When I decided to eat only Scottish food for a month, I wanted to celebrate the very best Scottish food. That's why I picked August, prime harvest time. If I had gone for March, during the notorious “hungry gap”, my challenge would have been near impossible, and I would have struggled to share much enjoyment from food whatsoever.
It turns out I was wrong to assume I could celebrate Scottish food for an entire month, even during August. I had failed to take into account the sheer amount of work involved with sourcing ingredients and making everything from scratch. So, although the month featured some fantastic produce and there were moments of absolute brilliance, I also spent parts of the month wondering where my next meal was coming from and whether I could face another bowl of porridge.
It's ridiculous to suggest I experienced any kind of hardship. I could have bailed out at any point. But, as I was committed to completing the challenge, and would have rather gone hungry than fail, I did experience some moments of hunger. I skipped some meals altogether when I was out and about and could find literally nothing to eat that met the rules. I also felt a degree of loneliness at times, which came from having to stick so rigidly to a diet that no one else in the world was following. Food is at its best when it brings people together and, although I’m no stranger to sitting with a book in a restaurant by myself, my mettle for solitary dining was sorely tested by the end.
Even my family, who shared many Scottish meals with me, rarely held out longer than the main course. My children were puzzled by my decision to “become Scottish”. They get the idea that eating local, fresh food is fundamentally a good thing but they remain convinced that eating only Scottish food is distinctly odd when the shops are full of so many tasty non-Scottish delicacies like peaches and croissants (and much more besides). My youngest actually found it quite upsetting at times that I would reject perfectly good food because it wasn’t Scottish.
I’ll cherish many memories from the month. There were highlights aplenty. My beautiful home made pasta made from Scottish flour and eggs, its silky strands melding with creamy sauce. The barbecue with my friends and mountains of freshly baked rolls.
Finally getting the hang of making my Scottish bread flour rise and moving away from "rye cracker bread" to fluffy, chewy loaves ready and waiting for lashings of butter and cheese. The mighty Pillars of Hercules (those plums!) and Whitmuir (those chickens!), places that act as my barometer for Scottish food. If they remain strong and vibrant then the future of Scottish food is bright. If not...
Some memories will linger longer than others. Roast shoulder of organic pork, infused with sage. Some amazing salads and coleslaw, finally working out how to emulate mayonnaise without vinegar. A meal with friends, enjoying vats of Scottish ale with succulent root vegetables. Tender poached Scottish salmon and other fish. My adventure in the fish shop, eating sea snails fresh from the fish mongers knife. Scottish seasonings - salt and many home grown herbs - and the rustic, earthy flavours of hearty meals. The scottytattieback, my potato invention to rival the humble chip.
There were lowlights too. I didn’t ever find Scottish barley. I got bored of porridge far more quickly than I expected. I didn't enjoy honey, unless it was cooked thoroughly in a dish, thus hampering my ability to sweeten. It was hard to cook everything from scratch.
Much harder and more time consuming than I expected. Cooking three basic meals took up so much time and energy that I didn't ever get round to making snacks. So I didn't eat snacks. I didn’t eat snacks!
I feel very lucky to have been in a position to even try this challenge. Knowing where to shop, in amazing farm shops and getting deliveries from fantastic organic veg boxes. I also feel lucky writing this, sharing my experience and knowing that a few people have followed what I have done, either on my blog, via Facebook or Twitter, or here in the Scotsman. I know I say this at the end of every post but I really do mean it when I thank you so much for your interest. It gives me hope for the future of Scottish food, which is at something of a crossroads.
Without getting too cheesy – before I kick off my list I would like to share with you a quote from one of my favourite foodies, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which he made in reference to traditional, locally made, artisanal Scottish food:
"These foods can work the small daily miracle of exciting our passions. Not all of them, for all of us but each of them for some of us.
They have been made and honed over generations and they are still with us because enough of us - sometimes only just enough of us - love them."
I think that's so true. Truly enjoying and revelling every day in food’s power to transform is something that only a few of us do. I don’t understand why some people who treat food merely as fuel, but I respect it. My hope is that a growing number of people do care enough about buying food from places that respect the land, and who care about flavour, provenance, and sustainability. If enough of us do, then the issues I faced completing my challenge this year should, over time, diminish. Wouldn’t that be something?
Anyway, here’s my list of the 10 things I learned from my challenge. I’ll start with some of the negatives, and finish on the positives:
1. Eating 100% local is impossible outside the home.
Without wishing to start the list on a negative note, I do feel ashamed to live in a country where restaurants, cafés, schools, hospitals etc. give us next to no information about where they source our food. I think it should be mandatory to provide the country of origin for all ingredients served.
Otherwise we’re implicitly accepting that caterers are entitled to serve Thai chicken at their convenience. Let’s face it, it’s only ever a cost saving measure. Think how you would feel to know that the meat you are eating when you’re outside your home has been produced by one of the largest industrialised chicken producers in the world, reared in a factory thousands of miles away, killed somewhere in between and subsequently frozen for storage before finding its way into a kitchen and being turned into that Balsamic Glazed Mediterranean Chicken on your plate.
2. Eating 100% local is almost impossible inside the home too.
Having given a hard time to caterers, now it’s the retailers turn. I’m sorry (I’m not sorry) but “origin of more than one country” isn’t acceptable on a packet of barley. Neither is “Produce of UK”.
Someone, somewhere, knows where those little grains came from.
Or meat, in the case of sausages labelled “Produce of EU”. It’s not that hard, unless you operate a supply chain of vulnerable complexity (yes, I’m talking about you horsemeat suppliers), to know where each product you sell comes from. You ask your supplier. They might need to ask their supplier. But if they then have to ask up to twenty other suppliers, it’s too complicated. The only way to simplify this is to demand that retailers display the precise origin of everything they sell. Shouldn’t that be a basic piece of knowledge for consumers?
3. Eating 100% local is also impossible unless you can cook.
I was shocked to learn that less than half of mothers (why just mothers?) surveyed by the Scottish Government earlier this year feel confident enough to cook a meal using fresh or frozen ingredients without using a recipe. That means home cooking is on the decline. That means people are buying more ready meals or eating out more. And that means… less local food.
4. Eating local isn’t important to very many people.
This is something I have inferred on the basis of the problems I encountered. If it was important to more people that they eat local food, it would be easier to do. Look at the subject of dog poo (don’t actually). You know dog poo matters to people because you see endless signs near woodland, asking people to clean up after their dogs. You read articles or letters in the local paper bemoaning the problem. You hear people talking about it in the pub. I find it enormously frustrating.
My kids end up with it on their shoes far more often than they should. Almost every time we venture into woods near where we live there is a dog poo incident.
Frankly, I would support tax payer money being spent on DNA tracking, and for dog owners who allow their pets to poo without keeping a close eye and clearing it up to be fined upwards of £4 million. Each.
Yet, that particular modern societal problem won’t influence the long term health of your children. Eating local, fresh and naturally produced food will. One vexes us. The other, we can shrug off with a sideways glance and drive off towards the nearest take away.
5. Eating local isn’t necessarily a good thing.
My challenge was all about local food, which I defined as Scottish. Some people will think I allowed myself far too much wriggle room, including the whole of Scotland in the challenge. It’s a big place after all. But I wanted to celebrate Scottish food, so I was only interested in that which was entirely Scottish. I know some of that produce will have travelled hundreds of miles, like the Hebridean sea salt. But I also knew that the bulk of what I was going to source would be direct from farms within 50 miles of Edinburgh. So I wasn’t unduly worried.
What did worry me was that my challenge might give some people the impression I was saying Scottish food is the best, no matter what. That is not what I wanted to say.
Local food can be absolutely rubbish.
There is no guarantee that it has been produced with anything like the care I would expect to be taken over food I am to eat. There are chicken farms near Edinburgh that cause entire stretches of the city bypass to smell like someone has died in the boot of your car, and you’ve only just realised it, seven years later. I don’t want that chicken. I want free range, ideally organic chicken.
I want produce made in harmony with nature – at its freshest. It is the best it can be. It is healthy.
Which brings me onto…
6. Scotland needs much bolder public health policies.
Having a healthy nation relies entirely on having a good food culture. A good food culture is only possible if people cook. At a micro (family) level it means people have to cook more to encourage their children to eat fresh, local produce. At a macro (national) level it means we’re paying through the nose to support a health system where children who haven’t had meals freshly prepared for them are hitting the health service right where it hurts, and will be a cost burden until the day they die due to issues such as dental health, diabetes and other obesity related health problems.
In my view it’s the single biggest scandal in Scotland today. We need a national programme of cooking combined with policies that restrict the intake of processed foods. I saw Jamie Oliver’s latest programme and agreed with everything he said except for one thing – it doesn’t go far enough.
Sugar tax? We need a tax on every multi-ingredient product and that money should be used to subsidise the cost of fresh ingredients. That’s how we will reduce health inequalities and reliance on food banks. That’s how we will save the NHS money and that’s how we will fix the terrible food culture that pervades Scottish life.
7. Eating 100% local gives you incredible control over your diet.
During my challenge month I felt more in control than ever before about what I was eating. I never had to doubt the provenance of my food, or what is was made of. That is mainly because I made everything from scratch. Bread was a simple affair – flour, water, butter/oil, a bit of salt and honey and some yeast.
Compare that to bread you buy in-store. How nice to be eating something that doesn’t attract negative press with stories of how it can make you feel bloated blah blah blah…. Basic bread, well made, can be a cornerstone of good health unless you are unlucky enough to have coeliac disease.
I know that now because I spent a month eating home-made bread and feeling great.
8. Not all supermarkets are the same.
When I started my challenge I basically wanted to test myself and force myself to eat better for a bit, whilst writing about the experience. I had got stuck in a rut of supermarket shopping. It’s sooooooo easy to do! Supermarkets are there for you. When you finish work, before work, whenever you need them. They are undeniably convenient. The fact remains, some sell decent produce.
In fact I’ll go so far as to say some supermarkets do a better job of supplying fresh and local produce than some independent shops.
Some get the concept of local food and recognise that a decent number of people want higher welfare, properly traceable food. A few even do a decent range of organics. Yet these better supermarkets are not necessarily being rewarded in the current round of cost-cutting, race-to-the-bottom economics of food shopping. People are running to places where food is really, really cheap – regardless of the standards.
I worry for the better supermarkets as more people switch to international discounters. I don’t pity supermarkets because they have been responsible for reducing the number of independents over the years. But I also know there are good ones, and not so good ones, and I hope people can tell the difference.
9. Scottish produce, at its best, is the best in the world.
I am lucky to have eaten some amazing food in incredible places.
Whole, paper-wrapped fish caught that day in Croatia. Freshly picked figs stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped with Parma ham on a hillside in Italy. A wood-fire, slow cooked casserole of local meat and vegetables in a Breton village of Northern France. Salted winkles in Spain. Locally sourced, spice-marinated Kleftiko overlooking a bay in Greece. Garlic-fried chicken in Thailand.
Freshly fried mandazi, a type of doughnut, in Kenya. Just-caught, whole crab on a beach in Zanzibar. Local lamb on the hills of North Wales. Cactus stuffed tortilla in Mexico and more.
In each of these places I have undeniably eaten well, in tune with the local land and it made my stay so much more than just a trip to somewhere hot, or scenic. But I would give them all back for another day eating Scotland’s finest.
We have some of the world’s most fertile soils, created over millennia thanks to volcanoes and glaciers. We have crystal clean waters. We have a climate that refreshes our agricultural systems, with cool winters and warm summers. We are lucky. But not enough of us respect that.
Scotland could and should feed itself.
10. I have been fundamentally changed by this experience.
During my challenge I did eat better, a lot better and I will try my very best to keep some of the practices I developed during my challenge. For one thing I will try to retain a Scottish core within my food. Where the ingredients can be Scottish, I will try to ensure they are.
Equally I will embrace ingredients that we’ve been importing in Scotland for centuries – the spices, citrus fruits, olive oils and more. These should also be celebrated but now I know how hard it is to eat entirely local, I will always respect the many hard working growers and farmers who produce such amazing food right on our doorstep. Without them, and without us buying food from them, Scotland will become a much poorer place. So seek them out!
As always, thanks for your interest.