Tasting Scotland - a food tour around Fife
East Neuks and Crannies
What’s next after you’ve dined out, eaten in and shopped local? Hannah Ewan became a food tourist for a day in Fife with Tasting Scotland
Seven of us are huddled over orange jelly babies, passing them around for a closer look. Not the familiarly lurid sweets, however, but a cluster of small, long-stemmed mushrooms, nicknamed after the patina their waxy sheen gives them, rather like sugar-coating. 'These are the first I’ve seen this year,' explains Tony Wilson, an ex-ranger who is leading our mushroom forage a mile outside Kelty in Fife. Despite this woodland patch being well known by local foragers, after half an hour’s scrambling up muddy banks, battling midges and scouring the undergrowth we are rewarded with two pots of vivid purple amethyst deceivers and some prized chanterelles.
We had been picked up early on a clear and bright autumn morning by Brenda Anderson, founder of Tasting Scotland, who has been organising what she describes as ‘gourmet journeys’ for the past 18 months. From a cheffing background, she now hosts an eclectic mixture of food experiences; she’s been called a ‘food DJ’ for her blend of cooking lessons, tutored tastings, skills workshops (home smoking, for example) and the kind of food tours that saw us spend a day visiting a few of Fife’s most interesting and hard-working artisan food businesses. Tours run from the Borders to the Highlands, for anything from a day to a week.
After Wilson’s spirited and reassuringly learned introduction to the common mushrooms that variously taste delicious, disgusting or will kill you, Anderson pulls a stove from the efficiently packed mini-van. Sautéing up some of our haul to taste, she tosses them about with garlic and pepper by the roadside, before we pile back into the van to drive to a slightly less obvious food destination.
Kellie Castle’s history is studded with royal legend, ghosts and, more recently, artists. Its last private owners were the Lorimers, the sculptor Hew Lorimer selling it to the National Trust of Scotland in 1970. We hardly give a passing glance to his collections, however, or to the magnificent plaster ceilings designed by his father, the architect Robert Lorimer. Just stopping in the café long enough for a brief background to the organic gardens over a slice of chocolate and banana cake, we file straight out to the walled garden.
Apples, carrots, a 250-year-old pear tree and kiwis: as Kellie’s produce advisor Diane Barrie explains, you can coax an awful lot from one and a half acres. Well known for its 30 varieties of rhubarb, Kellie’s garden is as productive as its head gardener, Mark Armour, and 100 volunteers can make it. This has been a bad year for every kind of crop, but the trees are still decked with fruit, and healthy sprawls of rhubarb are about to be trimmed back for the winter. One man with a keen interest in Kellie’s garden produce is Craig Millar, head chef and owner of 16 West End restaurant: as good planning would have it, his place was the next stop on our edible mystery tour.
Millar has had a close relationship with Kellie Castle for the last few years, using produce as and when seasonally available. The menu for the three course lunch we eat at his seaside restaurant includes baby carrots, red onions, courgettes and cabbage from the garden; panna cotta infused with petals from an ancient, divinely scented French rose; trout cured with Kellie beetroot and Kellie rhubarb sorbet.
The gardens offer Millar a valuable source of local, seasonal, organic produce that he feels confident using – not always a given with local food. 'It’s never going to be possible to source all our ingredients from Fife', he admits, but not being happy with some industry practices makes local sourcing all the more difficult. 'People are always surprised that I don’t get more seafood from these waters, but the few langoustine and scallops that come in here are dredged, so I won’t use them.'
The seawater just a few paces from his door isn’t clear enough to dive, and, although there are a few creel boats starting to go out, Millar suspects their motive is more the higher prices this shellfish commands than the practice’s sustainable benefits. 'I’ve been here for 14 years,' he tells us, 'and the majority of our fish came from Pittenweem in that time, but it’s been wiped out. Anything you can get from there is now by-catch, which is another reason not to use it. My shellfish and scallops now come from the west coast, where they’re hand-dived from the clearer waters.'
After a lightning fast meet-and-greet with the folks at the East Pier Smokehouse (and the chance to sample the dubious delights of smoked chocolate), we’re off again. How do you round off a food tour lunch? By visiting Fife’s only artisan cheese-maker, of course: the St Andrews Farmhouse Cheese Company. Unfortunately, the practicalities of weekend tours mean many small-scale producers are at farmers’ markets actually selling their products, so cheese-maker-in-chief Jane Stewart is not around, and the vat where her Anster and St Andrews Farmhouse cheddar are made lies empty. When the cheese shed was built in 2008, however, she made the savvy decision to include a local food shop and café as well as a viewing window that allows visitors to watch the cheeses being made. We crowd next to this and meet Stewart in DVD form, as she explains the process from start to finish, before bringing our extended lunch to a close with a plate of her three cheeses, sweet oatcakes offsetting their sharp, fruity tang.
When you’ve eaten at the restaurants, visited the delis and farm shops and cooked at home with your farmers’ market produce, what’s next for the exploratory food lover? As Anderson says: 'This is a chance to meet the people who are keeping Scotland’s food heritage alive.' This whistle-stop tour of artisan producers provides another link in the increasingly dynamic world of properly made, local Scottish food. And as we make our way home clutching tubs of earthy mushrooms, we resolve that next time we pass a muddy bank in autumn, we’ll keep an eye out for our own local Scottish food.
• See tastingscotland.com for more about Brenda Anderson's food tours and events.