Innovative approaches on traditional farms in the Scottish Borders
The new ideas lighting up the local food scene in south-east Scotland
Borders food writer Fiona J. Houston discovers that innovative approaches to traditional farms and crops are lighting up the local food scene
The old woods and hedges of Peelham Farm shelter fields that have been brought back to life. After decades of exploitation under an earlier owner’s intensive arable regime, Denise and Chris Walton, and their business partner Amanda Cayley have invested money and love in restoring productive grassland on their mixed farm near Eyemouth. Now red clover does the work of bought-in nitrates to feed the soil, and their Scottish Luing cattle, Tamworth pigs and Lleyn sheep thrive on grass, home-grown barley and beans. It’s an elegant, sustainable, organic system that won the Future Farming Award 2009-10.
Their products are superb. Try their Salami Italienne: subtly flavoured with whole fennel, aniseed and caraway, it is sensational. You could not taste better in Italy. And indeed, Italy and France are where Denise and Chris learnt their methods of preparing, drying and curing their charcuterie. Try too their free-range ‘ruby’ veal. The calves lead happy lives outside with their own mothers and the rest of the herd. They are slaughtered when still young enough to have the most tender and delicious meat. If it’s years since you ate veal because you didn’t like the idea, here is your opportunity to rediscover a forgotten but succulent experience.
At the other extreme of the Borders, at nearly 1,000 feet in the hills above West Linton, is another farming miracle. At Whitmuir a rough stock farm has been revolutionised by Pete Ritchie and Heather Anderson. Like Peelham, they run an organic regime, growing a surprising range of vegetables alongside their pigs, cattle and poultry. To taste their fine products you have only to go to their café. Then you can visit their shop, and find out about the Community Supported Agriculture scheme that helps keep the farm running.
It’s interesting that innovation and organic farming seem to go hand in hand. Over Langshaw Farmhouse, run by the Bergius family, is another farming enterprise with great ideas to add value to their delicious milk and eggs. They went organic ten years ago and now have fine, clover-enriched grassland that supports well-loved cows. These lead far more comfortable lives than their sisters in mainstream dairy regimes, alongside free-range hens that are equally happy. The rich and creamy milk combines with the organic eggs to make marvellous ice-cream. Available in a range of flavours, many of which use locally sourced fruits (although exotic names like Madagascan vanilla, banana and Baileys, and Amaretto with macaroons figure alongside raspberry, and bramble sorbet).
You can buy the ice-cream from the farm, restaurants and farmers’ markets. Look out for Beatrix, the traditional ice-cream bike, at local shows. The newest addition to their farm is a 50kw wind turbine, called Winifred. She should be able to run all the electricity that the farm needs and still export a little to the grid. There is something endearing in the naming of these aids to good food production that speaks well of the farmers themselves.
No article on innovation in Borders food should go without a mention of Cuddybridge Apple Juice, based at Kailzie Gardens near Peebles. Graham Stoddart was inspired to start his small-scale, specialist apple pressing and bottling enterprise after becoming aware of the Borders’ once-prolific orchards. Sadly, food hygiene regulations, and the need to produce a consistent supply of juice throughout the year, have made it difficult for him to use the local crop. He uses English orchard apples whenever he can get them, favouring Braeburn, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and sometimes Bramley. The tastes are exhilarating, the latter enjoying a sharp tang that makes it an excellent medium in which to cook pork or venison.
Of all the innovators, Willow Walker is the most novel. She has turned to a wild shrub, the bright orange-berried sea buckthorn, to produce a concentrated juice that is delicious, and unique in its line-up of nutrients. Chief among them are carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants. Vitamins (or pro-vitamins) A, C, E, K1 and D, and a remarkable combination of useful fatty acids complete the health-promoting qualities of sea buckthorn. Its oil sells for $25 an ounce in the US. In Russia it is gathered from the wild or cultivated to make the same type of bright orange extract that Willow produces. She sells her wee bottles for just £5. It’s a bit more in Edinburgh wholefood shops. Each 250ml bottle will provide you with a daily spoonful for over a month: an ideal tonic but also a novel fruity taste.
Willow came to her product, which is entirely new to Scotland, through her interest in permaculture and forest gardening. This speaks of the natural productivity of woodland, where plants thrive at ground, herb, shrub and canopy level. She turned to hedgerows as relics of this natural system and has identified potential food at all levels. From the foot of hedges she can harvest garlic mustard, fat hen, Good King Henry, wild garlic and nettles. Higher up there are brambles and rose hips, above them sloes and hazelnuts. So far sea buckthorn is the only product Willow is marketing through her company Wild and Scottish but watch out for her at events from agricultural shows to Borders Organic Gardeners’ Potato Day, the annual fixture at Kelso on the first Saturday in March. She may have more good things on offer soon.