On the menu - frozen fish, microwaved pies
ANDREW Fairlie has reason to be cheerful.
"I will probably get a lot of stick for saying it, but in Scotland we are stuck in the dark ages," he says. "The food offering here is dire."
Fairlie travels widely in Scotland and eats out all the time. Lounging on a sofa in his kitchen whites, he lists his recent disasters. "My girlfriend and I were in Arisaig recently. We were right at the water’s edge and we had frozen fish and chips served by some 14-year-old kid. Downstairs, a guy was standing with two meat pies, a meat probe and a microwave checking to see if it was defrosted.
"Two weeks ago in Aberfoyle, with the kids trying to find somewhere for lunch, it was the same scenario. It was raw baked potato, cold coffee and half the order not arriving. The place was filthy. These are not one-offs. This is what is happening all the time. This is what we offer tourists."
There may be few visitors who come to Scotland solely for the food - nobody is organising the kind of gourmet tours here which are so popular in France and Italy - but food and drink is an important market, worth around 417 million annually. VisitScotland research indicates that 25 per cent of tourists’ budgets goes on food and drink.
Mr Fairlie admits there are some Scottish establishments offering superb food but he says you need a guidebook to find them and you invariably have to make a detour from your journey to get to them.
"At the top end of the market, we’re not doing too badly compared with other destinations although there is room for improvement," he says. "Below that, it is absolutely desperate. The operators blame the tourist industry for not getting enough visitors to Scotland but that is an absolute cop-out. The offering we give them when they are here is c**p."
He believes the blame for our poor reputation for gastronomy lies with the restaurateurs. "There is a lack of will to change on the part of the operators," he says. The epitome of their attitudes, he says, is demonstrated by the Taste of Scotland debacle. The organisation was originally little more than a marketing venture which allowed any restaurant prepared to pay a fee to join. Last year it teamed up with VisitScotland and introduced a food grading scheme in an effort to improve quality.
"Taste of Scotland bit the bullet and said, ‘we will now introduce a grading system for all establishments listed in the book’. It caused a hell of a lot of controversy, which we knew it would," says Mr Fairlie. "The second year, Taste of Scotland was forced to go back to the old system because the operators weren’t happy. The exam was tough and they didn’t want to sit it. So now we are back to where we were 15 years ago. The book is supposedly advertising the best of what Scotland has to offer but 90 per cent of people in the book don’t want to be graded. It’s horrendous."
Latest reports are that the organisation is on the verge of bankruptcy.
"People complain that their restaurants are quiet and that there is nothing happening in the industry. Well, of course they are quiet. They make no effort themselves to up their own game and provide a level of food and service that tourists expect. They can go elsewhere and get it and they are going elsewhere and getting it."
Brian Peters, the editor of the Michelin Red Guide for Great Britain and Ireland, believes Fairlie is too pessimistic in his assessment. "Scotland’s strength lies in its country houses. That is where traditionally the best food in Scotland has been produced and that is still true today. What you don’t have, outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh, is the explosion in good, stand-alone restaurants we have seen elsewhere. I think there is room for more."
Mr Peters says that most visitors to Scotland want to eat good, local produce. You have a very good raw material base. Admittedly, a lot of it does get exported but there has been a gradual improvement in the quality of the food in Scotland. There hasn’t been a revolution, however."
Egon Ronay, the food critic and publisher, believes Scotland does not market its few food triumphs well. "One has to guard against generalising too much," he says, "but most tourists do not know that Scotland has a cuisine. Scotland does not do enough to promote the food it is good at. If every menu contained just a couple of local dishes very well done and highlighted as a Scottish speciality, that would be a start.
"The only Scottish food foreign tourists have heard of is haggis and it is not easy to get very good haggis. They don’t know, for example, that Scotland is famous for a number of delicious soup and broths. Nobody knows that the very best wild strawberries come from the west coast of Scotland late in the season or why Aberdeen Angus is the best steak in the world. The Scots should highlight their specialities more."
Mr Ronay believes Scots taking pride in their own cuisine is the key to improving quality. He also believes more should be done to market Scottish food in London restaurants, partly because most foreign tourists arrive in Scotland via London and partly because England is such as huge tourism market. "There is very little on offer down here," he says.
Scotland may have produced London’s top chef in the form of Gordon Ramsay but few are shouting about Scottish cooking south of the Border.
Mr Fairlie agrees. "Tourists want to have fantastic kippers and well-made porridge. It’s as simple as that.
"We have devalued our key dishes. We’ve bastardised any culture heritage that we have. When you smother a haggis in batter, deep fry and serve it with chips and curry sauce you devalue it."
Quality is not the only problem the Scottish restaurant industry faces. "Scotland is an expensive destination," says Mr Fairlie.
"The baked potato, a couple of glasses of juice, a sandwich and a couple of coffees in Aberfoyle cost 25. Then it costs 25 to hire bikes for a few hours. It all adds up to an expensive holiday."
Mr Peters agrees with this assessment. "Scotland is expensive. We’ve often asked hoteliers and restaurateurs why their menus are so expensive. They find it difficult to give a satisfactory answer. It’s often because they are trying to make their money for the whole year in six short months.
"We have an award at Michelin called a bib gourmand which is an award for exceptionally good food at moderate prices. The limit is 25 for a three-course menu. We find it very hard to find that quality at that price in Scotland whereas we don’t in England. We wonder why that is."
Peter Irvine, author of Scotland The Best, disagrees with Mr Fairlie’s analysis. "The product has improved immeasurably. Quality has improved loads. Everything in our consumer lives has improved. Supermarkets have made a difference as have all the cookery programmes with their appreciation of ingredients. Gradually, starting in an urban context, service, food, dcor and feel of restaurants have improved. Edinburgh has gone in leaps and bounds."
Mr Fairlie’s view of Scottish cuisine appears to be shared by the tourists, however. Visitors consistently rate their experience of places to eat out in Scotland lower than the scenery, the people or places to relax. The gulf between tourists’ expectations and what is on offer has widened as other destinations have improved their food offering.
"We have tourists in here all the time," says Mr Fairlie of his restaurant. "I’m hearing horror stories on a nightly basis. We had four very wealthy Californians in here the other evening. They had been invited to a ceilidh in the North-east but they couldn’t go because the place they were staying insisted on them being in for 10:30pm that night. It is unbelievable and it frustrates the hell out of me."
Nor is food simply a problem in rural areas. Despite high-profile restaurant launches, such as Gordon Ramsay’s Amyrillis at One Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow, Mr Fairlie does not believe the overall quality of eating out in the major cities has improved in the last decade.
"Without wanting to sound totally downbeat and negative about the whole thing, I have to say that over the last ten years there hasn’t been a major shift, or even a slight shift, in the overall quality of eating out in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Part of the problem is that they are all competing for the same market and the whole thing is being cheapened the whole time. Quality ingredients are expensive. When chefs are trying to do things as cheaply as possible the whole time, quality suffers."
But given Scotland’s rich history and fabulous scenery, does food really matter? Mr Fairlie is adamant that the answer is yes: "It ranks among the top three things we have to get right."
It is also an area of potential growth. In the five years to 2000, the value of the Scottish restaurant market increased by 26 per cent to around 4.7 billion. It is forecast to grow by a further 17 per cent to 5.6 billion by 2004. It will, says VisitScotland, continue to be of strong importance to Scotland's tourism industry.
"People’s destinations now are determined in a large part by the quality of the food," says Mr Fairlie. "Americans are very fussy about where they stay. We know from surveys that Gleneagles has done that food plays a major factor in them choosing to stay here."
He is less certain about what can be done about the quality. "There is no easy answer," he says. "I have been back in Scotland ten years and every year we have the same conversation and I really don’t see anything changing. There have been all sorts of food initiatives over the years but it has to be a collective thing. There needs to be a mammoth shift in the way we think about food and everybody has to get behind it. There has to be a will from people at every level in the industry to change.
"We’re not asking operators to produce Michelin three star meals. We’re asking them to produce very simple dishes using fresh produce. People don’t want to go into a pub and see 32 things on the menu with 99 per cent coming from a freezer. They would rather see three things that have been freshly prepared that day and they are prepared to pay for it.
"I don’t want to be spreading doom and gloom but that is the situation we are in at the moment. We have a hell of a long way to go."
The name of the editor of the Michelin Red Guide to Great Britain and Ireland has been changed to preserve his anonymity.
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