Asparagus tips for Scotland's foodies

Asparagus tips for Scotland's foodies

Fiona Richmond is the food tsar behind Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink. She catches up with Karen Peattie at one of Scotland’s original treasures – the famed Café Gondolfi in Glasgow.

Clutching umbrella in one hand and raincoat in the other, Fiona Richmond breezes into Cafe Gandolfi like a breath of fresh air, dismissing the unpredictable spring weather and instead looking forward to kick-starting the week with lunch at a Glasgow institution she knows rather well.

“I used to come here all the time when I was a student and it was one of my favourite places – it still is,” she reveals, struggling to choose from the amazing menu overflowing with culinary delights featuring the freshest, in-season produce from Scotland’s world-leading larder.

In the Year of Food and Drink Scotland, it’s an apt venue for this interview with industry organisation Scotland Food & Drink’s roving project manager. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more passionate advocate for Scottish food and drink than Richmond, an Ayrshire lass with roots in St Andrews. “I’m from a long line of fisherfolk,” she says.

“Mum is from St Andrews so she grew up with my grandfather bringing the lobster and crabs straight from the boat to the table. The benefits of eating well and making the most of local produce were instilled in me from an early age and that has stayed with me – there’s an amazing photograph of my grandfather with his catch of mussels next to the lifts in the Old Course Hotel and I think he would be delighted to know that his industry is still so important for Scotland.”

Indeed it is. The value of the shellfish industry increased by 18% to £10.5m at first sale value in 2014, according to the latest survey published by the Scottish Government. It also shows that 7,683 tonnes of mussels were produced in 2014 – the highest ever on record. Meanwhile, the value of fish landings is at a record high having increased by 19% to £513m last year.

All of this is contributing to Richmond’s organisation’s mission to grow the food and drink industry’s value to £16.5bn and position the nation among the world’s top three producers of premium food and drink products by 2017. “Yes, it’s ambitious but we’ve beaten our targets before and we’ve never been better placed to shout from the rooftops about what Scotland has to offer,” she points out.

Food Montage“Last year gave us an unprecedented opportunity to put food and drink firmly on the culinary map,” she says, highlighting the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and Homecoming Scotland. A member of the team at Scotland Food & Drink for six years, Richmond was selected for the post of project manager 2014 – the first of its type in Scotland – with a remit from the Scottish Government to help food and drink suppliers tender for contracts at the 2014 events. Now focusing on the Year of Food and Drink, her role as food czar continues as she builds on the progress made in 2014.

“What we’re seeing now is more and more events organisers coming to us for help,” says Richmond. “They’re realising that if they’re organising a big event in Scotland and want to make an impression, they need to be using Scottish produce.

“Importantly, though, that desire is there to use Scottish produce and for us that’s absolutely fantastic news,” she continues. “But just because we had such an incredible year in 2014 doesn’t mean the hard work stops. We’ve still got a long way to go but we are getting there and the Year of Food and Drink is a great natural progression because there are so many events happening and every month has a theme – May was Whisky Month, for example.”

Richmond graduated from the University of Glasgow with an honours degree in social sciences in 1993 then did her masters in social research methods at the University of Surrey before moving to Jersey to do research work for the government there. But it was her discovery of the Slow Food movement that made Richmond realise she wanted to pursue a career in the food industry.

Slow Food, founded by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists in Italy during the 1980s with the aim of defending regional traditions and cultures, good food, gastronomic pleasure and a slower pace of life, has grown to become a global grass-roots organisation with supporters in over 150 countries, including Scotland and the UK.

Getting involved with the movement on a voluntary basis led Richmond to apply for a
job with Slow Food at its headquarters in Bra in northwest Italy, near Turin. Working there for two years and living in front of a local market where the food was always in season and fresh every day was a life-changing experience. “Lunch breaks were generally around two hours and no-one ate at their desks,” says Richmond.

“It’s something I brought back with me and although lunch doesn’t last two hours here, I always try to get out for a bit and never eat at my desk. I try to make my colleagues do the same and most of them manage to do it occasionally,” she laughs.

Richmond, who was previously Scotland Food & Drink’s project manager (access to markets) focusing on helping businesses grow in the foodservice sector, tries not to reflect too much on the Commonwealth Games. “There was a huge expectation that we had to get it right,” she says. “It was enormously challenging and became very, very real when we launched the Commonwealth Games Food Charter to which all appointed caterers to the Games had to sign up to.

“It was created to ensure that as well as showcasing Scotland’s larder we were committing to the ethical, safe and healthy-living standards for all food served across the Games, including traceability and provenance.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the legacy of the Food Charter will see it act as a blueprint for major sporting and cultural events held in Scotland in the future. Developed in collaboration with a range of stakeholders – including Scotland Food & Drink – it retains its four key themes: sustainability and culture; resource and provision; diversity, consistency and health; and standard practice.

“James Withers, our chief executive, has always said that while the Games would be a great opportunity for our industry to shine, it would be what happens afterwards that would be the biggest challenge,” Richmond points out. “And he’s absolutely right. It’s how we take forward that legacy, how we keep collaborating with others to get the message out there – both in Scotland and the UK, and in international markets – that we are one of the world’s great food-producing nations.”

Food and tourism, then, would appear to be natural bedfellows. With overseas and domestic visitors combined, over 15 million tourists visited Scotland last year and spent over £4.7bn.

“We’re working much more closely now with VisitScotland because of that synergy between food and tourism,” says Richmond. “It’s potentially huge and we’re delighted to be collaborating with VisitScotland and EventScotland in the Year of Food and Drink.

“Everyone has a role to play – from B&Bs, hotels and restaurants, coffee shops and
cafes in galleries to our supermarkets, local stores, delis, the big catering companies, farms shops and many more. Along with our producers, they can all be part of the food tourism journey.”

Richmond points to many of the exciting, new initiatives springing up all over the country.

Let’s Eat Glasgow, for example, taking place at the innovative SWG3 exhibition space in Finnieston in September, will be Scotland’s first restaurant festival and pop-up market where many of the city’s top restaurants will come together under one roof along with 60 of the west coast’s leading artisan producers.

The Foodies Festival in Edinburgh, meanwhile, celebrates its tenth anniversary and will run over three days in August but as Richmond points out, there are food and drink events taking place the length and breadth of the country as part of the Year of Food and Drink.

She also highlights the great work going on in Dumfries and Galloway, where the food and drink industry generates £43.5m for the local economy. “While it’s fantastic to see so much innovation by our producers the fact that there are so many outlets for them to promote what they’re doing is really exciting,” continues Richmond. “Producers are punching well above their weight in terms of innovation, responding to consumer trends and creating a point of difference so these festivals and other events are crucial in helping them reach the end user – the consumer.”

Richmond, listed by Scotland on Sunday newspaper as one of Scotland’s most eligible women last year, admits she is still single but that any potential suitor would need to share her love of good food. She remains heavily involved with Slow Food as a volunteer and holidays tend to revolve around food and drink, most recently Istanbul and, later this year, Venice and Piedmont in Italy.

“You take real inspiration from what you see in other countries,” she says. “I’d like to see Scotland become more like Italy or Spain or France where eating is always an occasion, where people get round the table to talk and really enjoy food. I think we’ve lost that in the UK and I’d love to see that sort of culture returning.”