Visitors to Dubai will almost certainly find an abundance of premium Scottish fish and seafood on the menu when they sit down to dinner on the first night of their holiday or business trip. Indeed, if they are flying out of Glasgow Airport with Emirates, those delicious, fresh langoustines will most likely have been on the same flight, such is demand for Scotland’s fruits of the sea in the Middle East.
Make no bones about it, fish and seafood is big business for the Scottish economy. Exports are soaring with the salmon industry, for example, growing overseas markets by £60m in the first six months of the year – proof that demand remains high. In fact, an additional 12,000 tonnes of Scotland’s salmon made its way to kitchens and dining tables around the world, marking yet another outstanding period of growth for an often much-maligned industry.
The fact that Scottish salmon is now enjoyed in 65 countries is impressive and testament to the efforts of an industry that frequently finds itself in the firing line of the anti-fish farming lobby. Yet while the world’s appetite for Scottish fish and seafood shows no signs of abating, how is it faring on the menu at home?
James Withers, chief executive of industry body Scotland Food & Drink, is heartened by VisitScotland’s recognition that food and drink is now a vital component of tourism. Fish and seafood, he points out, is punching well above its weight when it comes to enhancing Scotland’s reputation for world-class produce both at home and overseas.
But he warns that having a fantastic larder overflowing with quality produce is not enough, and urges everyone involved in the hospitality industry to use the Year of Food and Drink in 2015 to “up the ante” and showcase Scotland at its best. “We know that food and drink is now one of our greatest success stories and the Year of Food and Drink couldn’t come at a better time, following the amazing year we’re leaving behind.
“Scotland’s reputation for world-class produce is advancing across the globe as well as at home so now we have this fantastic opportunity to keep the momentum up. The potential is huge but we still have to win over some hearts and minds in parts of the tourism industry that have not yet embraced how important food and drink is to a visitor’s experience.”
To that end, it is what happens at a local level that will be key, suggests Withers. “I often say that food and drink is one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets,” he says. “The industry is
booming: it’s worth £14 billion to the Scottish economy and employs 360,000 people. And if you consider that £1 in every £5 that a tourist will spend in Scotland will be on food and drink, you certainly can’t ignore it.
“At this year’s big events, food and drink was critical and both the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup enabled Scottish suppliers to show the world how good our food is,” Withers continues. “However, there is still work to be done and it is what we do locally that is the foundation for future growth. The great news is that we have a national tourism industry that truly understands the importance of food and drink but it’s down to us – we all have to tap into the opportunity and you don’t get a bigger opportunity than the 2015 Year of Food and Drink.”
Menus, he believes, are the perfect starting point for hotels, restaurants and pubs to engage with visitors. And when it comes to fish and seafood, many are already serving up a master class in provenance. Carla and John Lamont, owners of the award-winning Ninth Wave restaurant near Fionnphort on the Isle of Mull, represent a prime example of the “local” approach that James Withers alludes to.
Who could resist pan-seared Mull hand-dived scallops, freshly caught Mull lobster or warm crab and Scottish Applewood smoked cheesecake made with fresh Sound of Iona crab? It’s not difficult to incorporate a story on a menu, and in the case of Ninth Wave, winner of the 2013 Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Restaurant of the Year, local really does mean local.
Fisherman John, who is responsible for the daily catch of lobster and crab, swaps his oilskins for his kilt to perform front-of-house duties in the restaurant where he turns raconteur, regaling diners with stories about the produce and Mull itself. Visitors soon discover that the scallops are supplied by the couple’s next-door neighbour while other seasonal produce comes from neighbouring farms and producers.
Meanwhile, Ninth Wave’s kitchen garden bounty boasts a wide array of fresh, seasonal produce with head chef Carla growing much of the fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers that she uses in her recipes herself. Local sourcing couldn’t get any closer to home and it is this dedication that has helped put Ninth Wave – and Mull – on the culinary map.
“We’re just a wee seafood restaurant that opens during the tourist season,” says Carla, who hails from Canada. “Being so far off the beaten track means it can be quite difficult for people to find us so we play to our strengths – we know that tourists want to hear about where the food on their plate comes from and the fact we can tell them their scallops were caught locally that morning is a fantastic selling point for us.
“As well as promoting the provenance of our food on our menus, we also use our website to go into even more detail,” she continues. “It’s an effective marketing tool but also a good way to let people know we are here. It allows us to tell our special story in a way that is going to make Ninth Wave appealing to potential visitors.”
Of course, there are many other fish restaurants adopting the same mantra as Ninth Wave – Loch Fyne Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Argyll, Gamba in Glasgow and Edinburgh’s The Ship on the Shore to name just a few. On the west coast, Oban markets itself as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’ while VisitScotland promotes the Scottish Seafood Trail – a culinary journey of discovery through the west coast taking in a selection of fine-dining restaurants and chilled-out eateries all with one thing in common: the freshest Scottish seafood possible.
And don’t forget that most ubiquitous fish dish, either – Scotland’s fish and chip shops are quickly realising that even the humble fish supper can tell a story. Frankie’s Fish & Chips at Brae on the shores of Busta Voe in Shetland, winner of Best Eatery in the 2014 Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards and Scotland’s best chippy in the National Fish & Chip Awards on two occasions, screams provenance from the rooftops.
All haddock, mussels, scallops and crab are Marine Stewardship Council-accredited with mussels coming from Blueshell, just half a mile up the road. Customers are even told the name of the boat that caught the haddock in their fish supper! This is exactly what Scotland Food & Drink’s Withers is talking about.
Popular consumer events are also playing their part in raising awareness of the availability, variety and affordability of premium fish and seafood. Eat Drink Discover Scotland, hailed as Scotland’s largest celebration of Scottish food and drink, took place this autumn as part of Scottish Food & Drink Fortnight at the Royal Highland Centre at Ingliston.
This three-day extravaganza brought together 100-plus exhibitors, celebrity chefs, demonstrations, talks and sampling sessions, with the Perth-based Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation (SSPO) one of the key participants. Bringing together salmon producers and chefs for a series of demonstrations, SSPO showed visitors how easy it is to cook salmon at home but also spent time talking to visitors about salmon’s journey to their plate.
Seafood Scotland, meanwhile, is working hard on the sustainability message, taking it to an audience of around 700 chefs and culinary students at the recent Scottish Chefs’ Conference in Glasgow. “I want to enhance their knowledge, passion and understanding of what Scotland has to offer from their doorstep, and the efforts that the industry takes to ensure it is responsibly fished and sustainable,” explains Jess Sparks, the organisation’s environmental and technical manager.
Also at the conference demonstrating his signature sustainable haddock and lobster dish was Michael Smith from the Three Chimneys restaurant on the Isle of Skye, which has just achieved its first Michelin Star. “Scottish seafood takes centre stage on our menus at The Three Chimneys every day, constantly inspiring our chefs and delighting our customers,” he says.
All chefs attending the conference were presented with a selection of educational items, including Scottish species guides, recipe books and seasonality guides, to encourage them to include more seafood on their menus. And that can only be a good thing for the visitors from home and overseas using Scotland’s hotels and restaurants during the Year of Food and Drink.
Carla and John Lamont’s new book, titled ‘The Ninth Wave: Love & Food on the Isle of Mull’, is published by Birlinn (RRP £20).