A Festival of Food & Writing in Uist
Continuing our journey through the Outer Hebrides I would like to thank the Toradh Harvest Committee for their kind invitation to the Uists. It was a pleasure to contribute to this excellent event and to study food production, both challenges and opportunities.
We were given such a welcome - the like Scots are famous for the world over. The comprehensive events programme had a refreshing approach, challenging folk’s perceptions and looking to the future: hot topics debated; guided tours of contrasting crofting methods and great local support and community spirit in evidence.
So apart from contributing in interesting debates and enjoying superb food, what else? Well I was reminded of the wealth of natural beauty and potential of the Uists, and the fine produce on offer. Hebridean Smokehouse has become quite the food destination and we also met the Jacksons who live nearby, working with nature to cultivate an impressive
array of fruit, vegetables and salads, supplying the Stepping Stone Restaurant on Benbecula, a super place to eat, with bakery and butchery too. We met Donald Norman of Clachan Farm rearing cattle, sheep and growing native grains. Small Oat, Rye and Bere make ideal ingredients for artisan bakers. Bosse is researching this on other isles, although grains also need processing systems – cleaning, milling and packaging. We spotted practical small-scale equipment for this very task when in Turino at Terra Madre.
We were invited to Ena MacDonald’s Croft on North Uist where she and her family own a fold of 300 pure bred Highlanders. Whit a braw sicht!! Golden, blonde, red and black Highlanders grazing on the machair,
coastal grasslands laden with herbs seasoned by the sea. Ena welcomed us and we could have talked all day… such interesting conversations and we look forward to meeting her again.
Ceann na h-Àirigh on the wee isle of Grimsay (there’s a causeway) is a community hub with Post Office, versatile space, regular local produce market and café. The centre’s sensitive and creative design reflects its past life as a church.
Currently this charming venue operates with home bakes, teas and coffees, but with a super kitchen and great location it is currently looking for someone to run it as a bistro too. Get in touch if you are skilled in the kitchen and fancy a slice of island life!
For such a small isle Grimsay has much to recommend it: Uist Wool, Kallin Shellfish & Café, and
Mary's lovely Dexter cattle on Kenary Croft. On
Benbecula, Alasdair MacEachan’s fine pure bred Blackface flock at Airdbheag have also been added to Scottish Food Guide - native breeds may be smaller but will always win on flavour. Salar Salmon is listed too, making a welcome return to the food scene. And where to taste this super produce? Orasay Inn on South Uist of course where Isobel and Alan are your lovely island hosts.
Back at the festival there were local markets, evening suppers and much debate, culminating in three ‘Question Times’ at Sgoil Lìonacleit Theatre on Island Foods, Uist, a Land of Milk and Honey? …and Our Food, Our Future. Among the other panelists were
Kathy Biss of West Highland Dairy http://www.westhighlanddairy.co.uk (whose workshops were fully booked all weekend), Alasdair MacEachan, and Donald S Murray, author of The Guga Hunters (I am currently reading).
Island life is precious in so many ways and it is good to see young ones wishing to stay, or returning, recognising the value of life quality, clean air, spectacular nature, healthy produce and good neighbours - a safe environment for children. But it is not without its challenges. Setting aside wild winds and chilly winters, freight costs and potential winter isolation, there are logistic and bureaucratic hurdles that can be deeply damaging to the economy.
One such issue is the Greylag Goose. One can hunt geese in September but by then the
thousands that land on the Outer Hebrides have ruined the fields and are unstoppable! By issuing special licences they can kill them in August but this year…oops… the Government didn’t issue the licence and the result was catastrophic for farmers. This needs addressed on a permanent basis – and there would be a good market for tasty goose on the menu! The perennial stress of abattoirs is not a glamorous topic but essential for meat production to retain the provenance it deserves. Currently there are options but the situation is fragile and again, needs support.
On the bright side there is much to offer: food tourism, wildlife, outdoor activities, history, culture and fantastic produce to market both on the isles, the mainland and beyond – some produce is even on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste
and more will be joining soon. The Outer Hebrides is blessed with more Ark produce than most: currently Soay and Boreray Sheep, Barra Snails, and soon-to-be-added Hebridean Sheep (pictured), Guga, even possibly their artisan kippers. The Scottish Native Black Bee now has a thriving colony producing honey on Barra, thanks to a course run by Andrew on Colonsay. Barra Honey will soon be in a commercial position to be further promoted.
On the Saturday evening Toradh
Harvest hosted a Best of Uist Dinner at Stepping Stone Restaurant and it was a night to remember – both islanders and restaurant did us proud - our sincere thanks for the wonderful memories.
During our travels I updated 9 Scottish Food Guide reviews and added 16 new ones that met and exceeded Scottish Food Guide criteria. Barra and Eriskay I leave until next time.
Laprig Valley delicious apple juice featured in my recipe in this week’s Daily Record http://www.laprigvalley.co.uk and their Winter Spice won an award from the Guild of Fine Food.
Three hundred and fifty-three years of liquid history unveiled in Gordon & MacPhail’s Glen Grant Collection. Leading malt whisky specialist, Gordon & MacPhail, has launched an exclusive collection that focuses on six consecutive years from a single distillery. https://www.gordonandmacphail.com
It is Organic September - so in addition to promoting organics, that Whitmuir do everyday, they need you to do some activism this week so log on to check it out! https://www.whitmuir.scot
Cafe St Honoré named among Top 20 - on the shortlist for the much-coveted award for the most sustainable foodservice business. Chef Director Neil Forbes said: “We are all thoroughly delighted to be in the top 20 businesses at the annual Food Made Good Awards. To be shortlisted alongside some of the most highly regarded places in the UK is a real honour. It’s due to the hard work and commitment from my team at Café St Honoré, and we are all looking forward to the awards in October. Fingers crossed!” http://www.cafesthonore.com
It's all about apples at Craigie's during September: harvesting, cooking, baking and juicing so that you can enjoy some delicious fruit when next you visit. https://craigies.co.uk