James Withers: Celebrate Scots fare
I HAD a fantastic meal a month ago at a restaurant in Perth called 63 Tay Street.
At its heart is Graeme Pallister, a young, hugely talented chef. At the top of his game, he is using Scottish produce as the foundation of a business attracting accolades and awards. Strolling back to the hotel afterwards, feeling pretty good about food in this country, my thoughts were interrupted by a car pulling up next to me. “Excuse me pal, know where we could get a kebab or something else decent.”
Confronted with four young lads in a hurry at 11pm, a lecture about the quality of locally-produced, Scottish food was never on the cards. So I just pointed them towards the centre of town and our encounter was over. It was a small reminder though, that whilst we can reflect on our food and drink success stories, there is much work still to be done to reinvigorate our relationship with food in this country.
Based on the question thrown at me that night, these mobile kebab hunters seemed to classify that particular snack in the category of “decent”. For the record, I am no foodie fundamentalist. I don’t lay the blame for all society’s ills at the door of the fast food industry. I happen to have had the odd kebab myself, usually at the same time of night. Food is about choice and variety and we should not seek to restrict that. However, we must continue to challenge the balance of our food choices, not only in terms of the impact they have on our own health, but on our communities and environment too. That debate must embrace the kebab hunters too.
Of course, much is happening on this front. Irrespective of your party political persuasion, it would be hard to argue that the current Scottish Government hasn’t shoved food and drink policy way up the political agenda. Indeed, the whole parliament “gets it”. As the industry body for the sector, Scotland Food & Drink works with all the major food and drink organisations, in partnership with the government, to strengthen our food and drink industry. The focus is clear; build Scotland’s reputation as a “land of food and drink”.
Interestingly, many of our strongest advocates and most recent converts lie beyond our shores. I spent most of this week at the European Seafood Exhibition in Brussels. What a buzz it was to see Scotland taking pride of place. 80,000 visitors came to the show from across the globe and the 29 Scottish companies showcasing their quality will have done an estimated £30 million worth of business in 72 hours. Our food exports as a whole have rocketed 62 per cent in four years. From small artisan producers to larger companies, more and more Scottish businesses are making a name for themselves overseas.
But whilst the French want our cheese, the Chinese want our tea and Japanese want our sushi, a strong focus must still remain at home. I do think we are living in a local food revolution. Farm shops and farmers markets thrive, supermarkets extol their local sourcing credentials and our dietary habits are changing, slowly, but changing nonetheless. Last year, an additional 11 million servings of fruit and veg were given to Scottish schoolchildren. A huge step forward by anyone’s measurement.
Sales of Scottish food and drink brands in the UK have risen 35 per cent since 2007 and the whole sector is growing in value by 10 per cent a year. So, whilst the health, environmental and social dividend of supporting Scottish produce is clear, there is a growing economic prize for our nation too.
Taken for granted by many for a long time, there is a re-emerging recognition that we are living amongst one of the finest natural larders on Earth. We have ambassadors for our produce abroad and growing sales at home.
But my point is this. Reflecting on success is good, it breeds confidence and pride in home-grown produce.
Yet, the real prize is a lasting change in our food culture and that means re-doubling efforts for all the benefits that will flow as a result.
The kebab hunters will always roam, but in time they can become a rarer sight.
• James Withers is chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink
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