Scottish regional food finds its identity

Food networks across the country raise the profile of Scottish food

Scottish Terroir or how regional food is finding its identity

Local and regional food groups - cooperative associations of smaller-scale food growers, producers, distributors, shops and restaurants - are gaining a higher profile around Scotland, as Jackie Hunter found out.

Our interest in local food may have revived in recent years, but when large, complex systems of food production and distribution hold sway over so much of our food culture, it’s not always a simple matter to serve it up. Driven not just by economic survival instincts, but by a genuine pride in the food of any given area and a loyalty to the concepts of artisanship, quality and commerce with a human face, small-scale food producers and businesses in Scotland are finding ways to cooperate.

Launched in 2002, Ayrshire Food Network has become one of the most successful examples of a burgeoning trend. The chief objectives of a food network are to increase the availability of regional food as well as accessibility to it, as AFN’s founder Howard Wilkinson explains. ‘Farmers markets are just one side of an equation; the creation of a food network has helped by making Ayrshire produce more widely available through its members, which include farm shops and delis.’

Food networks are doing Scotland a lot of good – it’s not only independent producers, hotels, restaurants and shops that benefit, but local food groups also help to change public perception about the value and relevance of the food produced around them. Food groups may also achieve the critical mass required to influence policy on local issues regarding food, including regulation, procurement by publicly funded bodies and thorny problems such as the lack of local, small-scale abattoir provision.

More remote communities have, potentially, even more to gain. The problem of distributing local produce in Skye & Lochalsh was what inspired the creation of its Food Link network in 2000. As part of the pilot scheme, volunteer Ian ‘the van’ Morrison used his own vehicle to deliver local fish, fruit, vegetables, herbs, lamb, beer and so on from their producers to hotels, restaurants and shops in the region, who largely relied on deliveries from mainland suppliers hundreds of miles away. It was a rapid success and funding was awarded to upgrade the service. Food Link now moves more than £90,000 worth of goods per annum, compared to £6800 in its first year.

Before this one-van service existed, say its organisers, there was simply no marketplace there for local produce.

One of the newest networks and groups in Scotland is the Fife Food Network, founded by Viv Collie and Jimmy Wilson. Wilson explains: ‘There was no one promoting the region’s produce as an entity, so our starting point was Fife Farmers’ Market, with which I was already involved. We now have a wide variety of produce to promote, from Crail seafood to arable vegetables, crops and meat. We’re keen to build links between our producers, restaurants, hotels and shops, so that more local food is sold.’

By contrast, the main purpose of Food From Argyll – formerly a producers’ co-operative – is to promote the region, and its local produce, throughout Britain. One way it does this is by targeting those not necessarily found browsing farm shops at the weekend. In 2007 Fergus Younger, now its co-ordinator, persuaded seven Argyll producers to run ‘food to go’ stalls at Connect music festival. It proved a popular alternative to the typical festival food, and now ten Argyll producers attend UK-wide festivals – including RockNess, Latitude and V Festival – under the Food From Argyll banner.

‘It’s not the producers’ normal retail products, but high-quality, ready-to-eat food such as hot smoked-salmon rolls, steamed mussels, salmon pasta,’ Younger says. ‘We employ about 120 people from Argyll at the festivals too.’

In the Ayrshire Food Network, Howard Wilkinson says, another strong consideration of the 67 members across Ayrshire and Arran is to supply food to one another. ‘You only have to go to the market before opening time to see the transactions from van to van – traders using one another’s products. Corrie Mains supplies many of us with free-range eggs, for example.’ Wilkinson also runs Petrie Foods in Kilmarnock, where all the dairy produce for their bakery comes from within 12 miles.

‘We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 20 per cent in three years,’ he says. ‘Most customers at the farmers market can relate to the fact that the food has travelled a short distance. But ultimately, he says, what the network offers visitors, whether from near or far, is ‘the opportunity to have an authentic food experience’.

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