I’m really pleased to have been invited to write about my Scottish food challenge for Scotsman Food and Drink.
As you will know if you’ve been following my blog, I am now over a week in and it’s not been easy to source every single element of my diet entirely from within our borders. Being able to reach a wider audience makes me feel like my efforts are all the more worthwhile. So thank you in advance for your interest.
You may well be wondering what it is I’m doing and why I’m doing it. The “what” is easy – I’m spending August eating only produce that has been grown or reared entirely in Scotland. That means nothing imported - so no sugar, no pepper, very few spices and almost nothing which has been pre-produced.
The “why” is a bit more complicated. For years I’ve been seeking out the best local food. I don’t know about you but when I eat great quality food which has been produced locally by people who really care, something resonates deeply within me. It’s not easy to explain why it matters but I think we all know that it does. It definitely does for me, so I seek it out, I hunt for it.
After many years of tasting great Scottish food I have been lucky enough to meet many of the fantastic local producers across Scotland. Just over a year ago I started sharing my experiences via twitter (@ScottishFoodJoe) and Facebook.
"I’m spending August eating only produce that has been grown or reared entirely in Scotland"
Despite my passion and ongoing search for great Scottish food, it’s not been easy to consistently find the sort of produce that I want to cook and share. It’s frustrating to me that we have so much incredible food and drink, with delicious grass-fed red meats, interesting vegetables, mountains of soft fruits, piles of heritage orchard fruits, artisan cheeses, breads, seafood and more, yet it’s not easy to find on a regular basis.
For one thing it’s so dispersed across the country. For another, even when we can find it, say at a farmers market, it’s often expensive. This means the best Scottish produce tends to be thought of as a niche product, rather than something we can all eat everyday. I think that’s a shame, so one day I came up with the idea of forcing myself to eat nothing but Scottish food for a whole month.
I felt it might help shake up the way I think about Scottish food and help me better understand the barriers we all face trying to eat more of the best quality local food on a regular basis.
I decided that, if I planned ahead, I could visit places that would be able to supply exactly what I was looking for and live like a King for a month. I imagined myself galloping across fields of golden Scottish wheat before baking my own bread from the very wheat I had galloped across. Basically, I envisaged a joyous celebration of all that is great and Scottish about our food. I chose August as the challenge month because I knew it would be a great time for finding lots of seasonal goodies.
"I imagined myself galloping across fields of golden Scottish wheat before baking my own bread from the very wheat I had galloped across"
Anyway, like most good plans, it failed miserably at first. As I wrote on my blog, the first day of August arrived and I was sitting on a cross channel ferry. The most Scottish thing I could find that day was a piece of shortbread in a tartan wrapper and even that would have failed the rules of the challenge (flour – not Scottish, sugar – not Scottish, salt – not Scottish, butter - no idea).
Things didn’t get much easier even after I arrived back home in Edinburgh. I went to the wonderful Whitmuir the Organic Place to stock up on produce the day before my challenge, where I met the equally wonderful Cathy, pictured below, who helped me choose out some fantastic organic produce including cheeses, meats and vegetables.
Despite this, I struggled to enjoy my food in the first few days. Cooking everything from scratch was taking up loads of time. Trying to write about the experience late into the night was taking up even more.
"Making my own bread using only Scottish flour, Scottish oil and Scottish sea salt with a little yeast became a routine"
As an example of how low things got, on day three I ate two raw carrots for breakfast.
But then things gradually got easier. Making my own bread using only Scottish flour, Scottish oil and Scottish sea salt with a little yeast became a routine. I got more inventive with potatoes.
Success at last
Towards the end of the first week, I pulled something out of the bag that turned things around. I created an entirely Scottish dish which was not only made from scratch using seasonal and fresh ingredients, not only was it like nothing I'd ever eaten before, not only was it fun to make but it also tasted great. It was lamb liver, mushroom, red gooseberry and blackcurrant stuffed cannelloni topped with a rosemary flavoured bechamel sauce.
If you want to replicate it, it’s fairly straightforward…
Firstly I made fresh egg pasta. Just flour and eggs bound together into a dough, chilled for a while then rolled out as thin as possible (which should be really thin). I don't have a pasta machine but the rolling pin worked fine for me. It took a bit of effort to make it stay flat but it was satisfying to see the silky smooth pasta eventually take shape.
I then cut the pasta into 6" x 4" rectangles and cooked them in boiling water one by one, laying them on a clean tea towel to cool off.
I fried off the lamb's liver and mushrooms and, after a little while, I added the juice and pulp from some blackcurrants which I had earlier poached in a separate pan with some honey. I also added some chopped red gooseberries and some lemon thyme. It looked like this:
I spooned some of this mixture onto each patch of the pasta and rolled them into tubes, tucking them into an oven dish with the tube’s folds underneath.
Once they were all tucked tightly into the dish I topped them off with a drizzle of bechamel (flour, butter and milk, to which I had added a rosemary sprig). This is the sauce in the pan:
Finally I grated over some cheese (Carrick, which is made from raw milk and which browned really well) before baking for 30 minutes at 180 degrees.
I really do recommend my dish. The sprig of home-grown mint wasn't just for effect, it helped balance the flavours with some freshness to cut through the fruitiness of the berries and iron of the liver.
Some people might baulk at the idea of fruit with pasta but, the way I see it, tomato is a fruit, and that's in most pasta sauces.
As you will know if you visit my blog (please do, as I provide a daily update with recipes and more), over the course of the challenge I’ve already sourced and eaten loads of great Scottish produce.
I’ve picked berries, lots of berries. I’ve tasted lots of meat (mostly organic) including buffalo and more. I’ve been mostly failing to bake good bread, but have successfully made really great pasta.
Next week I will focus more on the beautiful vegetables that I’m having delivered by various organic producers as well as fish.
Key supplier of the week: Mungos Wells – based in East Lothian. For centuries Scotland had to make do with unleavened breads. Sure, they taste ok, but they’re not great for a cheese toastie.
In this day and age, we expect lovely Scottish breads and it’s great that they can be made with Scottish flour. Mungos Wells makes that possible by producing a range of Scottish, organic flours including bread flours. Not that many places sell it yet, but you can find some in Earthy and some at Whitmuir.