Fact or fiction? The truth behind the story  

John Castley in action from Wild Hearth @ Errichel

Having recently returned from the Slow Food Scotland AGM, hosted at Errichel, home to SF Cooks Alliance member Paul Newman, his wife Becky, and the new Ark of Taste Orchard, there was much interesting debate as ever and it was warming to see Slow Food exemplified at Errichel, where native Ark of Taste breeds are outside grazing, and inside on the menu. There were also excellent presentations from Pam Rodway, a co-founder of SF Scotland and John Castley of the award-winning Wild Hearth Bakery. I’m pleased to report the Cooks Alliance is undergoing both a review and renaissance in Italy in recognition that there has to be real commitment to ensuring the pillars of SF are the backbone of the CA, morn till night. These pillars are Biodiversity, Education and Advocacy – all matters close to my heart. Am I too much? Probably… but we need these exceptional producers and cooks and they value our support.

The people and the stories behind many small-scale producers, along with the flavours of the food of course, have always interested me since my student years at catering college – but you would think it has just been invented, as story telling is the new big thing. Stories must be transparent and accurate and we have much to celebrate in Scotland: independent family businesses doing their best in challenging times and justly proud of their produce and restaurants.

Food transparency is easy when you have nothing to hide. There are some ‘food stories’ out there however that sound all well and good until one digs a little deeper and it’s not the kitchen-table-apple-pie it portrays. Company brands are bought out by multi-nationals who then retain the family name and play on it; local specialities can be overloaded with imported ingredients; some products are actually made in other regions yet advertised from a rural idyll… the list goes on. Not illegal but is it transparent and ethical? It certainly sticks in my craw.

And if that is too depressing then let’s focus on the wonderful producers and chefs we do have: the ones who cook with carefully sourced ingredients, who shun palm oil, who use their skills to great effect and who support family enterprises and regenerative farming practices. Thankfully these good people are growing in number as more acknowledge the need for high quality, nourishing, seasonal food. I find it so frustrating when embroidered sales pitches are believed and many unsung heroes do not receive the praise they deserve. But never fear… that’s my mission and I shall continue to shout loud.

So if you’re trying to discern the genuine from the porky pies (no offence intended to tasty porcine pastries out there!), look closely through the smoke and mirrors, and here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.

  • Read the packaging label. Would your grandmother recognise every ingredient or is it ultra-processed or reformulated with artificial sweeteners for example?
  • Check their phone code. Are they indeed on a lochside somewhere or is their production HQ in the Midlands or even overseas?
  • Look up the trading name on Companies House website – quick, easy and remarkably illuminating.
  • Check out the website then dig around a bit. Brands owned by a conglomerate often market a bundle of brands together such as the one I found marketed by a worldwide breakfast cereal company!
  • Googling is also revealing for press releases, buy-outs, planning permissions etc.

A little detective work goes a long way. There have also been incidences in the past where Scottish Food Guide producers have called me to report their produce on menus when they hadn’t supplied them (not SFG members’ restaurants I hasten to add). This is something that sadly may occur again as belts are tightened and the pressure is on to ‘localise’ menus.

At the SF AGM I was asked my views on artisan produce in regard to the inevitable price rises in the pipeline; how could chefs adapt in the light of rising bills and recession? There are many cheaper and equally delicious cuts of meat that require skill to cook but are tremendous to eat. There are ingenious recipes that can make expensive proteins go a bit further – and, as an Irish friend once uttered in a restaurant, where are the tatties? Whatever the plan, sourcing cheap imports or palm oil is not part of the solution – that doesn’t help our Scottish small-scale producers who will gladly collaborate with chefs, nor does it help Scottish food tourism when, as inevitably will happen, these deceptions are exposed.

Loch Arthur cheese counter, Beeswing, D&G

So, climbing off my soapbox, what else is happening? Well, spring is most definitely in the air with lambs a-gambolling, crops growing in the fields, and oil seed rape in flower. Scotland is stunning just now so take a trip or encourage your friends to explore the country lanes or have a city break and discover the places to eat and producers in Scottish Food Guide.  We buy a number of the cheeses for our Cheese Courses in Dumfries and Galloway and this glorious countryside has fabulous farm shops to visit and places to dine. Incidentally we still have 2 places on Monday’s Cheese Champion Day (owing to a cancellation) that I would highly recommend. Kathy Biss will be in action making cheese and we shall be delving into generous platters, tasting an incredible range under one roof. Get in touch with me fast if you wish to join us.

Lights, camera, action @ HS Murray, Inverkeithing

We had a visit from a French TV company, first filming at HS Murray where I purchased my Finnan haddie, then at home cooking and sharing Cullen Skink. We spent the remainder of the day filming around and about Aberdour in brilliant sunshine.

Bosse has planted the Ardross walled garden with a promise of heritage grain to taste this year and I am in the midst of Royal Highland Show preparations. Great to have it back. The Scottish Bread Championship sponsored by The Edinburgh Bakers Trust, Scottish Food Guide and Scotland The Bread makes a welcome return so do go online and enter https://www.royalhighlandshow.org/entries/start-your-application-here/

Scottish Food Guide is also sponsoring one of the categories at the new RBST Food & Farming Sustainability Awards – a very exciting addition to the Awards calendar, so do take a look and enter if you recognise yourself https://rbstscotlandawards.com

Last but by no means least, our book, Meadows: The Swedish Farmer & The Scottish Cook, is currently in final layout stages. It should be in print by early summer – more updates as soon as we have them.

Featured photo: wild shelducks at Errichel.

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