A fight back over a Big Mac led by an angry Italian gourmand may seem an odd starting point for a revolution. It was 1986, and burger giant McDonald’s was continuing its march to becoming a worldwide brand.
The arrival of the fast food chain at Piazza di Spagna at the foot of Rome’s Spanish Steps left one man seething.
Bob Donald, of Slow Food Scotland, takes up the story. “Carlo Petrini got more and more annoyed that McDonald’s was opening up restaurants across the world. The idea of one opening at the Spanish Steps in Rome was, he thought, going too far,” he explains.
“He invited people on opening day to instead share a dish of pasta. He wanted to preserve the regional dishes in his country, to embrace food that had been grown locally, as opposed to eating the same food in Rome as people were eating in Tokyo.”
Unlikely revolutionary Petrini sowed the seeds for what would become the international slow food movement. Next year marks three decades of it encouraging consumers to reconnect with locally produced food, its cultures and traditions, and to take renewed interest in where food comes from and how their choices affect the world around them.
While not every consumer will be familiar with all the ideals of the slow food movement, its ethos of celebrating local produce and in doing so supporting farmers and small artisan producers, is increasingly woven into our daily lives.
Last year industry magazine The Caterer declared “provenance” – the way food can be traced from the fork back to the farm and the way it has been produced – as one of the key food trends for 2018. But it’s far from a flash in the pan. In recent years Scots have embraced locally sourced ingredients straight from the farm or the kitchen of a passionate artisan producer, and in doing so have helped create today’s flourishing artisan food sector.
It’s a shift that has led to Queen Margaret University, near Musselburgh, offering the UK’s first and only gastronomy MSc, in which students study links between food culture and communication, science, production and even politics.
Meanwhile, farmers’ markets across the country attract hundreds of shoppers who want to hear the stories behind artisan-produced gin, locally-grown rapeseed oil, game and hand-crafted chocolates.
Farm gate shops are thriving, pick-your-own is booming and fruit and vegetable boxes straight from the farm are common.
And – perhaps ironically – supermarkets, keen to claw back customers by highlighting their own connections with the farm and artisan sector, are increasingly trumpeting the provenance of what they sell.
Recently Morrisons’ boss David Potts stressed the brand is a “British retailer with a British supply chain”, and last year the Co-operative announced an end to fresh meat imports and cleared New Zealand lamb and Danish bacon from its shelves.
Discounter Aldi has embraced the theme with its Best of Scottish labelling. It takes more than 350 Scottish products from over 80 suppliers.
Even McDonald’s has taken to highlighting how the beef it uses is 100 per cent British or Irish and its fries come from UK-grown potatoes.
Provenance has become an important ingredient in our food. So what else has fuelled this “need to know”? And what difference is it making to the food and drink sector?
Donald, network coordinator of Slow Food Scotland, says it’s partly down to a string of food-related health scares and increasing awareness of how our choices affect the environment.
“My grandmother used to go to the butcher once a week, she knew where everything she was buying came from,” he says.
“But a fall in food education in schools and a rise in supermarkets training people into thinking a leek is exactly 12 inches long, 10 per cent green and 90 per cent white, and delivered in plastic packaging meant people were increasingly disconnected.”
Food horror stories, from “mad cow” disease and horsemeat to salmonella-infected eggs and foot and mouth disease, chipped away consumer confidence just as farmers were seeking to boost their income by selling direct to customers at the farm gate.
They found consumers eager to reconnect with food and enjoy the nostalgia of shopping like their grandparents.
“Perth Farmers’ Market was the first in Scotland,” says its manager Adeline Watson.
“There are more than 70 now. It started with 12 stalls of farmers in 1999. Now there are more than 50, many of them artisan producers selling things like rapeseed oil and chocolate made with ingredients which the producer has foraged for herself.
“So today we’re more like an outdoor delicatessen.”
The search for provenance has also sparked a revival in products which once fell from grace or simply off the supermarket chains’ radar.
Musselburgh Leeks, shorter and thicker than supermarket varieties and grown on a patch of previously unused land near Lasswade, find their way into dishes at the Scottish Café in the Scottish National Gallery and Contini Ristorante, both in Edinburgh; Ailsa Craig tomatoes grown in the Clyde valley have returned after a 40-year absence and veal, once eschewed by consumers, is enjoying a revival.
“People didn’t want to touch veal,” says Watson. “People got the wrong impression about it, yet happily ate lamb. The veal producer at our market has fought to get the message out that their animals are well looked after, they’re fed the best of food and not slaughtered any younger than a lamb.
“People want to hear the stories about food and to try something different. They can taste something before they buy it, which helps too.”
Soon the push towards locally produced food could take an even more striking upward trajectory: a recent YouGov survey claimed one in five people say they are more likely to buy British food after Brexit because they want to support the domestic economy.
Social media is also helping to drive customers’ fascination with provenance. Instagram snaps of artisan producers foraging for ingredients against a backdrop of stunning scenery means consumers can buy into the lifestyle as well as the product, especially if there’s a good story behind it.
Stories like those of Mara Seaweed, which has its roots in a school gate meeting that led to two mums foraging for seaweed with their children and creating a product which is sold around the world, fascinate consumers.
“Customers want to know where their food comes from,” says Mara Seaweed co-founder Fiona Houston. “People have cottoned on to the fact that ‘industrial’ food is not good for our health.
“Consumers are becoming more and more aware of the ethics of food. And the brand story is an important part.
“There’s a new generation that’s much more aware about climate change and they know we have to be aware of the resources we have.”
Matthew Hopkins, managing director of the Great British Exchange, which acts as a go-between for retailers and artisan producers, agrees that demand for provenance is here to stay.
“Consumers want a story behind what they buy. We have retailers who tell us they can’t sell Coca-Cola as cheap as Tesco but they can sell a bottle of locally made ginger beer for £5.
“When we talk to a gin producer about their new brand, we don’t just want to know that it’s locally made, but also where the juniper berries were grown and what the story behind it is.”
Chef Paul Wedgwood, right, of Wedgwood the Restaurant in Edinburgh’s Canongate, is a keen forager and uses locally sourced, wild-growing ingredients in his recipes.
He says: “Consumers’ heightened desire for traceability and provenance of food is of benefit to the industry as a whole, but especially to all the small independents.
“In a cost-conscious world, consumers are now willing to pay slightly extra for products, ingredients and dishes which they know have been ethically sourced.
“It’s important to list the provenance of the produce but also for the consumer to actually use that information and investigate themselves as to the quality of the produce they are receiving.”
Alongside the producers creating the next artisan delicacy is a flourishing support chain.
In Cumbernauld, specialist wholesaler the Food and Drink Hub helps more than 350 Scottish products reach the marketplace, while at Queen Margaret University, near Musselburgh, the Scottish Centre for Food Development & Innovation helps small producers scale up output and innovate.
Catriona Liddle, who runs the centre, says: “Small businesses don’t have the resources to develop new products or scale up. There’s legislation to work around, laboratory issues, suppliers issues.”
The university provides vital analysis of nutritional content of products, feedback trials and focus group taste tests to help producers develop and expand their products.
And there’s business support to help producers connect with academic support, markets and other businesses.
Among the businesses to take advantage of QMU’s support is East Lothian rapeseed oil producer Black & Gold, which wanted to establish the omega-3 nutritional content of the oil.
Director Louise Elder said the tie-up gave the business access to invaluable experience and research in the food industry not only in Scotland but the rest of the world.
“Engaging with academics who could increase the product potential is extremely rewarding for very small, inexperienced and young businesses.
“The collaboration has been highly profitable in terms of understanding the efficacy of our product and we now feel we can communicate its benefits accurately to our customers.”
This article featured in The Scotsman’s Food & Drink special. A digital version can be viewed here.