standard of cooking.
Also, kudos to the more casual Cardo in Perth and the Grandtully Hotel near Ballintaggart, both little gems worth a visit.
Best restaurant in St Andrews
Here it’s no contest – the Seafood Ristorante, set in a beautiful glass box perched above the water, is just ace.
Designer Pam Hogg and I recently enjoyed an exquisite set lunch of such quality it seemed an absolute steal at £30; the surroundings are lovely, the view to die for and the service is a dream. Owner Stefano Pieraccini knows a lot about glamour and he also knows how to run a slick restaurant. Top stuff.
Best restaurant in Angus
I was due to eat once more at the Drovers Inn at Memus this week, just as we were advised to stay at home.
Therefore, I recommend it with the disclaimer that this praise is based on two previous meals there – but judging by a menu including pan seared pigeon breast with Stornoway black pudding, braised leg presse, wild garlic puree, raspberry jus and game crisps (£7.25) and pan roasted loin of venison with game pastilla, carrot and star anise puree, parsnip crisp and venison jus (£17.95) it sounds like it’s still on great form.
A separate bar menu and vegan menu is also available.
Best food column
Amongst a plethora of food bloggers and reviewers, by far my favourite culinary read of the week comes via Tatler magazine with their weekly bulletins from the absolute maestro of food writing, Fay Maschler.
To read Fay’s online column “What landed on my plate this week” is to enjoy a writer so absolutely sure of her craft that not a single word is wasted. Even if you never visit any of the restaurants Fay recommends (and trust me, she is just as at home in a pop-up in London’s Hackney as she is in Fitzrovia) her writing about food is a total joy and her knowledge is encyclopedic
Best cookery book
I honestly couldn’t choose between the hugely inspiring Crave by Ed Smith and Falastin, the wonderful celebration of Palestinian food, by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley. Both excellent and both highly recommended.
The superlative twice-baked Isle of Mull Cheddar souffle by Craig Millar at his great eponymous restaurant in St Monans is something to behold. Everyone should eat this once in their lives and those of us lucky to live nearby might hope for it much more often than that.