The organic trend has passed its sell-by date. The new buzz word in food and tourism is sustainability – and this one is here to stay
WHY has Edinburgh chef Neil Forbes just stepped off a grass roof in Devon? Why is the word most likely to be heard bouncing around the kitchens of our top eateries these days no longer a four-letter expletive but the more eloquent ‘sustainability’? Why are diners poring over menus to see in which exact field the cow or lamb they’re about to eat frolicked?
It’s all down to the latest lifestyle trend munching its way over the Border: the concept of stewardship for the planet and its resources, the appreciation of a capacity to endure. With environmental, economic and social dimensions, nowhere is the green message easier to swallow or finding more immediate expression than in the food industry. In-the-know chefs at the top of their profession such as Raymond Blanc and Tom Aikens are flying the flag for sustainable food and Times food critic Giles Coren gives relevant ratings in his reviews.
Organic alone no longer cuts it. Bruised and blemished by overuse and reduced to a cynical branding tool to justify overcharging, the new buzzword in lifestyle circles is sustainability. What’s the point of flying an expensive organic kumquat half-way across the globe when you can feast on pesticide-free tatties from south Ayrshire or roadkill from the A9? Increasingly we’re making sustainable lifestyle choices, shunning the faux cachet of Chinese sweatshop cashmere to wrap ourselves up in jumpers knitted from Scottish lambswool or eschewing fuel-guzzling 747s to overdraft-busting destinations to take staycations in boutique bothies just up the road.
As London Michelin-stared celebrity chef Tom Aikens points out, sustainability in the restaurant industry matters because it has a huge impact. “Restaurants have to do their bit for the environment because by nature they have large carbon footprints and use a lot of different power sources. To balance this out we can try and do a little more for the planet by using sustainable resources and recycling.”
“We take into consideration many aspects, from all the suppliers we choose to work with to ensuring we recycle all our cardboard, paper, glass and plastic. We buy BELU water for all our restaurants, which donates money to fund the building of water systems in poverty-stricken countries. A lot of our meat comes from organic farms and our salmon comes from Loch Duart, which is publicly backed by the Marine Conservation Society.
“The words ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ are becoming more and more part of our day-to-day vocabulary,” he says.
Nowhere is sustainability more to be found in tasty evidence in Scotland that at Neil Forbes’s Café St Honoré, in Edinburgh, which has just been named highest-rated Scottish restaurant in 2012, with a three-star status, by the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Providing more than 1,000 restaurants UK-wide with expert advice on sourcing food, managing resources efficiently and working with their community, the organisation has a way to go to sign up more Scottish restaurants. There are currently only a handful, with Café St Honoré the first to sign up four years ago, and others including The Airds Hotel and Restaurant, at Port Appin in Argyll, the Mains of Scotstown Inn, in Bridge of Don, Aberdeenshire, and Gamba, in Glasgow.
Back safely on terra firma, after checking out the grass roof and kitchen facilities at fellow SRA member Tim Bouget’s Ode restaurant in preparation for his own eco-upgrade at Café St Honoré, 41-year-old Forbes explains his commitment to sustainability. “It’s top of my list of priorities at the restaurant; it’s a way of life. It’s about sourcing, how we treat staff, water usage.
“At first it was a chore to separate plastic, cans, paper, and we failed dramatically, but now we recycle everything. We only have one carrier bag a week of waste. Food scraps go for compost or are made into electricity by the Cyrenians. Before this, it would all have gone to landfill. Imagine if all the hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools did the same. We need more of it in Scotland, but it will happen. Sustainability is here to stay.”
Forbes is keen to point out there’s nothing new about sustainability and, being a fourth generation cook, he should know. “Our grandparents’ generation would have been accustomed to preserving resources, growing their own and buying local. If you go back to the end of the Second World War people were eating locally and healthily, but then they became more affluent and went mad over choice, forgetting about quality.”
At his little oasis down a cobbled lane in the heart of the capital, Forbes has a courtyard where apples from the tree and broad beans, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs go straight onto plates. As he plans more energy-efficient cooking facilities and the replacement of the plastic roof in his courtyard with turf, he is fighting back against what he calls “the dull homogenisation of supermarket bland everydayness”.
Forbes also works with the Slow Food movement and is a regular face at Stockbridge Farmers’ Market every Saturday, where he meets the growers, producers and artisans, “the true heroes of it all”. He says, “By doing that, we can serve food where customers know the provenance and that it has integrity. This food tastes better too.
“There’s nothing wrong with international dishes, and in the past I would have done something Chinese, or fois gras, but we should cook regionally. Our own food is wonderful. I still remember the taste and smell of my grandmother’s scotch broth. Now I serve it in the restaurant.
“We buy whole animals, reared here, and use it all. Everything is from within 150 miles of the restaurant – and it doesn’t get in unless it has a story. We buy in season so the carbon footprint is smaller and it makes economic sense, it’s a no-brainer,” he says.
“I get called a food racist sometimes but I do want to support local produce and our economy. We also pass on the skills, teaching young chefs how to pick up a boning knife and do it themselves. Cooking shouldn’t be about chefs’ egos. It should be about real issues, like giving underprivileged kids an opportunity in a kitchen.
“I cook food but it’s so much more than just putting food on a plate. It’s about giving, and if I can inspire anyone to do the same I’m pleased. Sustainability is gathering speed among the big-hitters in the chef world. I just wish more chefs would do it,” he says.
While not everyone can tick all the boxes on the SRA’s 14-point sustainability criteria checklist, across the country hotels and restaurants are cleaning up their act.
Like many new developments, the space-age Ecopods at Appin, Argyll, have green waste disposal systems, wood pellet-burning stoves, low-energy Japanese cedar hot tubs and organic toiletries for the five-star ethical traveller, while Glasgow’s Blythswood Hotel (where Aikens is about to put in an appearance) prides itself on its green water recycling plant.
Then there is Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, which has installed electric car charging facilities so that ecowarrior central-belters can eat green beyond the city confines of Glasgow’s West End. “Since we started in the 1970s our whole ethos has been about sustainability,” says Loch Fyne Oyster Bar marketing manager Virginia Sumsion.
“Our mussels grow half a mile away and we use farmed salmon because wild is not sustainable. We are members of the Slow Food Movement because it’s a support for a belief that food should be produced naturally, the antithesis of fast food. We are passionate about where we live and what we eat and it’s part of the community round here, how we survive.”
Back in Edinburgh, Suzanne O’Connor, head chef at the Scottish Café and Restaurant, is a member of the Slow Food Chefs Alliance. “Carina Contini and I are committed to using local suppliers and want people to be aware where their food comes from –without shoving it down their throats.
“Our menu changes 11 times a year because it’s seasonal. Ten years ago chefs would say I want so-and-so but now we speak to suppliers first. I have so much respect for what they do – they are experts – you can’t help but treat the ingredients with tender loving care,” she says.
“Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a hell of a lot but we take it seriously. Calamari was something we always had but now we only put it on the menu in certain months. We don’t want to be the ones who depleted the stock or are to blame if these things aren’t here for future generations because we haven’t looked after it.”
The Scottish Restaurant particularly champions local fish such as Arctic char and megrim, most of which goes abroad. “We want to serve things caught that day off our coast with things that are grown here, in season. Why would you serve asparagus in November? Think of the air miles. Eat kale.” n
Cook and dine with Tom Aikens at Blythswood Square, Glasgow, 14 October, six-course dinner with wine, £130 per person, contact firstname.lastname@example.org; The Sustainable Restaurant Association www.thesra.org
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