Kirsty Gunn: Think food with Italy - we should with Scotland too

Places in Scotland may not look or taste like Lucca, but they too have fabulous food
Places in Scotland may not look or taste like Lucca, but they too have fabulous food
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I am in Italy, visiting old friends, both of whom are from Scotland but who, for various reasons, have ended up living here. One married an Italian – with an amazing Italian style wedding held in the garden of her parents’ home in south Edinburgh many years ago, with money pinned to her dress, Italian cakes and Pino, the groom, greeting guests, like an extra from a Francis Ford Coppola movie, with the words “Don’t eat too much. Don’t eat too much. And leave early.”

Needless to say, no-one did. There was Highland reeling and Italian folk dancing well into the night; his tie was cut up into a hundred pieces and sold – more wedding income for the happy couple there, in that Italian wedding sort of way. It was a great party.

The other friend moved with her partner to buy a wreck of a house high on the hills above Lucca, that walled city where Byron, for a while, made his home, a place full of history and beauty and romance where stories and poetry might be written into the stones. Tom is a builder so he has been able to make a beautiful villa out of the wreck, complete with swimming pool and terrace and now all the ‘Scottish Mafia’, as he refers to Jenny’s friends, descend on them every summer to fall into the cool blue water and lie about getting some sun, catching up on the news.

Both Alison and Jenny are artists, both educated at Aberdeen – another Byron and Italy connection there, I see – with Alison going on to Duncan of Jordanstone where the influence of her time there is clear. It’s not just because I have a Dundee bias, you understand, but that art college is really something. The textile and design departments, in particular, at this year’s degree show, put on an amazing presentation – and yes, I can see in Alison’s clearly articulated paper works and textiles a bright line between what she makes now and her time there. Both she and Jenny had, among other places, shows in Edinburgh at The Scottish Gallery and WASPS and continue to follow their art star there and here; they’ve never gone down the more well-trodden path of career and children and a structured routine. They make paintings and drawings and cushions and quilts. They collect interesting pieces and antiques from markets and do interesting things with them to decorate their homes. They have lovely lives.

It’s easier, of course, if you are an artist without children, free therefore from the rigours of a school calendar and the nine to five, to escape from places like Edinburgh to places like Lucca and San Costanzo. There’s not the same sense of having to unpick all the ties of career and routine that hold a great number of us to our places in the world. And both Alison and Jenny, it is true, come back to Scotland a great deal. There’s family to see, and great networks of old friends to be wrapped up in. No-one wants to lose anyone by moving away; in fact the opposite is the case. We hope that those we’ve left behind will come and join us on wonderful extended holidays and visits home – that we can have two lives, as it were, our life here and our life there.

That’s what we’re dipping into this week, a bit of Italy with friends from home, and it’s gorgeous. There’s the whole Italian culture thing happening – breathtaking frescoes in Assisi and Sansepolcro, a tiny and perfect baroque opera house in Mondavio, bicycling around the Lucca walls and eating blood orange gelati whenever we can get our hands on them. Alison’s Pino brings cheeses back from Bari, where he’s from, and everywhere there is beautiful food and amazing Italian wines that you can never buy in Scotland because everyone knows the Italians keep their best wines for themselves.

When I was in Inverness a couple of weeks ago I picked up a copy of Executive magazine that was in many of the cafes serving very good coffee that have sprung up in our northern capital. Executive is one of those free magazines that are based on advertisement subscription but are nevertheless packed with really interesting articles – in this case, because it’s called Executive, this magazine is about local business and initiatives, high-flying individuals who have established local industries and who have created an economically viable range of activities and products that can be offered to tourists and locals alike.

I was reading about Shirley Spear, of Skye’s much-loved Three Chimneys restaurant, and that she is now our Highlands and Islands Ambassador for Food Drink and Tourism – something I’d have never known if I’d not picked up that magazine.

What a terrific idea, that we might focus on Highland food and drink and find ways of making it more prominent as an industry in Scotland, that benefits tourists and the rest of us alike. After all, that’s something Italy has been doing for hundreds of years. We think about Italy, and we think about wonderful food, restaurants, cafes and bars… As well as the culture, I mean. We think about the good life. Shirley is clear that the food and drink industry in Scotland is a whole lot more developed than it was 30 years ago, but that there is work yet to be done.

“We still need to give Scottish food a bit more glorification” she says. “It’s good to grow things and fish and farm them and understand what goes into their process because it s part of our culture…”

She could be talking about Italy. Yes, the climate is different, and yes we don’t have churches with frescoes by Giotto and Piero della Francesca… but we have lochs and hills and straths and we have salmon and venison and redcurrant jelly, and the minute I get back from Italy I am going to visit all the new places that have been springing up in Sutherland near me and around the place in general and make a list of all our own new food outlets and those that are more established. I’ll make a note of what they’re all doing, and what is special about each of them.

Italy has got me all fired up. A 
pizza here in Lucca or a grilled venison sausage with damson jam on a seed bun from Brora down by the loch…one is just as good as the other. It’s all about perspective, imagination.

As Shirley Spear says: “From research VisitScotland has done, food and drink is at the top of the reasons why people come to Scotland.” I may be in Italy, you see, but my heart is in the Highlands.