It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Pleasanton, California. The muggy air is nearing eighty-five degrees, and without a cloud in the sky it looks to be relentless. The Alameda County Fairgrounds are dotted with trees to provide some shade for the thousands massed here, as well as myself — Janice Rabe, reporting food enthusiast. We’ve come to celebrate pipe bands, heavy events — games such as caber tossing and hammer throwing- and traditional British, Irish, and Scottish fare.
It’s the 148th Scottish Highland Gathering and Games and you don’t need a kilt to enjoy the festivities. Not only is this the largest Scottish festival in the country, but it also gathers clans from all over the West Coast and Canada.
Walking through the different booths: English Fish & Chips, Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage, Funnel Cakes, I can hear bagpipes off in the distance. Since it is a Scottish festival, I am only interested in one thing; suddenly, I smell a familiar, enticing scent and as I draw closer I realize that my nose was right: Scottish meat pies. Just what I was looking for.
Heritage Meat Pies is a company based out of Santa Maria, Ca that makes food for festivals and fairs. They produce an assortment of meat pies as well as sausage rolls, haggis, Scotch Eggs, crumpets, and lemonade. The meat pies are all handmade, and come in varieties such as Scottish Meat (seasoned meat and spices!), Steak and Mushroom, Chicken (like our pot pies), Cottage, and Beef Shepherd’s Pie. These are not your everyday sweet pies sized to share, but your own handheld, easily carried, personal pies of savory goodness. The lines at Heritage Meat Pies’ booths are notoriously long- I once waited for forty-five minutes while at a Pirate Festival, and have heard tales of lines upwards to an hour or more- especially around lunch time (this time I waited for a good 25 minutes).
However, their pies are well worth the gruesome line. When I finally reach the front of the queue, I order the Scotch Eggs, a Sausage Roll, and a Cottage Pie.
A Sausage Roll is simply a length of sausage surrounded by puff pastry. When it comes to flavor though, Heritage’s are anything but simple. I couldn’t wait to taste it and forgot to take a picture while it was still whole. The sausage is spiced and seasoned with hints of black pepper, garlic, and fennel, while the pastry is warm and cooked to achieve just the right amount of crunch, has a soft squish when chewed.
Next I move on to Scotch Eggs, which are one item on Heritage’s menu that many wait for. They are THAT good. If you’ve never had one before, they’re nothing to be frightened of. Scotch Eggs are large chicken eggs that have been hard boiled, wrapped in sausage, tossed in breadcrumbs, and then fried to a dark brown crunchy layer of delectableness. Heritage uses the same fennel based sausage as in the Sausage Roll for the Scotch Eggs, and fries them to a crispy brown finish. The peppery brown sausage makes for a great contrast to the creamy yellow yolk.
On the outside, the Cottage Pie is a golden-brown pie of crusty puff pastry. At first bite, I realize it is so much more than that. The Cottage Pie is made up of steak pot-roast, cubed potatoes, and carrots all inside the flaky, buttery puff pastry crust.
Also, it is filled with an abundance of beef gravy that is thick, flavorful and rich in taste. A spork was offered to eat the pie with, but I find it is much more fun to dive headfirst, or “handfirst” in this case, into the savory pie. Because anyway you try, you will get messy. No utensils needed. Napkin necessary.
Later in the afternoon I decide to participate in the lovely tradition of an English Afternoon Tea. Luckily for me the Daughters of the British Empire (DBE) Tearoom is serving not only hot tea and coffee, but also Iced Tea, a necessary addition on this hot August day. At the tearoom I decide to perk myself up for more hours of pipe competitions, Celtic dancing, and sheepdog trials with an assortment of baked goods. I go with a lemon tart, a cranberry-orange scone, and a piece of currant teacake along with my iced tea. In the land of teahouses the only condiments necessary are lemon curd, fruit jams, and butter, so I make sure I get plenty of each.
The lemon tart is simply an excuse to eat lemon curd. What is lemon curd you may ask? Well, lemon curd is a custard made by combining butter, eggs, lemon juice, lemon zest, and a dash of salt. Basically it is the sweet cousin to Hollandaise. The DBE Tearoom’s tart’s crust is light and the perfect vessel for their velvety, lemony curd.
The Cranberry-Orange Scone is a dense cake-bread filled with bits of orange zest and dried cranberries. Topping the scone is a silky smooth orange icing. The DBE made this scone in the griddle style, where the batter is poured out onto a griddle making it more like a hard pancake. Dipping the tart scone in the sweet blackberry jam makes it like an explosion of flavor in my mouth. The tang of the orange meets the sugariness of the jam and I am hooked. I scoop up every last bit of that scone, licking my fingers happily.
Next I move on to the teacake. It is a cake of shortbread with a generous amount of currants (cousins to raisins) and cinnamon and dusted with powdered sugar. It is cut into a flower shape and is light and airy. When paired with the lemon curd it becomes a soft, sweet, gooey mouthful of deliciousness. I add plenty of Lemon Curd.
After tea, and as the day is drawing to an end, I decide to wander back over to Heritage Meat Pies for one more pie before the closing ceremonies. I’ve had it at a number of other festivals and find it scrumptious. The Shepherd’s Pie uses a shortcrust pastry crust, which is more like our traditional fruit pie crusts and frozen pie crusts, for the sides and bottom. Crowning the top of the pie is a heap of mashed potatoes that have been baked to a golden brown, while inside the pie are peas, carrots, and a good amount of aromatic ground beef. It tastes just as wonderful as I remember, all melding together into one satisfyingly savory squishy bite.
The Scottish Highland Gathering and Games happens each year during Labor Day weekend. With food as appetizing as I found, I know I will be returning for more. Besides, I completely forgot to leave room for haggis!