Salad days: former chef Robin Gray has reaped the benefits of going back to basics on Arran
Claire Ritchie visits an Arran smallholding where a former chef makes a living from living the good life.
In these climate-conscious, eco-spirited – not to mention cash-strapped – times, it has become fashionable to talk of going back to basics, becoming self-sufficient and making do and mending, probably for the first time since post-war rationing threatened to dampen the country’s spirits so thoroughly. Now these values have come to the fore once more, albeit with food miles, composting and eco credentials taking the place of rationing in the news, in businesses and in schools. It has again become popular to grow vegetables at home, even when space is at a premium. Herbs and lettuces can be grown in window boxes; carrots, beans and potatoes in patio containers – even the smallest plot of land can be used to provide sustenance for a family. And it doesn’t take a huge leap to make commercial gains out of such a project.
Robin Gray, who farms a smallholding of approximately 20 acres with his partner by Whiting Bay on the Isle of Arran, is the living embodiment of this lifestyle trend. Having trained as a chef under the great Raymond Blanc, and travelled the world both working and wandering, he returned to his native Scotland intent on taking a back-to-basics approach: living the good life, but making a living from it too.
Arran has a warmer climate than much of Scotland thanks to the Gulf Stream, and there’s certainly no shortage of rain, but some of the produce Gray grows needs just a little extra help. Being by the sea has its benefits. ‘We use the seaweed as fertiliser,’ he says. ‘We go down to the beach on our quad bikes every so often to collect it.’
He also has a polytunnel, under which he grows herbs such as lemon verbena, basil and the mixed salad leaves so popular with the chefs who make up the main customer group. At the end of the tunnel a white peach tree snoozes happily through autumn, ready to burst into flower again come spring. Wild, untended cherry tomatoes grow through the plant detritus in the tunnel doorway, the sweetest little gems. A more serene setting would be hard to imagine.
So, with such quality soil and reasonable weather at his disposal, how does he decide what to grow? ‘Ideas come from my organic suppliers,’ he says. ‘They show me what they’re doing and I go from there. The elephant garlic, for example, happened that way.’
Crops of said elephant garlic, along with a rare type of beetroot called Ferrono, have been appropriated by Arran Fine Foods (part of Paterson-Arran), a local company specialising in preserves and pickles, who showcase some of Robin’s produce in their latest Arran-specific range.
In 2008 Gray also grew a ton of pumpkins for the first time, as an experiment of sorts. Coming in all shapes and sizes, and with such evocative names as Turk’s turban, sweet mama, crown prince and cha cha, the whole crop was a special order from one special customer: Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles. ‘People are intimidated by pumpkins,’ says Gray. ‘We’ve only just got them onto making pumpkin soup – but where do we go after that?’
Well, Andrew Fairlie started with a dish of pumpkin gnocchi that he created in honour of the first crop of the strangely shaped gourds.
So far so profitable, but have there been any less successful ventures on these remote beach-side slopes? The answer is surprising for a Scottish smallholding. ‘My least successful has to be the potatoes,’ he says. ‘I love them and I love growing them, but there’s a lot of work involved for little return. It’s been trial and error.’
And which crop would he call his favourite? ‘Probably the beetroot, but I do love the pumpkins.’
To Gray, there is no challenge in playing it safe, growing the same old fruit and veg that can be found in farmers’ markets all over Scotland. But while it might not be a giant leap to get to Turk’s turbans and ferrono beetroot, growing the rare jostaberry – a cross between a blackcurrant and a gooseberry – to satisfy demand from ever-choosier customers (such as Andrew Fairlie) who want to have new, innovative produce at their disposal, can come at a price.
‘There are only a few people I can sell the more unusual produce to, because they’re too specialist, too weird,’ he says. ‘The public might not know what to do with them!’
But with Robin Gray as such a thriving example of how this back-to-basics lifestyle can work, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the rest of us catch on.
● Robin Gray is one of the local food heroes profiled at www.taste-of-arran.co.uk