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From Producer to plate: Spreading the word about Orkney Beef

Sean Murphy takes a trip to Orkney with Fred Berkmiller, chef patron of L'escargot Bleu and L'escargot Blanc in Edinburgh, in a bid to rediscover Orkney beef.

Published: November 24, 2015
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Living in a major city can cause you to take Scotland a little for granted. However, it only takes a short trip outside of our urban confines to remind us just how beautiful this country really is.

It's this that inspires Fred Berkmiller, chef patron and owner of L'escargot Bleu and Blanc in Edinburgh, to go out and discover what this country truly has to offer and in turn show those of us who are lucky enough to live here, just how good we've got it.

Fred, who is originally from France but has now settled in the capital, has not only adopted Scotland as his home but has also gained a strong passion for its natural resources, which he now champions as being some of the best in the world. It's this passion that's led him on his current mission to help revive one of Scotland's most unique products.

Cattle at South Seatter Farm in Sandwick. Picture: SPM

The beef cattle at South Seatter Farm in Sandwick. Picture: SPM

"I've now spent twenty years of my life in Scotland. I have seen the food scenery moving forward with producers becoming more aware of the quality they can achieve and we have seen more and more people working towards quality, rather than quantity.

"That's why I do believe Scotland is fantastic, we have a really wide larder and now we have the quality production to match it."

Regularly taking trips across the country to source what he believes are the most unique and interesting of Scotland's produce, Fred even travels to the remote island of Barra, where he purchases the wonderful snails that go on to become his famed l'escargot.

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Fred explains why visiting the producers and seeing the products at their source is so crucial.

"I could not possibly try and sell a product without knowing how it's been raised, how it's been fed, to me it's a criteria of quality.

"It is absolutely essential that I have a link with the producers, that I go and meet them, that I know them and I get some really good feedback on what they are doing with their animals be that beef, mutton or pork.

"This then means I can then pass on that experience and knowledge with confidence to my customers. They are paying for a service and they are expecting me to sell them exactly what I said I would and this is a guarantee to ensure that they know that what they buy from my menu is what they will get."

So what inspired him to visit Orkney?

"I used to buy this excellent beef about seven years ago from a major supplier but suddenly they changed to another breed and region and it seemed like Orkney beef fell out of favour. I wanted to know what had happened to it."

Fred rediscovered a link to producers of Orkney beef almost by accident.

Ally shows Fred some of the excellent cuts on offer. Picture: SPM

Ally shows Fred some of the excellent cuts on offer. Picture: SPM

"I visited the Highland Show this year and there was a stall from Orkney selling North Ronalsay mutton and some beef, so I had a chat with Stewart (Anderson of Orkney's Best) and he was trying to re-establish a link to get Orkney beef sold on the mainland again.

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"As far as I understand at the time there was no one in the central belt buying Orkney beef and this struck me as an ideal opportunity to buy such a unique product."

Fred was invited to Orkney by Stewart and local butcher Ali Flett to get a better understanding of why this unique product had become harder to source of the past few years.

Following a trip to the farm in Sandwick where the cattle was raised, Fred learned that to gain the appellation Orkney Beef, the cattle must be born raised and slaughtered on the island and that the company that ran the only abattoir on the island, had closed its doors in 2012.  Now the responsibility of running the abattoir and keeping the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) alive had fallen to a consortium of local butchers, including Ali Flett.

Ali explains: "This facility can process around 200 animals a day, right now we are only doing about 100 a week.

"We want to increase the through put for the abattoir, but to do that we need to build up the export market. Which is where people like Fred come in."

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With most of the animals leaving the island alive to be slaughtered elsewhere and a huge state-of-the-art abattoir barely being be used, Fred found the situation to be quite worrying, he explains: "I had not realised that the beef had been let down for so long and that no one was really showing in an interest in such a great product.

"So that's where we are. I've got reason to believe that today I'm the only one selling PDO Orkney beef - in Edinburgh, anyway.

"I find it a bit sad, but people like Ali and Stewart are really working hard and talking to local producers to get them to put a few cattle through the abattoir.

"On the mainland, hopefully we can put the word out, and hopefully more chefs will place orders for Orkney beef, that's really the aim and that's what I stand for.

"I think that the PDO is a guarantee of a meat with a certain quality and whenever you buy it you will always get good quality."

The wonderful finished products beautifully presented and ready to be enjoyed. Picture: SPM

The wonderful Orkney Beef steaks beautifully presented and ready to be enjoyed. Picture: SPM

And when faced with the finished product in all of its grandeur on the plate in one of Fred's restaurants, you'll be reminded that although it's easy to take things for granted, sometimes it just takes a little nudge from someone with an external perspective to make us realise what we've been missing, and sometimes - as is the case with Orkney Beef - what we need to rediscover.

• You can try the steaks out for yourselves at www.lescargotbleu.co.uk/ and www.lescargotblanc.co.uk/ or you can order your own at www.atasteoforkney.co.uk/

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.

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