"It's not much but it's ours"

Friday, January 30, 2009


Although I am guilty of using it myself, I am not a fan of the term “food hero”

Its use as a term to label people who produce and sell amazing food serves only to remind us of the fact that, in the UK, such people are still a relative rarity and on the continent, in countries such as Spain, France and Italy, such producers, while respected and admired are not subjected to such silly marketing tags.

The producers themselves are not that keen on the term either and, while they may welcome recognition of their work and excellence in prestige and cash, they don’t see themselves as heroes, merely people with a huge passion for what they do.

Take two people I met last week at the tail end of my journey in Scotland for EATING FOR BRITAIN, Iain Spink, maker of Arbroath Smokies and Stephen Mitchell of Puddledub Butchers. Both were hugely enthusiastic and dedicated, but it was the food they offered that they wanted to talk about rather than themselves.

I met Iain Spink after a long drive South from Cullen. As I walked into the warehouse where the haddock for Arbroath smokies was being processed, Iain was already hard at work, cleaning and tying the fish in preparation for salting and smoking. He had been at it for some time, but there were still hundreds of fish to prepare. So, while he worked he gave me a potted history of the smokie (we both thought having its origins with Nordic traders who settled in the area) and the battle of his father, Robert to gain PGI (Product of Geographical Importance) status for them from the E.U.

Iain is the only producer who still smokes his fish over wooden barrels filled with smouldering hard beech and oak wood and he spends weekends taking his hand built rig around the farmer’s markets of Fife and some of Scotland’s many Highland games selling his fish “hot off the fire” to an increasingly willing public. After an enjoyable morning and a lunch where I sampled my first smokie in Arbroath at a local pub (not one of his, but a decent example he declared) we made plans to meet two days later at the Kirkcaldy farmer’s market where I would be able to see him in action.

He also persuaded me to take a detour to Forfar to sample another local delicacy, The Forfar Bridie. Akin to a Cornish pasty, the Bridies were hot out of the oven when I walked into Saddler’s Bakery, their spiritual home. They too are after PGI status for their dish, but unfortunately no one can seem to agree if they should be made with short crust or flaky pastry, so have not got very far. I sampled one of each, and can say for the record that short crust is the way to go.

After a slightly depressing night in Arbroath where the chill winds were howling through the town off the sea and the thought of a pint of McEwan’s heavy in an unwelcoming pub followed by a kebab did not appeal, I was pleased to point my car South again towards Kirkcaldy.

En route I made a stop at a small, grim village called Kenaway. There would be no reason to ever stop there if it were not for the slightly unlikely presence of one of the best butchers you are ever likely to see, S. Mitchell at Puddledub. Stephen Mitchell is frighteningly young and already carving (sorry!) out quite a name for himself for the quality of the beef and lamb he sells. But, it was not that which was of interest, it was the fact that Stephen also raises and sells Buffalo as a healthy alternative to beef and has won a plethora of awards for his unusual product.

After a happy half hour chatting to Stephen and an even more happy half hour watching his butchers cut meat and make sausages, I headed off to my B&B in Kirkcaldy and, after dumping my bags, set out to find something for supper. It was at this point that the true dichotomy of eating in Scotland hit me. One the one hand I had spent time over the last week with producers of some extraordinary foods, producers of haggis, pies and oatcakes alongside eating some of the best beef and seafood I have ever tasted. Yet, as I trudged along Kirkcaldy High St at 7pm on a damp, cold evening, none of it was on offer.

There were eight, yes eight Indian restaurants, the usual Chinese take-away, a Thai restaurant and even a Polish deli, but there was not a sign of Scotland in any of them except the obligatory fish & chip shop, and even I could not face another fish supper. I couldn’t even get a decent drink with every grim pub filled with people drinking 99p pints of Carling Extra Cold. I just couldn’t do it, so slunk back to my guesthouse, made a cup of tea and caught up with my writing.

The next morning, as I walked towards the bus station, opposite which the farmers market was held, I could already see whisps of smoke in the air and I arrived to see Iain and his two helpers, Jim and Holly hard at work hooking the fish on staves and stoking the embers of the already smouldering fire. Iain was laying the first fish, trout as well as haddock, over the barrels and covering them with dampened hessian sacks to make sure the smoke did not escape.

By 9am, the market was already coming to life and a steady queue formed at Iain’s stall. Many were regulars, who follow Iain from farmers market to market to make sure they get a regular fix of his smoked goodness and, although most were of the older generation, I was pleased to see that kids too were trying the fish as it came off the fire. Some took their fish away wrapped to eat at home and others requested them open so they could eat them there and then, hot juices running off the paper as they walked away

Then it was my turn. Iain cut open a smokie and laid it out for me to pick at. It is hard to describe just how good an Arbroath Smokie tastes and, unless you travel up to Scotland, you will never get one from Iain Spink. The oils from the fish glisten on the flaked flesh and the smoke flavour is subtle. I can say now, even after travelling the globe, this is one of my top ten tastes of all time. Add to that the hot smoked trout and I was glad that I had passed up the opportunity of a cooked breakfast at my guesthouse that morning. Iain smiled as I made loud slurping noises as I ate and wrapped up some for me to take away.

By 11am, it was time to head back to Rotherham for a night or two before the next stage of the journey. I stopped by to say hi to Stephen Mitchell who was also at the market and made many appreciative noises when he handed me a bag of goodies to sample. Then it was time to go.

It’s a long drive and, turning down the chance to listen to “wossy” on the radio, I began to think about what I had experienced in Scotland. Incredible friendliness, great B&B’s, wonderful food produced by dedicated people and a population who, on the whole, didn’t give a crap and were prepared to eat and drink junk as long as it was cheap.

At the market, I had met, Christopher Trotter, former owner of famous restaurant The Scottish Larder who was doing a cookery demonstration using ingredients from the stalls. I asked him for his opinion on the great divide. He just laughed and said

"John Knox has a lot to answer for"

He certainly has.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

At last,someone has said it.Great ingredients-but the eating public don't care as long as they get cheap rubbish.Pearls before swine?
However,I would guess that this is not restricted to the Scottish part of the UK.Many visitors to the UK tell me that the UK has great ingredients;but few cooks who know how to prepare them;and even fewer who appreciate good food.Even with great produce,there seems to be no cultural value attached to making and eating good food,unlike in Spain;Italy;France etc.
Are you going to northern Ireland too?

Monday, February 02, 2009 11:55:00 am  
Blogger Hermano 2 said...

I suspect you are right, this seems like a situation that will replay throughout the UK.

I am off to NI, probably in early April. Any ideas?



Monday, February 02, 2009 1:55:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long-time lurker but never plucked up the courage to comment until now. I grew up in Kirkcaldy a depressingly large number of years ago. The food / drink options were incredibly dire back then - and there were many less Indian restaurants to choose from. And Thai - blimey, it must have gone up-market! Good fish and chips though - shame you couldn't face another round.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009 9:06:00 pm  

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