And so we begin. A fresh new year. The land remains deep in winter’s rest, inert.
Bare trees and hedgerows offer a fragile home for hardy creatures. Winds bluster and harry all before them across exposed Scottish hillsides.
Rain falls cold, unyielding, onto sodden ground. Snow lies on the hilltops. Yet behind this backdrop of mid-winter hardship in Scotland, the food-making potential of the year ahead is undiminished.
Relatively mild temperatures so far have allowed green shoots to peek through the earth, offering a glimpse of harvests to come. The countdown to a life-enhancing spring is underway, with its promise of heat and light which will give life to plants and beasts alike across Scotland’s farms, gardens and allotments. But for now, we wait, we use our stores, we nurture our animals, we plan.
It takes an elegant combination of human knowledge, hard work and a supportive natural environment to transform Scotland’s barren winter landscape into the magnificent harvest we enjoy each year.
We can be confident of yet another abundant larder in the coming growing season, providing new gastronomic adventures for those willing to take part.
Adventures which would have been alien to the average Scot in centuries past who embodied a plain diet shorn of garnish and flamboyance – at least until the French influence of the 1500s.
Since then we’ve progressed from a nation of oats and kale to a powerhouse of food production – a source of the finest seafood, herbs, cheeses, meats, fruits and vegetables you can find.
This increasing choice might lull us into taking Scotland’s food production for granted, thinking we can produce anything, anytime, anywhere.
Far from it. Scotland is an intricate patchwork of soils and water, each area with its own micro-climate, topography, soil conditions, wind, rainfall and sunshine. Each requires local knowledge and each can be brought to a standstill by inclement conditions.
Those who work the land should be commended for understanding and harnessing these geographical nuances for human advantage.
All is not rosy though. We have undoubtedly demanded too much, too soon from the environment, exerting undue pressures through high-energy fertilisers and chemical-intensive pesticides. This cannot last indefinitely.
We also don’t always uphold the principles of the very best animal husbandry – particularly with our chickens and pigs who suffer from high stocking densities and lack of freedoms which remain common in intensive farming practices designed to cater for a market that demands ever lower prices.
This is something that shames all of us when the knowledge exists to provide a life worth living to creatures we plan to eat – as demonstrated by Scottish farmers who do rear their animals this way.
As consumers, many of us still do not choose Scottish produce, or indeed much in the way of fresh produce at all. Good food remains out of reach or, worse, out of mind for too many. Cooking is no longer seen as an essential skill for life. This impacts on our nation’s health and it is hugely important that we remedy this.
Yet, even with this imperfect backdrop, I still think we have plenty to celebrate because there is some incredible produce to admire all-year-round, right across Scotland.
That is what I hope to do here because I would love more of us in Scotland to eat the very best Scottish food – food that is natural, seasonal, produced with care and transported over short distances from farm to fork.
Can high-quality Scottish food become the default choice of everyone when shopping? Can we learn to reject out-of-season produce when we could easily choose a local alternative?
Why is doing so even important? After all we live in a time of global food supply chains. All kinds of produce travels quickly around the world into our local shops providing access to almost anything we could conceive of eating, mostly at an affordable price. Most of us no longer have to plan meals, at all.
We can pop out and buy a burrito the size of our head – a genuine marketing slogan in one of the burrito outlets I saw recently - or stay in and make sushi. And why shouldn’t we? Why indeed.
I am not here to argue against your right to choose whatever food you want to eat, provided it is legal and safe. I also understand that budgets are tight and food is becoming more expensive.
A struggling family must do whatever it takes to put nutritious food in the mouths of their children and if tinned pineapple is on offer this week then go for it.
At the same time, all of us can afford to seek a reconnection between and the very best Scottish produce because of the benefits it can bring to every one of us.
I know from personal experience, including a month of eating exclusively Scottish food, that seasonal and local food can rejuvenate body and soul and needn’t cost more. We can all learn to cook at least one or two simple meals using fresh, local produce, even if Scottish ingredients form just part of that.
Doing so will help us connect deeply with the land around us – and over time will fundamentally change our relationship with food. It can also, on a bigger scale, help protect Scotland’s environment and support our communities.
Never doubt that your individual shopping choices make a real difference.
Some Scottish foods are widely available almost year-round. Things like milk, cheese, farmed meats, potatoes and carrots.
We can and should all choose to buy Scottish, ideally organic versions of these products whenever possible, and no doubt some of these will find their way into recipes I publish here.
My seasonal highlights will instead feature those fleeting, truly seasonal products which we can enjoy at their very best for a limited time before they disappear again for another year.
That takes us to the highlight for January - an often-overlooked stalwart of the Scottish field – the humble beetroot.
Surely one of life’s most contrary vegetables. Many of us don’t like it at all. It usually gets served pickled from a jar. It stains us when we touch it too much.
But despite all of this, it is majestic. A bunch of beetroot, given an hour or so of your time and a moderate oven, can provide a lofty, healthy and very affordable winter food experience. Here are two suggestions (serves 4):
A delicate, warming side dish:
• Peel 4-8 beetroots with a decent peeler.
• I do this in the sink so I can rinse the pink juice off quickly and keep the peelings together.
• Slice into sensibly mouth-sized pieces.
• Place in a bowl and add 1 tsp. oil, sprinkle of salt and pepper and 1 tbsp. cumin seeds (other spices work too).
• Toss until well oiled & seasoned.
• Tip into a shallow oven dish and cover (foil or plate) then bake for 35 minutes in a moderate oven (180 degrees C).
• When cooked, dress with olive oil and vinegar or your choice of citrus (lime, orange and lemon all work well) to taste.
• Can be served hot or allowed to cool.
Scottish hard cheeses such as Anster from Fife can be crumbled/diced into this at the end to make for a more luxurious option.
A refreshing, reviving dip:
• Peel 4-8 beetroots with a decent peeler.
• Place them whole on an oven tray, drizzle with a little oil, season and cover.
• Bake for 45 minutes in a moderate oven (180 degrees C).
• It is also possible to boil them to softness in around 25 minutes if you prefer but you will lose some of the flavour.
• Place the cooked beetroot in a food processor or blender (hand blender also fine).
• Add 100ml of crème fraiche.
• Add handful of fresh mint leaves, juice of half lemon/lime and tsp. ground cumin then blend to smooth consistency.
• Serve in a fancy bowl and eat with your dipping material of choice (e.g. toasted pitta, breadsticks, vegetable crudités).
If you do make these dishes, or have suggestions to improve them or other ways to serve beetroot, please let us know.
Thanks for reading and hope to see you again next month.
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