Season's eatings

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Thanks to a scorching summer, farmers across the country enjoyed an early harvest this year, reaping abundant supplies of pale golden wheat and barley, earthy potatoes, swollen heads of garlic and bumper crops of fragrant apples - to name a minuscule proportion of the colourful bounty. What better time than the end of the harvest to celebrate the best of British food?

This is just what the Countryside Alliance and the Guild of Fine Food Retailers decided two years ago when they launched British Food Fortnight. The principal aim is to develop a strong national awareness of the importance of buying local, seasonal foods.

Its key message has been written about and discussed many times, but is taking longer to sink in, namely that failing to buy British food in season and from independent speciality producers will result in the large-scale loss of our farms and small rural businesses.

And they are not joking. The income from farming in Scotland today is 50 per cent less than it was seven years ago. Consequently, many farmers are being forced to diversify - the plight of the dairy farmer paid 12p per litre of milk while we pay around 80p is well documented. Last month, the government launched a campaign to persuade hospitals, prisons and schools to buy more British produce in a bid to support the farming industry.

Even more worrying were the findings of a report published by the Soil Association earlier this year. It revealed that a typical Sunday lunch consisted of beef from Australia, runner beans from Thailand, potatoes from Italy, carrots from South Africa, broccoli from Guatemala and fruit from America and New Zealand. The combined number of miles this meal would have travelled to reach the plate is 49,000.

"Food miles" is the latest hot potato in the British food forum. Aside from the fact that food which has travelled a long way is likely to be several days old (and therefore lower in vitamins), environmental experts point out that there is subsequently increased freight on roads and therefore higher levels of pollution. Then there is the issue of traceability.

A growing band of consumers is demanding to know where our food is from - both in the restaurant and in the shop. While at a wedding in Ayrshire recently, I was delighted with the buffet menu which told the spruced-up guests that the roast beef was Buccleuch, the asparagus tarts made with "Quintin’s eggs" (Quintin being the father of the bride) and the raspberries picked in Blairgowrie. It was a feast of genuine, 100 per cent traceable Scottish fare.

Many chefs and restaurateurs have realised that detailing the origin of the food on their menu is not only of considerable importance to customers but is also a highly effective marketing tool for them. "People are far more discerning these days and they want to know exactly where the fish has been caught or the beef has been reared," says Craig Millar, executive chef of the Seafood Restaurant in St Monans and St Andrews.

"More importantly, they want to know that the halibut or the scallops they’re about to eat are local. Besides, ‘a half-dozen Kilbrandon oysters’ sounds far more appealing than six oysters," he adds.

Labelling, too, has come under fire, with the Food Standards Agency calling on a wider range of supermarket products to state their country of origin. Of the foods that do (mainly fruit and vegetables), very few sport the words "Scottish" or "British" - particularly organic foods - in comparison to the other nationalities available.

"I’m always urging people to look at the labels when they’re shopping," says Gerry Hayman of the British Tomato Growers’ Association.

On my last visit to the organic section of Tesco, the beef was from Australia, the pork from Holland and, of the eight pallets of tomato varieties available, there were only three punnets from Britain, never mind Scotland.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Thanks to the expanding farmers’ market movement, the growing popularity of box schemes and farm shops, buying locally produced seasonal goods is on the increase. There are now 50 farmers’ markets in Scotland and arguably the country’s biggest and best is held in Edinburgh. It attracts an average of 6,000 people every fortnight and has become so popular that the organiser, Edinburgh City Centre Management Company, is lobbying to make it a weekly event to be hosted in the Grassmarket, the city’s original marketplace.

On the box scheme front, Macleod’s Organics is the largest in the north, delivering over 600 boxes a week to sustainable food-conscious people in the Highlands. A passionate proponent of organics and an anti-GM activist, Donnie Macleod sources the contents for his boxes from the cluster of organic farms in the Ardersier area.

Meanwhile, Jamesfield Organic Farm is in the process of expanding its already substantial farm shop to meet customer demand. Brothers Ian and Roy Miller rear and slaughter a full range of meats - Aberdeen Angus beef, Suffolk, Cheviot, grey face and sometimes the coveted black face lamb - on-site, while Glenalmond pork is sourced from nearby Loanleven Farm and chicken from poultry breeder Shirley Black of Traditional Farm Poultry.

As well as meat, the current Abernethy farm shop stocks a good range of fruit and vegetables, most grown on the farm, as well as extensive grocery goods.

Initiatives such as British Food Fortnight are also perpetuating the shift towards buying local food. This is the second year of British Food Fortnight and the inaugural year for Scottish Food Fortnight, initiated by the Scottish Countryside Alliance, Guild of Fine Food Retailers and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Both campaigns run from 20 September to 5 October and, via independent shops, producers, eating and watering holes across the country, they ask consumers to make a conscious effort to buy and eat British or Scottish produce from their local butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger, farm shop, farmers’ market and so on. There is also an emphasis on reducing food miles by discouraging "the purchase of cheaper, lower quality imported foods, particularly in preference to British foods in season".

Restaurants, hotels and bars are encouraged to join in by using indigenous food and drink during the two-week campaign, while regional events such as harvest festivals, the Taste of Mull and Iona Food Festival and the Skye and Lochalsh Food and Drink Festival have been strategically intertwined with Scottish Food Fortnight.

Despite the well-intentioned promotional jargon - strengthening local food networks etc - the message is simple: buy local and buy in season.

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Buy products

Best farm shops

Damhead Organic Foods, Pentland Hills, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-448 2091

Jamesfield Organic Farm Shop, Abernethy, Perthshire, tel: 01738 850498

Allarburn Farm Store, 35a Harbour Road, Inverness, tel: 01463 233 754

Best markets

Edinburgh: Castle Terrace, tel: 0131-652 5940

Glasgow: Partick, Mansfield Park, tel: 01738 449 430

Perth: King Edward Street, tel: 01738 449 430

Best boxes

East Coast Organics, 24 Boggs Holding, Tranent, Lothian, tel: 01875 340227

Clive Ramsay’s "Naked Organics", 28 Henderson Street, Bridge of Allan, tel: 01786 833903

Macleod’s Organics, Kylerona Farm, Ardersier, tel: 01667 462555