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TheLunch: savouring the north-east food and drink sector

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Just outside of Inverurie is Thainstone Centre, the heart of one of the largest farming, food and finance businesses in Scotland.

And lucky for the thousands of members and visitors who come to ANM Group’s livestock mart each year, there is also one of the best steakhouses around for miles.

Some of the leading lights of the region’s food and drink sector meet at the Porterhouse to discuss the sheer potential of the sector.

And all this talk about food and drink is making today’s guests very hungry indeed.

Peter Cook, an agricultural economist, is the new director of food and drink for Opportunity North East (One). His is the enviable task of growing the region’s thriving but disparate sector into something bigger and more ambitious. One, the brainchild of Sir Ian Wood, aims to focus on diversifying the region’s economy away from oil and gas, with food and drink being a key plank.

“My new role at Opportunity North East is about how you link up the chain, the wholesaler, the processor and the link back to the farm. Once you have those chains in place you can get more value out of it,” says Mr Cook.

“We have five strands. If we looked at the industry, we have big shares of primary production – a big share of agricultural production and of course a big share of the fish landings. Peterhead accounts for 50% of Scotland’s landings. That is a big local source of a diverse range of products. The ideal would be to add as much value as possible locally.

“There is a QMS pig monitor farm – we are helping to support that. We would like to add a market development aspect to that.

“We are supporting the diary sector, looking at options for dairy production.

“What we really want to support is the growth of food businesses, that is the core of the added value here. We are going to put some programmes in place to help new entrants into the food game, for small businesses to grow, and then help the bigger ones to get access to high quality services, market research and international buyers. We want to create an escalator so businesses can grow to that middle stage.

“When you analyse the position of the north east food sector, we have a lot of new, small food businesses. Dry cured bacon, craft breweries, cheese makers. It is fantastic. The question is about how they grow.”

Along with us is Jim McLaren, chairman of trade body, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), who also runs a mixed arable and livestock business raising pedigree Simmentals in Perthshire.

As well as a charity cookbook produced by the public body responsible for overseeing Scotland’s red meat sector, Mr McLaren brandishes a recent report on agriculture in the north-east. Taking in areas of Moray and Angus, the report reveals that the region accounts for 16% of Scotland’s agricultural area – but produces more than a quarter of the country’s arable and livestock. Not only this, but the region is unusual in that it remains one of the most mixed farming areas in the UK, if not Europe. All of Scotland’s farming enterprises are found in the region from beef cows, pigs, cereals and dairy all in close proximity.

As we peruse the Porterhouse’s menu, he reminds us of the importance of the food production sector to the nation.

“Our UK consumers have got it good in terms of their food,” he says. “The quality of the offering, the price they are paying. We are spending something like – depending on where you sit demographically – between 9-11% of our income on food. Our parents’ generation were spending 30-40%. In developing countries they are spending over half their income on food.”

Our third guests is David Stephen, a quintessential modern-day farmer in that he seems to be doing a little bit of everything. In addition to producing livestock and grain on 700 acres at Redhouse of Barra near Oldmeldrum, he and his wife have launched a brand for their soft fruit growing operation.

Barra Berries, which Mr Stephen says started as a roadside stall, now includes a seasonal farm shop. In addition to this the Stephens are in the process of renovating a disused barn on their property into a luxury events venue, while wife Sarah Mack, a well known TV personality, spends some of her time as a reporter and presenter for BBC Scotland’s rural affairs programme, Landward.

But first, what’s on the menu? It would seem rude to come to the Porterhouse and not order some of the top quality beef on offer – although there is a tempting halibut dish on the specials board. All opt for the warm beef salad, served on a bed of baby gem lettuce brandished with slivers of colourful roasted beetroot, peppers and tomato. Except Mr Cook who does for a warming special dish of beef stroganoff.

Mr Stephen recalls launching the soft fruit brand. “We started small with wheelbarrow at he end of the road. Then it grew from that. We painted a burger van green with a strawberry at the back if it, and did that for nine years. Then we did the shop on the steading last year. We always called it Barra Berries. Not for any good reason – it rhymes.

“We bought an ice cream machine from New Zealand, which blends our frozen fruit with ice cream. That is the draw. The shop is open seasonally. It will be tired very quickly is have it open all the time. By opening our doors and selling fruit we are announcing summer is here.

“There’s no point serving a cup of coffee to four people on a wet Monday in November.”

The Barra Berries shop is one of a number of foodie-oriented outlets that have sprung up that literally offer consumers a taste of the region. It is a trend that also mixes well with One’s aim of growing the tourist trade, particularly as local hoteliers are no longer getting top dollar accommodating oil and gas industry workers.

“We have started a food tourism project with VisitAberdeenshire,” Mr Cook says. “This is not traditionally a tourist region. Deeside is to some extent. But generally the hotel trade was aimed at the oil industry. Now there is an opportunity. The whole cost structure has changed.

“It is about connecting it. If people come here can you link them to go to a distillery, stay somewhere, go golfing, go to an eatery or a small craft brewery. Create that understanding that there is a lot to go and see here. Up the quality of the producers and get them focused on tourism.

“That is really important. Does it shift huge amounts of product? Maybe not. But it adds a lot of value. And it creates an understanding outwith this area about the food culture. We have some good brands – Mackies, Brewdog.”

Our lively discussion takes a break when the sweet souffle adorned with Mr Stephen’s own raspberries arrives for pudding. A little alarmed at first, we watch with amazement as the waiter proceeds to stab the centre of each souffle – all the better to make way for a generous glug of hot orange creme anglais which floats the fluffy confections up from their dishes. I feel almost jealous of this wonderful piece of culinary theatre until my cheese plate with a welcome soupcon of port arrives, with enough dairy and grape goodness to feed a multitude.

Overhanging the growing enthusiasm for the Grampian larder, fears of the implications of the UK leaving the European market are weighing on the group.

Nor does there seem to be much confidence in the current UK government’s approach to the agriculture sector.

Mr McLaren said: “Our new Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) minister, her fist faux pas was the suggestion that we should leave all the hills to the butterflies. Hopefully someone gave her a lesson on agriculture quite quickly.”

Fears that whatever replaces the European Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) funding regime is also a concern for the food producers.

“We have had stated policy to end direct support for agriculture,” Mr McLaren said. “It wouldn’t be so terrifying if everybody across Europe was doing it. You could make that work.

“Consumers would have to pay more for their food, for sure. People characterise Cap as being an expense on the food chain, it actually provides cheaper food.

“The industry in Scotland wouldn’t survive in its current form without the right funding support. I’m not saying farm support has to be part of the future, but we need a sustainable industry by some means or other.”

“It is such a huge question,” Mr Cook says. “The Brexit thing creates such an enormous uncertainty. The really damaging thing – whatever policies appear, or whatever market access there is – is uncertainty. It will hold back investment by food companies, processors and by farmers to some extent.

“For the next two or three years will be a tough questionable time.”

For the Stephens, the impact on the workforce from Europe is a key issue, and comes at a time the farming sector is already struggling with falling commodity prices.

“It is very uncertain times. The industry is on quite thin ice at the moment,” he says.

“It will definitely affect our ability to pick fruit. We employ 60 (from Europe). There’s a few that stay for 10 months, the majority are here for three or four months. They come, make a lot of money and go home and build a house or buy a car. It goes long way.”

Mr Cook adds: “The whole fruit sector, big chunks of the meat processing sector, the fish processing sector, any vegetable processing – all is dependent on labour from Europe. It is all pervading in the food chain. For some of the folk on our board it is a big topic of conversation.”

But Mr Stephen is hopeful that there will be a deal on trade that will allow the sector to continue its employment practices.
“The initial signs are that if there’s going to be trading with Europe, there has to be freedom of movement as well.”

Luckily for QMS, the status of Scottish beef and lamb as a protected geographical indication (PGI) is no longer at risk no matter what the outcome of Brexit negotiations. QMS has lead on establishing the Scotland’s meat brands as PGIs along with Melton Mowbray pies, Stornoway black pudding and other goods.

He says: “The PGI is protected. You will find there PGIs for other countries in the world. Provided the nation’s government protects it, which the UK is in the process of doing, then they will remain protected in Europe. That is great news. We are not relaxed about it. We are on a journey with it, but they will come out protected.”