James Withers: Diet-conscious Scots bin myth of deep-fried bars
I HAVE never eaten a deep-fried Mars Bar. For that matter, I have yet to meet anyone that has. Yet, like an unpopular uncle at a wedding, whenever there is some big happening in Scottish food and drink it pops up.
Almost always it is a punch-line in a conversation. I’ve yet to meet anyone who seriously believes that this little slice of “caramel hell” represents a mainstay of Scottish eating habits. Of course, let not reality get in the way of a funny stereotype.
As we come to the end of the first week of Scottish Food and Drink Fortnight, a national celebration of all that is wonderful about our produce, it has been in the news again. Mars has sought to distance itself from the product, providing a nice hook back into the story for columnists debating the state of our national diet. But those that are close to the subject know that we are in the midst of change on the dietary front and that within our shores we are blessed with one of the planet’s finest natural larders.
Working for Scotland Food & Drink, the industry body responsible for growing the reputation and value of our sector and organising this fortnight of culinary celebration, my heart did sink at the return of the Mars Bar story and the irony of the timing. However, perhaps I needn’t be so sensitive. After all, it serves to remind me of that Scotland’s food culture is transforming and how our reputation overseas has moved into a new dimension.
Amidst all the economic depression, the food and drink sector has stormed forward. It is the nation’s strongest performing sector. Our food exports alone have rocketed 63% in four years and, in the drinks industry, the international icon that is Scotch whisky has grown 50% over the same period. A few years ago, industry came together for the first time to create Scotland Food & Drink. As we drew together a ten-year plan for growth, we announced an ambition to breach the £5 billion mark in food and drink exports by 2017. We surpassed the figure in 2011. On Wednesday, a new target will be announced, stretching further our own ambitions for what we can achieve internationally.
The success stories are multiple. Arran cheeses are served in the top hotels of Dubai, Scottish salmon and seafood has a new foothold in Asia and Scotch beef and lamb has a growing army of fans across Europe. Scotland’s produce is making its mark like never before and the recipe for success has been clear. Take some of the finest raw ingredients on Earth, add a generous handful of industry collaboration, mix it with political commitment to deliver and the result is a food and drink revolution.
Of course, while the economic growth is of an order we haven’t seen before, there remains much work to do at home. If we are to truly have Scotland known as the Land of Food & Drink, a continued effort to forge a different food and drink culture at home will be critical.
Part of that is about diet, and I do believe real strides are being taken on that front. Around 11 million additional servings of fruit and vegetable were given to Scottish schoolchildren last year. Perhaps food education skipped my generation; at least I have no abiding memories of it. Yet, I am heartened to see my own children’s primary school teach about food, not only in terms of health and consumption but in an environmental context too.
For a small country we now boast more than 70 farmers’ markets. So, what next?
In so many ways, 2014 will be a pivotal year for Scotland. In food and drink terms, it is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to cement a growing reputation for our produce and showcase what we have to offer. The eyes of the world will be on us as we host the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games. This week, Scotland’s Food Minister Richard Lochhead announced a funding package to help the industry prepare for that opportunity. The ambition must be to set a new benchmark for the provision of quality food and drink at a major sporting event. The work starts now to achieve that.
• James Withers is chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink Twitter: @scotfoodjames
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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