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A Tale Of Two Cities

On a recent trip to Edinburgh my sons showed scant interest in our Michelin star lunch; even less in eating haggis. Their sights were firmly set on a deep fried mars bar which, they assured me, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. More likely to shorten one’s lifetime, I thought.

As luck would have it, we found a chippie two doors down from our apartment on The Royal Mile.  The Clam Shell did not just fry the usual haddock and chips, but would happily pop into the boiling oil all manner of unlikely foods. The chef’s unfamiliar accent confused me and when he suggested I try a deep fried kit kat, I feared for the feline population of the city. It may just be a matter of time.

I was curious to know where the desire to deep fry originated. Is it linked to Scotland’s prodigious drinking culture? A high fat sponge to soak up alcohol or perhaps an ability to stomach implausible foods due to extreme inebriation? And why a mars bar?

It looks disturbingly as if it has emerged from the digestive system rather than an item I wished to put into mine. I thought perhaps it appealed to my children’s scatological humour – daring themselves to taste a turd that turns out to be chocolate heaven.

On a Friday night I found a large group of teenage boys sat outside The Clam Shell eating chips. They all laughed when I asked about the deep fried mars bar. Most had eaten one. They thought the appetite for deep fried confectionary had been in vogue for a decade at least. Why would they eat their chocolate deep fried? ‘To have a heart attack’.

They assured me that anything could be deep fried in Scotland with their favourite item being a pizza. This struck me as a strange marrying of cultures that should surely end in divorce. I had the impression that the answer to why one would deep fry a pizza would be ‘because you can’.

I ventured in to The Clam Shell and discovered that aside from the battered fish and sausage, I was unable to identify the other items awaiting purchase in the heated glass cabinet. Ahead of me stood a stout woman ordering chips on to which a mountain of grated cheese was placed.  Was it cheddar? I enquired. A momentary confusion crossed her face while she considered my question before replying: ‘it doesn’t matter what kind of cheese. I’m addicted to it’. She smiled broadly and hurried out to enjoy her fix of carbs, saturated fat and salt. As addictions go, it’s cheaper than heroin or crack.

Next up was a heavily overweight man. I asked him about the deep fried mars bar. ‘It will kill you but you will die with a smile on your face’, he assured me.  We moved on to discussing the deep fried pizza at which point he animatedly ordered one. He extoled its virtues at length, seeming to need no answer to ‘why fry one?’ He urged me to order one too and was only partially satisfied with my protestations that I would do so the following day. His pizza emerged from the fryer looking as if it had been for a swim which, in a sense, it had. On top went a half portion of chips. ‘Salt?’ enquired the chef. ‘Please’.

I was beginning to get the picture. Dickens might have said that Edinburgh is a tale of two cities, from Michelin star to deep fried mars bar. From the best of times to the worst of times.  Writing in The Guardian (28/9/12), Steve Poole railed against the foodie fashionistas who score chanterelles rather than magic mushrooms, food having replaced drugs. I think it may be happening up and down the food chain with addiction to killer foods as well as gourmet dishes to die for.

I asked the chef why he deep fried chocolate and he pointed to a shelf full of snickers, dairy milk, kit kat, yorkie bar and twix, all of which could be chosen.

I ordered a round of mars bars and feared for my arteries. The chocolate was unwrapped and dipped in a thick batter before it disappeared into the fryer.

It emerged looking worse for wear, a thin coating of pale batter clinging to melting insides which seeped out onto greaseproof paper.

I took one bite and retired in defeat. It smelt of chips while the melted chocolate and caramel mixed nauseatingly with the oil-laced batter.  My sons battled on to the end.  I thought longingly of my Michelin star lunch and knew for certain that I would rather be a foodie who cares too much about provenance than one who cares far too little. I for one will not returning for the pizza.