Why food from Scotland means something
From haggis, neeps and tatties to deep-fried Mars bars, we're a nation that takes pride in our food
Food is one of those dualities that the Scots do so well. We’re dour Presbyterians but also spirited Gaels, we helped explore darkest Africa but seem to prefer midge-infested glens, we’ve produced great practical engineers and logical philosophers yet get misty-eyed about half-baked schemes from the Jacobite Uprising to Argentina ‘78. The larder of Scotland, stocked full of grass-fed Aberdeen Angus, succulent lobster, rich game and golden whisky, if not quite without equal (as some hyperbole would have it), is genuinely admired around the culinary world. The diet of Scotland – what we actually eat as a nation, on the other hand, tends to draw furrowed brows and a bit of a free-for-all on the subject of deep-fried Mars bars.
Battered confectionary doesn’t, in truth, figure in the daily diet of many Scots but then neither do locally grown apples or mutton chops – both of which would cost less. There’s a danger that we regard our larder as we do historic castles and wearing the kilt: something to be vaguely proud of but hardly the concern of day-to-day life. To any other generation in the history of mankind such a disconnection between the food-providing fields and seas around us and the food on our tables wouldn’t just be counter-intuitive but downright perverse. However, the modern ways of trade, food distribution and shopping have allowed the production of food and the eating of it to drift far apart. Where this disconnection exists, it’s hard to make a case for a distinct, vibrant or even coherent food culture.
Scotland isn’t the only place where this is happening but we have a fairly acute case. Yet all those who eat here needn’t abandon hope. For a start, the quality is not mythical but out there and available – Michelin-starred chefs in Paris and surprised but impressed visitors will vouch for the world-class standards it can reach. Secondly, there are not dozens or hundreds, but many thousands of farmers and fishermen, gardeners, cooks, bakers and shopkeepers around Scotland who aspire to work with real food and manage to make a living doing so. Thirdly, the promise of locally sourced food must strike an instinctive chord with us somewhere, for why else would supermarkets plaster Saltires on their packaging or restaurants, cafés and even pubs be at such pains to highlight their local food credentials – even if their claims can be a little sketchy? Local food does mean something to most of us.
When the growing and eating of food draws closer together, the possibility of a discernible food culture appears. Make no mistake, Scotland is a wonderful place to grow and source certain types of food. Grass grows green and lush in our damp, warm summers, not just in fenced fields but all over moorland and hills, providing ample fine grazing for livestock and game. Cold, remote and relatively unpolluted waters are excellent for fish and shellfish. The long summer days allow berries to ripen slowly but surely to full sweetness. Barley grows better than wheat and once whisky is made from it, the climate is temperate enough for it to remain in barrels for ten years without evaporating away to nothing.
Some of these natural advantages have shaped our diet over centuries – we’ve eaten game and smoked fish and oats for long enough. Such traditions offer a depth of heritage to the Scottish food culture, even if a number of other elements in the celebrated larder – langoustine, for example, or bottled water, or lamb (as opposed to mutton) – have limited historic resonance. That doesn’t mean that the relatively new innovations, responding to changing markets, tastes and technology, don’t have a place in the Scottish food culture. If something grows well here, or is being produced with skill and imagination, whether it be asparagus, salad leaves, cheese or cured meat, we can and should value them. These products may not be unique to Scotland, but brought to market at sufficiently high standard (as many are), they begin to establish a distinctiveness endowed by where and how they are made. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the current Scottish food culture is that it is still discovering itself – it is being defined as we speak, rather than being shackled to a comparatively limited culinary past.
Scotland has been able to show that quality helps establish identity. We can do it with whisky – why not food as well? Identity also encourages quality. When something is good, a greater analysis takes place of the factors that make it good. Regionality – the distinctiveness small climatic or cultural differences can make – is appreciated more acutely. In the context of quality, the importance of history and heritage becomes apparent, whether it’s the thriftiness that made haggis popular or the hospitality that honed so many baking skills. When food becomes attached to a place, greater value seems to accrue to both the product and the place. When we eat ‘food with a view’, both the food and the views – spectacular enough in Scotland already – are enhanced.
Crucially, by far the most important components of Scotland’s developing food culture are small-scale, local and artisan food producers. They are not given attention out of quaintness or charity. It is the small, local and artisan food producers who provide the diversity which creates richness, the knowledge and dedication which establishes quality, the humanity which reinforces character and the drive which underwrites innovation and progress. Large systems of food production, manufacturing, distribution and retailing may still dominate what we buy and eat, but such systems cannot create or nurture a food culture.
The equation is completed by a simple truth. The primary market for most small producers in Scotland is a local one; in other words, they are dependent on us eating their food. We have to know where to find it and be prepared to buy it, but awareness and appreciation tend to go hand in hand. This interdependence means that local food is a reality in Scotland, and it lies right at the heart of the Scottish food culture.