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Trad or Fad: the trend for restoring old buildings, areas and traditions in Scotland's food scene
- James Tiedeman
- 16 June 2017
Can contemporary food culture have any connection with our history and heritage?
Put down your phone and look around. What's on your plate, and Pinterest, may have a connection with your surrounds. Edinburgh's Food Heritage Trail explores the links between the city's built heritage and its food traditions. Sometimes these links are obvious. Take the Witchery, with its name derived from the witch-burning site on Castlehill. There are plenty more places to eat historically in Edinburgh: the Pompadour; Colonnades at the Signet Library; Timberyard, a 19th-century former costume warehouse; the William Playfair-designed Gardener's Cottage.
But the preservation of history is not just for the sake of entertaining tourists. Okay, being housed in an historic building is probably good for business, particularly from tourists, albeit with a few more rules and regulations to follow. But there is often a higher motivation behind their restoration than profit. Some restaurateurs feel a sense of responsibility to uphold the heritage of their city because, as Andrea Pearson of Walking Lunch Tours says, 'hospitality has long been at the heart of our history. There are many buildings in Glasgow that have been saved for the future because of our love of a good night out – Hutcheson's, Anchor Line, the Corinthian are prime examples.'
At Hutcheson's, James and Louise Rusk worked with the National Trust for Scotland to transform what was a Victorian hospital into a high-end bar and brasserie. It took them two years. James Rusk says: 'Turning an old building into a restaurant means it has a purpose, means that people can enjoy it, that it's not museum-eque but a living and breathing space that showcases our heritage.'
Sometimes architectural heritage is intertwined with dining or drinking heritage. When The Buttery looked like it would be lost to property development, Two Fat Ladies' Ryan James felt compelled to step in. Why? Because his dad used to go there. And his father's father, when it was a pub, the Shandon Bells. 'It was basically a romantic notion, a complete labour of love, re-inventing what had been a Glasgow institution since the 60s. Otherwise it would have been turned into flats.' Opening the restaurant in what was, as Ryan says, 'arguably the worst location on Glasgow', the subsequent regeneration of Finnieston means a food heritage site will now live on. Philanthropy has its rewards: a strong food scene attracts visitors, it's good for business, good for the city.
It's not just restoring old buildings for restaurants that links our heritage with the contemporary food scene. When you wander the stalls at Big Feed or The Pitt, you'll be following the food heritage of markets that leave their name today; Edinburgh's Fleshmarket Close was the hottest spot in town to grab a dirty burger back in the day when Auld Reekie residents didn't go to Iceland but always went to market and guzzled abundant shellfish at riotous oyster parties in city cellars.
The popularity of local produce, the importance of sourcing and the emphasis on natural ingredients continues to grow. The lost art of foraging is now trendy. This is restoration of our heritage, a return to our past when, with the proximity of countryside to city, we'd pick our own, grow our own, and harvest because we had to.
So, anyone for dandelion? Well yes, it seems. Through their foraging-based pop-up dining events, Buck and Birch are bringing Scotland's forgotten ingredients back into the contemporary consciousness. 'We know where everything comes from because we've picked it or we've grown it or we've met the person who has produced it,' says chef Rupert Waites, who recommends razor clams and extols the benefits of bitter cress.
Like the buildings that are now fine dining destinations, Scotland's forgotten larder is being restored and revived. Look no further than the Ark of Taste catalogue which promotes and protects heritage products that are rooted in our culture, and that are in danger of disappearing forever, from Soay sheep to the Musselburgh leek
There is an appetite in the contemporary food scene for our heritage. For every quinoa, there's a chick weed. Restoring these traditions boosts business: take Scotland the Bread, who are building a local grain economy by rediscovering heritage grains that can be grown in Scotland for local breadmaking, and reseeding community baking projects. A sense of food heritage is fostering the entrepreneurial efforts of local producers and sellers, thus driving Scotland's economy.
Scotland's heritage runs deep, its traditions handed down to new generations and new people in an ever-changing country. Like the Gorbals' High Rise Bakers, who use Scottish flour in a social enterprise that brings together the community, that welcomes refugees into the heart and hearth of the nation, and bakes great bread like mothers, and grandmothers, and so on, would have done. And helps to make the world a better place.
Scotland's contemporary food scene is inextricably bound with the country's history and heritage, and its future. Its food heritage will live on long beyond the latest hashtag.