Exploring Edinburgh’s Food Scene with Secret Food Tours

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Walking over George IV Bridge at almost midday, I find it difficult to ignore the aroma of coffee and fried food wafting from the cafes lining both sides of the street. The smells follow me towards the end of the road, resulting in a grumbling tummy. I stop at the pedestrian lights and cross into the Royal Mile, where the growling noises in my empty stomach are suddenly drowned out by the sound of bagpipes. The brief walk through Edinburgh’s foodie hotspot has whetted my appetite. Thankfully, my hunger will soon be quelled, for I am about to spend the afternoon eating my way around the city.
I meet David, our guide from Secret Food Tours, in front of St. Giles’ Cathedral. Given that I have never really explored Edinburgh’s food scene beyond Chinese takeaways and Tesco’s lunch deals, I am rather intrigued by the thought of a 3-hour food tour in the heart of the city. The 12pm bell toll signals the start of our gastronomic journey through Edinburgh. We walk away from the bustling activity in the Royal Mile and head towards one of the most picturesque streets in Edinburgh for our first real taste of Scotland.

Not your average fish soup

Besides being one of the most Instagrammable spots in Edinburgh, Victoria Street in the historic Old Town is also a hub for foodies. Its colourful buildings house a variety of quirky shops, as well as some of the best restaurants in Edinburgh. We pop into Howies, a place known for its Scottish dishes made with local fresh ingredients. Within a few minutes, steaming bowls of soup are placed in front of us, accompanied by slices of freshly-baked bread.
David introduces our first dish, cullen skink, which is a creamy soup made with smoked haddock, onions and chunks of potato. It might not sound or look very appetising, especially for those who are not big fans of fish, but believe me when I say that it’s one of the most delicious dishes I’ve had in Scotland. I first tried cullen skink in a remote restaurant on the Isle of Skye, after spending a whole day hiking in the wilderness. Over three years later, I find myself sipping this hearty soup once again, with tasty pieces of haddock melting in my mouth.

Scotland’s infamous dish

From Victoria Street, we head up to George IV Bridge, which is the only place in Edinburgh that I tend to avoid like the plague during the busy summer months. The bridge is home to two tourist magnets: the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, erected in memory of a Skye Terrier who spent several years guarding his owner’s grave, and The Elephant House, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling is believed to have written Harry Potter. The space in front of these two landmarks is normally clogged with tourists competing for a photo and making sure they get to rub poor Bobby’s nose for ‘good luck’.
We stop at a place called The Cellar Door, which has a tongue-in-cheek notice on the window stating that Harry Potter was probably written here too. This stylish Scottish restaurant is situated on two levels: a tiny ground floor and an underground floor just below the bridge, which makes for a cosy atmosphere. I already know why we’re here, and I anticipate our next dish with both dread and excitement.
We are served Scotland’s national dish, haggis, the traditional way with neeps and tatties, yet with a modern twist. Haggis is a combination of a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onions and spices and cooked in a sheep’s stomach. While it may not be on many people’s food bucket lists, haggis can taste quite delicious if you’re able to ignore what’s in it. This must be the fifth time I’ve had haggis, yet it’s the first time that I’ve actually had it fresh and not from a can. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with haggis, and I can only eat it in small doses due its rich flavour. However, The Cellar Door’s small portion of haggis, complimented with shallots and thyme sauce, is a true culinary delight.

A wee drink

After enjoying two delicious Scottish dishes, we take a walk through the Grassmarket, which tends to be bustling with activity at the weekend. Back in the old days, the Grassmarket was a place of public execution. The city has witnessed many gory executions throughout the centuries, some of which you can learn about on a history or ghost tour of Edinburgh.
David chooses to share one of the city’s lesser-gory episodes, perhaps not to ruin our appetite halfway into the tour. It’s the story of one Maggie Dickson, who has a pub named after her in the Grassmarket. Maggie was sentenced to death by hanging after being accused of murdering her newborn baby, but she miraculously survived the hanging, surprising everyone at her funeral when she rose from her coffin. Since the sentence had been carried out, Maggie was spared a second prosecution and she went on to live for another forty years. Talk about a lucky escape.
We burn off the haggis by going up the steep Granny’s Green Steps, which lead up to Castle Hill and offer a staggering view of the castle’s rear. Castle Hill is always the busiest part of the Royal Mile, with tourists flowing in and out of souvenir shops and gathering around the usual bagpiper and William Wallace wannabe. We exit the Royal Mile though Lady Stair’s Close, a quiet courtyard that is home to the Writer’s Museum, and end up on The Mound. David leads us into the Whiski Rooms for, as you may have already guessed, some whisky.
We are treated to a shot of Auchentoshan, a 12-year-old, triple distilled Lowland Scotch Whisky. To be honest, I am not very clued-up on whisky, and neither am I a whisky-drinker, so I am not the right person to evaluate whiskys. I take a few sips of the whisky, which I find strong but not overwhelming. David produces a box containing a popular Scottish treat called tablet, which is a smooth, fudge-like sweet. Its sweetness counteracts the lingering taste of whisky in my mouth, and triggers a craving for dessert.
Creamy goodness
After a wee shot of whisky, we walk down the Royal Mile through a light drizzle. As we step inside a gorgeous shop on High Street, I am immediately met by a sweet scent. Behind a gate, a man is cutting a loaf of freshly-made fudge, which we are invited to taste. The white chocolate fudge with raisins crumbles in my mouth, filling it with sweetness. Next, we try a bit of dark chocolate fudge, which has an equally pleasant texture and rich flavour. I can’t believe I haven’t been here before.
Fudge is not the only nice treat on the day’s menu. To my delight, I learn that we are about to sample a variety of cheeses. We walk into Gait on Canongate, a modern-style bar that specialises in craft beer and traditional pub food. As a cheese lover, my mouth starts to water as soon as the cheeseboard arrives, carrying four types of cheeses, as well as oatcakes and chutney.
Fudge is not the only nice treat on the day’s menu. To my delight, I learn that we are about to sample a variety of cheeses. We walk into Gait on Canongate, a modern-style bar that specialises in craft beer and traditional pub food. As a cheese lover, my mouth starts to water as soon as the cheeseboard arrives, carrying four types of cheeses, as well as oatcakes and chutney.
I start with the local Brie, using an oatcake to ferry it to my (still watering) mouth. If you’re trying oatcakes for the first time, you might find them a bit bland, however they’re not meant to be consumed on their own. I scoop up a bit of chutney, which tastes pleasantly sweet, and try some of the blue cheese. Next is the goat cheese, which thankfully is not very strong. I leave the Applewood for last as I am not overly keen on cheddar, however I find it quite nice, especially when combined with an oatcake. Sensing what’s coming next, I decide to go easy on the cheese.
Our food tour comes to an end at a colourful bistro called The Fig Tree. Pots of tea are served alongside raisin scones with cream and jam. As I sip my tea, I look at all the beautiful things around me: the vivid paintings, the quirky textiles and the glimmering Turkish lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The place also has a wee garden with chairs and tables. I love discovering new cafes in Edinburgh, and this one is certainly one of the prettiest I’ve been to so far.
I gorge on my crumbly scone, my stomach now nearly full, and realise that, despite being a self-professed Edinburger, in the last three hours I got to explore a side of Edinburgh that is completely new to me.
While I was given a complimentary ticket by Secret Food Tours for this Edinburgh food tour, I have been very honest in my review and I highly recommend the tour.
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Daniela Frendo

Daniela Frendo

Hi! I'm a Maltese blogger based in Scotland. I created Grumpy Camel to help travellers connect with places through culture, history and cuisine.
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