There are scenes in Thomas Mann’s wonderful novella Death in Venice when the residents of that beautiful city start seeing discrete indications that a plague is on its way, even though the authorities deny the contagion is serious and continue to allow tourists to wander around the city.
That’s an image that suddenly feels very current.
Images from the film of the same name popped in my head the day we visited Tayside’s classic Fisher and Donaldson (F&D), a visit that was itself quite bittersweet because we’d actually gone there on the last day of trading before the first lockdown.
That day we watched as staff started upturning tables and chairs as if preparing to flee at short notice – little did we know then how much all our lives would change.
David remembered this as we sat in the café in late December, wondering where the usual festive decorations had gone (I write this just before Christmas due to holiday printing deadlines). The answer seems to be that F&D must have toned down Christmas this year, which was a bit dispiriting to see because this is one place that seems to be full of festive cheer all year round.
In a year when we were told everything was being ramped up it was sad to feel a sense of dialling down at the end of 2021, as if we had all been gradually depleted of any fun genes.
Fisher and Donaldson
In truth, F&D wasn’t my first choice for this first review of 2022, despite the fact I’m a regular there.
But the end of 2021 was a period of such uncertainty that it was almost impossible to think of somewhere to review that would definitely be open. Cancellations were rife – both from customers and from restaurants themselves, forced to close abruptly when staff fell ill with the virus.
Two separate visits to Edinburgh’s Timberyard were cancelled because their staff fell sick – at a time when most restaurants hoped to make enough money to make up for losses suffered earlier this year. Places which would normally be booming over the festive season were shuttered, a tragic end to the year for businesses built on customer loyalty.
To say it’s not a great time to be a restauranteur would be a massive understatement.
I myself had to cancel our staff Christmas lunch in London’s wonderful Quo Vadis (owned and run by Dundee’s incredibly talented chef Jeremy Lee) when central London seemed just too risky to ask our staff to travel into. We are a small company of seven but just imagine that happening all day every day as companies the size of ours cancel – the cumulative effect soon becomes apparent, and crippling.
Lack of governmental advice from Westminster has effectively left us all to make our own rules about our conduct and the environments in which we feel comfortable.
Essentially the hospitality industry has been felled by lockdown-by-stealth.
I decided quite early that I would stop going to restaurants where I didn’t feel safe, and shortly after that I decided to stop going to restaurants completely. Others felt differently and vowed to carry on as normal. There is no “correct” response.
Mine wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, given that our beloved hospitality industry is on its knees. However, I’m 62 and, although in relatively good health, I just don’t want to risk getting a serious illness just for a nice dinner in a restaurant. For me the trade off isn’t worth it and, in my view, the onus should be on government just as much as customers to ensure that hospitality survives.
I did make an exception to sit in Fisher and Donaldson for this review though because, although I know their menu off by heart, a review has to be as up to date as possible.
Did I feel comfortable there? Well yes, the tables are well spaced, the staff observe hygiene protocols rigorously and the front door opens often to let fresh air in.
The problem with restaurants though is also what makes them great – you’re sharing space with strangers. Pre-pandemic, there was nothing I liked more than going to a bustling restaurant where you somehow felt in the centre of a happening scene.
Now this is my idea of hell.
A friend of mine recently confided that she felt much safer these days either by herself or with a small group of people. She has a point and I wonder if the days of communal tables and sharing platters are over for a long, long time?
In a time of fear and uncertainty I want serenity and space, not bustle and noise.
And in a time of restricted living I want comfort food and no fuss, not six-course tasting menus and pretension.
With all of these thoughts racing round my head it seemed as good a time as any to get this Fisher and Donaldson party started and order some stovies and a fudge doughnut, two things guaranteed to chase the blues away as much as a chorus of I Should Be So Lucky after three pints of cheap cider.
The stovies at F&D are the best thing on the menu – and it’s a great menu, so they have a lot of competition. If I say they’re better than my late mother’s then that’s the highest praise I can give because mum used to make her stovies using roast beef dripping, onions, potato and the ends from the roast beef. They were the talk of Lochee.
The stovies at F&D taste rich and unctuous and I have no idea how they are made and assume they’d have to kill me if I asked. They cost a ridiculously cheap £4.50 and come with the best Fife oatcakes and butter which I think is best used to put in the stovies, rather than on the oatcakes.
Really you want that throat-rasping oatcake hit to be followed by the ambrosial salve of the stovies – or better still, you dunk the oatcakes into the stovies which provides an instant textural twofer.
Whichever way you eat them I think a visit to F&D would be wasted without a bowl of this supremely Scottish goodness.
For an extra £2 you can supplement any of the sandwiches on offer at F&D with a bowl of soup and our offering was tomato and basil (a full portion of soup is £3.80, with bread and butter).
This soup was delicious, as nice as anything you might get in somewhere much more expensive.
Other delights on this short menu are an excellent macaroni cheese with salad (£4.50) and of course a Scotch pie, sausage roll or onion bridie for £2.95. All are accompanied by a deliciously tart homemade onion chutney.
A spinach roll (£2.95) is a pleasing addition for vegetarians.
Our two-course meal didn’t include any of F&D’s classic cakes because I’d already bought a box of them which we would eat later at home. Of the classics it was hard to choose between the fudge doughnut and the coffee tower but I have to admit that my favourite of all is that rank outsider, the lemon swish.
This divine creation should be up there in the F&D Top 10 creations even if asking for it in the shop will destroy any hopes of being butch that you might harbour. I find it impossible not to think of Are You Being Served? actor John Inman every time I ask for one – not that a little swishing ever did anything but lift the day, of course.
Fisher and Donaldson is really great and such a tonic. The interior makes you feel like you’re in a suburban patisserie in France (this is a good thing) and the staff uniforms make you feel like you’re in 1956 (this is a great thing). Service is just wonderful.
It’s all just lovely and we need as much loveliness as we can get right now.
While writing this piece I was messaging Jeremy Lee from Quo Vadis and remembered he was an ardent fan of F&D. Here’s what Jeremy, one of London’s top chefs, has to say: “I love Fisher and Donaldson and have done since childhood. My mum and dad shopped there every week. I love the pies! F&D is a first stop on my too rare visits home. The rolled oat bannocks, the rowies, the oat loaves, all the biscuits, the oat shortbread… there are so many good things. The rhubarb pies, and the apple ones too – Fisher and Donaldson are an institution and a superb example of the great tradition of Scottish baking.”
Renowned food stylist and author Maxine Clark, now living back on Tayside, is another admirer of Fisher and Donaldson, saying: “They’re the best baker in Dundee. They make fab pies and kept me supplied with strong plain flour over lockdown when I couldn’t find any elsewhere for love nor money.
F&D have remained faithful to their roots, with a French flair.
The fudge doughnuts are now legendary, their breads are exceptional and their oatcakes/bannocks are fab. I would happily order anything from them. They’re a very good Scottish baker, continuing to be inventive and who understand the local clientele.”
As this remarkable company celebrates trading for more than 100 years, how lucky we are to have them based in this part of Scotland?
In fact writing this has made me so hungry I’m heading back for my second consecutive lunch there this week.
Address: Fisher and Donaldson, 12 Whitehall Street, Dundee DD1 4AF
T: 01382 223488
Prices: Sandwiches from £3.50, hot food from £2.90, cakes from £1.80
- Food: 5/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surrounding: 5/5