Edinburgh has always been an important marketplace for the Scottish Lowlands and for Highland drovers, who brought their cattle here for centuries. The area on the south side of the castle that is the city’s focal point has always been an important trading area, protected by the fortress and accessible. Grassmarket in particular developed as a livestock area, deriving its name from the feed that was brought in for the horses and cattle that were for sale in this long medieval square.
These days the area below the castle is where you’ll find some of the best artisanal food in Edinburgh. Castle Terrace, which lies between Grassmarket and The Caledonian Hotel, is home to a farmers market that started in 2001 and now has over 50 specialist producers, who can be found every Saturday under a series of blue-and- white striped awnings.
The market is held immediately beneath the castle’s New Barracks, which were built in 1799 and which still today provides accommodation for an infantry battalion of 600. While the view seems picturesque now, the barracks was criticised by Sir Walter Scott at the time of its completion as “looking like a vulgar cotton mill”.
To the east end of Grassmarket there are a number of food and whisky shops winding up the steep pitch of Victoria Street, including I.J. Mellis, Edinburgh’s premiere cheesemonger. Meanwhile south of the square stands Union of Genius, Scotland’s first and best soup café, whose soup van tours various locations below the castle.
The Scotch egg is a familiar dish in Scotland and the rest of the UK – it is certainly a staple of the English picnic. You’ll find this hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and coated in breadcrumbs throughout Edinburgh. Often it has been baked – but you’ll also come across the deep-friend variety.
Ironically this familiar Scottish dish probably isn’t Scottish at all in origin. Fortnum & Mason, the food department store in London’s Piccadilly, claims to have invented Scotch eggs in 1738, and the earliest printed recipe appears in the third edition of A New System of Domestic Cookery (1808) by Mrs. Rundell of Shropshire. In her day, Scotch eggs were served hot with gravy. This habit has died out in the UK, but is still common in America’s British-style pubs.
The youthful Aye Love Real Food stall at the farmers market was started in 2014 by Mark Davidson, and is proud to have served “Scottish Scotch Eggs” to Prince Charles when he visited the market in 2015. “Our eggs are slightly soft in the middle,” says Mark. “It gives a much better flavour and we fry them because we found it gives a better finish than baking”.
One of the longstanding stallholders at the Edinburgh Farmers’ Market is Bernard Alessi, who trained as a chef and decided in his retirement to create the perfect pie. From his home in Coulter, South Lanarkshire, Alessi co-opted the local bakery to help him in his endeavour, testing out pastry on local high-street shoppers until he got the crust just right. In 2008 his daughter joined him in the business and together they developed their own pie factory in a converted nineteenth-century farm byre in Coulter. Here today, each pie is made by hand.
Alessi’s raised puff pastry pies are additive-free and are full of naturally reared Scotch beef or wild game from local estates and also fresh sea-raised Highland Scotch salmon. He also makes pies with chicken breast and traditional haggis. Alessi claims that each pie is a meal for one with salad, or for two with the addition of cooked vegetables. The company also sells pies with butterbeans and Brie or cheese and onion for vegetarians. In 2012 Simple Simon won the National Golden Fork for Speciality Producer of the Year.
Union of Genius was founded in October 2011 by Elaine Mason as a specialist soup café operating out of Forrest Road, just south of Grassmarket. Union of Genius also serves the city with its Citroen H soup van, which goes by the name of Dumbo.
A life-long soup lover, Elaine chose the name because a perfect soup is something greater than the sum of its parts: “It’s a union of genius,” she says. “I wanted to offer Edinburgh proper soup for lunch. Everything we sell is made by hand in our Edinburgh kitchens. We use local suppliers and create fabulous soups and salads each day from our own recipes.”
There is always a wide choice of meat-based, vegetarian and vegan soups. “Being local and green is crucial,” says Elaine. “All our soups are served in Vegware compostable packaging, and we run the UK's first recycling-based loyalty scheme. Bring back ten pieces of used packaging for us to compost, and we'll give you a free soup!”
Union of Genius also runs a suspended coffee and soup scheme, where customers can buy for someone in need, and they supply the Bethany Care Van with 150 litres of soup each month for distribution to those sleeping rough in the city.
Victoria Street, a tall narrow road north of Grassmarket, contains a number of food shops including the cheesemonger I J Mellis. Here you will find the best selection of artisan cheeses from all over Scotland, some from single-person suppliers. This narrow shop sits under the broad nineteenth-century terrace that supports St Colomba’s Free Church of Scotland. It’s a tiny, cool space, filled floor to ceiling with artisan cheese including Grimbister, which was started on Orkney by Hilda Seator as is now run by her daughter, Anne. It’s only available once a new batch has been completed and someone rings up the shop to arrange delivery.
Victoria Street was the first of six shops opened by Iain Mellis, who had worked in the British cheese industry for almost 15 years before deciding to sell high-quality farmhouse fare himself.
“Farmhouse cheese milk comes from a single herd rather than several different sources,” he says. “The milk is usually unpasteurised, which means that the defining flavour characteristics are left untouched, resulting in a product of exceptional taste.”
Iain chose 30 Victoria Street to start his business because it was a small, cave-like shop that could be kept cool and damp without too much trouble – perfect for storing cheese.