Fish And Ships

07 Oct 2005

The world of wine will never be grateful enough to the UK. Thanks to the mercantile passion and entrepreneurship of people from the other side of the Channel, the fortunes of the most famous European wines were first built and then consolidated within the space of just a few centuries.

Profound knowledge of all things oenological quickly spread round London and bottles from Bordeaux, Andalusia, Malaga and even our own Marsala, crossed the seas on British ships to gain fame in far-off lands.

British sensitivity to the culture of the grape is still clearly tangible. Suffice it to mention that the greatest living writer on wine, Hugh Johnson, has sold more than 60 million copies of his most important work The World Atlas of Wine.

I can only leave to the imagination of my readers, the pleasure I had in visiting the historic building in Edinburgh, where wine auctions have been held since 1730. The Vaults Building is in the port of Leith, one of the most evocative, characteristic parts of the Scottish capital.

My tour of its cellars where, for over four centuries, the wine brought in by sea has been stored, was packed with surprises. Small stalactites — the result of a particular kind of fungus that has entirely covered the place — hang from the ancient vaulted ceilings. This phenomenon is especially noteworthy as these micro-organisms are characteristic of the Bordeaux area and this is the only place in the world outside their place of origin where they have adapted to living. They are also important because it is thanks to them that this dark ambience maintain a constant temperature (around 13°C) and a humidity level ideal for the conservation of the bottles.

On the upper floor of the building is The Vintners Rooms (, one of the best restaurants in the city. The atmosphere is refined and perfectly preserves an 18th-century air, while the beauty of the stucco-work on the walls conjures up all the wealth that wine trade generated in the port of Leith in days of yore.

Patrice Ginestiere, a French chef, runs the kitchen with supreme expertise, skilfully blending his own cultural heritage with the high quality raw materials that Scotland possesses in abundance. The Highlands produce wonderful meat while , thanks to the fusion of warm and cold currents, the sea to the northwest of the British Isles is the preferred habitat for a multitude of varieties of fish and molluscs. Lobster with foie gras is a wonderful example of the quality of the seafood, and the same can be said of the scallops, served in carpaccio with caviar.

For the main course, I recommend either the fillet of Highland veal in Bordeaux sauce or the rotì de veau aux girolles d’Aviemore, or, best of all, the wild halibut, the best fish in the area. The wine list, which reflects the long local wine traditions, is outstanding. The Vintners Rooms is a place of good taste and consolidated tradition and I advise anyone passing through Scotland to try it.

Carlo Petrini is president of Slow Food

First printed in La Stampa on 17/09/05

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