Martin's Cheese Show

A visit to Martins restaurant became one of the highlights of our festival visits.  It was situated in an unprepossessing street off Rose Lane (Rose Lane North) that you were only likely to find by accident if you did not know that it was there. I am not aware that it was widely advertised, relying mainly on recommendations by word of mouth. The Good Food Guide, as guides are prone to do I am afraid, provided a somewhat dry description of the place which in no way did it justice. 

It attracted more than its fair share of celebrities; I read that Kofi Annan, replete with bodyguards, dropped in during the G8 summit. It was a relatively small and intimate place which was owned and run by Martin and Gay Irons, an extremely pleasant and unassuming couple.  The emphasis was on the use of high quality ingredients; a scallop dish that we had there was among the top two or three scallop dishes that we have had anywhere.  Overall, the food was of a high standard and the wine list perfectly satisfactory.  Service was excellent, being attentive without being intrusive, as it is in too many restaurants today where the emphasis seems to be on getting you in and out of the door as quickly as possible.

The pièce de résistance was what we fondly remember as “Martin’s Cheese Show” – they specialised in unpasteurized Scottish and Irish cheeses.  On earlier visits we had always been limited for time, rushing between shows, and consequently we never had time for a dessert.  However, we eventually managed to organise ourselves so that we could spend a more leisurely couple of hours over the meal. The restaurant was fairly full on the evening in question, but we were first to get to the dessert stage having been the earliest couple to arrive. Being a cheese lover my choice was a foregone conclusion.  Martin carefully threaded his way between the tables with the cheese trolley and the show, for that is what it was, commenced. 

It took over 10 minutes, as he put on a captivating and frequently amusing performance on a subject that was very obviously a passion.  He started with the Irish cheeses, introducing us to the likes of: Cooleeneye – made by Breda Maher in County Tipperary – he even produced a picture of Bridget the cow, one of the Kerry herd (although we did notice that Bridget seemed to change over the years!); and Ardrachan – made by Mary Burns in County Cork.  Moving to Scotland, he introduced Lanark Blue, regaling us with the story of how the maker, Humphrey Errington, was unsuccessfully pursued by the “cheese police” – a tale of failed attempts to outlaw so called dangerous, i.e. unpasteurized, cheeses. Errington’s Revenge, Martin’s name for an evil-looking, life-threatening cheese, eventually brought the show to a conclusion.

I had noticed that, as the performance proceeded, other diners gradually started to listen in, until by the end the whole room seemed to be in rapt attention, all equally enthralled by the performance, so much so that every table appeared to have at least one person that plumped for the cheese, and of course they were each treated to a performance of Martin’s show.  We sampled the show on subsequent visits and never tired of it. And yes – the cheeses were excellent.  If you are a cheese lover then a visit to one of Mellis’s excellent cheese emporia is essential, as some of the above-mentioned cheeses can be found there.

I originally penned this piece around 2005. Unfortunately, the restaurant no longer exists. A great loss. I have resurrected this content, along with other items that come under the title of Edinburgh Memories.

Breakfast at Sibbet House

Jim and Aurora Sibbet

We struck gold in our first year at the Edinburgh Festival when we picked Sibbet House from The Which Guide to Bed & Breakfasts, using that well-renowned and virtually infallible method of selection, “eeny meeny miny mo”.  It was run by Aurora and Jim Sibbet. 

When Janet rang to inquire whether there were any rooms available at the inn, we were fortunate to find that there was just one left. As repeated in the glossy literature that subsequently arrived, Jim promised over the phone to play the bagpipes at breakfast – but we went anyway.

The house had a wonderful hanging staircase that elegantly snaked its way up to the top floor. It was beautifully decorated and furnished by Aurora.  The highlight was a French style drawing room that looked like something straight out of one those country mansions where visitors are allowed to look but not to touch. Well, the room was for use by the guests although we sat down very gingerly on the first occasion that we eventually managed to summon up the courage to cross the threshold. 

The highlight was breakfast. Jim was “front of house”, with Aurora acting as the chef.  He was an assiduous host, deciding on the seating arrangements, and ensuring that he introduced the guests to each other. He used any foible or relevant point of interest to break the ice, along with the occasional subtle sales pitch: “these are the Cohens, Susan and Cal from Washington DC, festival aficionados who have been staying with us for the last 15 years”. 

Service was punctuated with: keen observations such as American guests’ use of cutlery – what are they doing with the other hand?; frequent demonstrations of his encyclopedic knowledge of bus routes for those requiring directions; taking bookings for bagpipe recitals after breakfast; and recommendations on places to eat, usually to the north of Princes Street, as he proclaimed that the Old Town was “foreign parts”. 

This was followed by the daily joke, two if you were lucky, delivered in a dry style, perhaps accompanied by an anecdote or apocryphal tale. This could be followed by: a lesson in business; reviews of the shows that Aurora and he had seen the previous day; the role of organised religion in modern society (well in any society actually); plus totally unbiased views on the political scene (?!). They were all among the many topics in his catholic repertoire.  It was always important to ensure that requests for extra toast were made between topics, so as not to disrupt the flow. 

There were occasional references to the chef, protesting that, while he had been married to her for over 40 years, it was never going to last.  Aurora’s arrival on completion of her duties in the kitchen was always the signal for a more in-depth discussion of the festival.

There was no discrimination: people of all nationalities, religions, political hues – even “woolly liberals” as he called us (for several years we used to sport a “Friends of the Earth” bag for carrying our bits and pieces around during the day) – were welcomed and encouraged to participate in the performance.  His virtuoso routine was typically completed in around 45 minutes, but those who were acquainted with Jim, as we came to be, knew that we had only to toss an appetizing snippet into the air on one of his other little specialist subjects to get the performance extended to an hour, possibly more: Human Resources (a job in one of his previous existences); the effectiveness of Edinburgh City Council – discuss; shocking changes in local architecture; or his latest property acquisition were all staple items. 

It was only the fact that the breakfast dishes were gradually disappearing around us, being quietly removed by a patient member of staff who had probably heard enough over the years to make a passable stand-in for Jim should the need arise, that we were eventually forced to face the day, and we departed to see some shows, have a few beers and a bite to eat, all to help kill the next 23 hours until it was time to experience this coup de theatre all over again.

This piece was written about 15 years ago, as part of our general Edinburgh experiences. I have resurrected it in honour of Jim Sibbet who is approaching his 90th birthday.