Scotland’s natural larder is stocked with seaweed-fed lamb from the Orkney Islands, trout from its peaty rivers and plump hand-dived scallops scooped straight from the sea. Add salmon from artisan smokehouses and hill-grazed venison charcuterie, earthy heritage veg and ripe red fruit from its fertile fields along with cockles and razor clams foraged from the sand, and you’ve a ready-made gourmet smorgasbord.
The heather-sprung hills, fragrant pine forests, crystal clear lochs and meandering rivers also make it a healthy holiday hotspot. Scotland has bucket-loads of green space, over 11,500 miles of pristine coastline to explore, more than 800 islands to hop and – there’s more to celebrate than the easing of lockdown – 2021 is Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters.
The natural landscape is as rich and varied as the larder and, as our appreciation of nature and its benefits for our mental and physical health continues to grow, a hankering for a field-to-fork connection is a natural addition to our travel wishlist.
In Scotland, it’s a way of life. The land is patchworked with agritourism, farms where you can bed down, help with lambing and immerse yourself in rural life. Even in the cities, many restaurants have strong links to the land. Slow food and slow travel go hand in hand here. Look out for the ‘Taste Our Best’ initiative highlighting where to find the best Scottish food and drink, and showcasing fresh, seasonal and local Scottish ingredients.
VisitScotland’s Green Certification Scheme highlights businesses with strong eco-credentials while the ‘We’re Good to Go’ award is aimed at reassuring visitors that covid precautions are in place.
VEG PATCH TO PLATE – The Gardener’s Cottage, Edinburgh
Chef Dale Mailley has been tramping muddy footprints across Edinburgh’s culinary scene for the past ten years. His restaurant, urban oasis and field-to-fork favourite, The Gardener’s Cottage, is a fairy-tale-pretty 19th-century stone dwelling cradled by the leafy Royal Terrace Gardens. Inside, long, communal wooden tables, church chairs and jars of wildflowers create a rustic bothy vibe. The menu, scrawled on a blackboard outside the door, highlights the local, seasonal ingredients of dishes such as pea and lovage soup with ewes curd alongside wild garlic tagliatelle, venison ragu and toasted hazelnuts.
So local, in fact, that many of the dishes are laced with herbs like lovage, sweet cicely and meadowsweet, plucked from the kitchen garden each day and sprinkled with home-grown edible flowers such as marigold and nasturtium. They grow as much of the ingredients as they can in the veg beds and rhubarb patch, the rest they source from local suppliers such as family-run seafood company, John Vallance, Borders-based Burnside Game and Edinburgh Honey.
During lockdown they also set up a smoker in the garden and started experimenting. Using oak chips for a clean, fragrant flavour that wouldn’t overpower the delicate fish, home-smoked trout and salmon from Loch Etive are now on the menu.
GRAIN TO GLASS – Arbikie Distillery, Angus
They sow, grow and harvest all the raw ingredients at Arbikie, a ground-breaking field-to-bottle distillery producing gin, vodka and rye whisky on Scotland’s sunniest side. And this summer they are launching a new visitor experience and tasting room.
This 2,000-acre estate on the east coast has been farmed by the Stirling family since 1660 and is now in the innovative hands of three brothers, Alec, Iain and John. In the fertile fields between the Angus hills and the sea they nurture crops of wheat, rye, barley, potatoes and peas, while water is filtered from an underground lagoon. They’ve planted juniper bushes for the gin and grow a range of botanicals including lemongrass, coriander and chillies in polytunnels.
The distillery, where master distiller Kirsty Black creates her alchemy, is in an old cattle shed overlooking Lunan Bay. Sustainability is one of their primary objectives; they use solar power, the waste from the distilling process is fed to the cattle and in 2020, in collaboration with the James Hutton Institute and Abertay University in Dundee, they launched the world’s first ‘climate positive’ gin and vodka, Nadar.
The trick was to switch wheat for peas. The leftover peas are used to feed the animals while peas also improve the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and transferring it to the earth.
The new distillery visitor experience and tasting room will highlight the visionary grain to glass (or pea-to-pour) process while the farm tour, meandering through the grow tunnels and rolling fields, will showcase the estate’s bucolic setting and wide-angled coastal views.
FIELD TO FARMSTAY – Boutique Farm Bothies, Aberdeenshire
‘Slow down, relax, rejuvenate’ sums up the ethos behind the three bespoke bothies cradled by this rural Aberdeenshire farm. James and Jane Foad, both from farming families, bought this 100-acre farm back in 2011. They have 550 Highlander sheep, grow strawberries to sell in local farm shops and farmers markets and they supply barley for the whisky industry. Along with other local farmers, they sell their grain to the world-famous Glenlivet distillery for the malting process.
Each of the hand-built bothies in their signature ‘wrinkly tin’ has a unique design. Barley Bothy’s wooden interiors were once a chicken coop. The Sheep Shed in a little woodland area has a striking glass gable-end. The latest addition is the Dairy at Denend, the design based on an old-fashioned mobile milking parlour. The bothies are are all decked out with quirky vintage finds, brightly painted furniture and have cosy wood-burning stoves and rustic wood-fired hot tubs.
A bothy stay is all about switching off, slowing down and reconnecting with family – and the land. There are no TVs; just board games and books – and farm tours.
PASTURE TO PLATE – Isle of Mull Cheese
From dairy farming in Somerset to cheesemaking on the Isle of Mull might be a schlep geographically – but not in terms of ethos. In 1979, Chris and Jeff Reade moved their family of four boys – and their cows – to the Hebrides after falling in love with a ruined farmhouse, Sgriob-Ruadh, and its 300-acres of rock, bog and grass.
First they re-roofed the old byre then they rebuilt the other farm buildings. In 2000 they gave up the milk-round to concentrate on cheese-making and now produce award-winning Isle of Mull Farmhouse Cheddar and semi-soft Hebridean Blue, using raw, unpasteurised milk fresh from the cows each day; cows feed on grass in the summer, hay in the winter and the draff from the whisky distillery in Tobermory all year round.
They produce all their own heat and electricity from a wind turbine, biomass boiler (which uses wood from the community wood group) and hydro-electric scheme on the Tobermory River. In fact, they produce enough energy for their four holiday cottages (you can bed down in Cheese Cottage, the old byre, and Milk Cottage, the original dairy), as well as their son’s organic biscuit company, the Island Bakery. There’s even a swimming pool heated by the water used in the cheese-making process.
Guests can watch the cows being milked in the morning, stock up on local produce – and their cheese – in the farm shop and tuck into moreish homemade cakes in the Glass Barn Café, a huge glass greenhouse strung with vines with a cosy wood burning stove.
FARM TO FORK – The Free Company, Balerno, Pentland Hills
They go the whole plastic- and nitrate-free, hand-reared hog at Cockdurno Farm at the foot of the Pentland Hills just outside Edinburgh. In 2016, a couple of friends got together with Angus Buchanan-Smith to found The Free Company and help save his family’s fourth generation farm. Initially the idea was to create a centre for multidisciplinary design alongside a seasonal restaurant, but the focus has now shifted towards the field-to-fork events and farm.
The communal supper-club style dinners in the old hayloft are trestle-table-convivial, split into eight-week spring, summer and winter series and with a revolutionary ‘pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth’ concept. Eighty per cent of the produce featured on the set menus comes from the farm and the cooking is done in the courtyard’s wood-fired oven.
The farm’s 2.5-acre organic market garden uses the ‘no dig’ approach and supplies not only all the fresh produce for the suppers but also the Veg Club, their organic veg box scheme. ‘No dig’ means they can calculate how much carbon they are sequestering and the vegetables have a negative carbon impact. In addition, they use only heritage seeds and are creating their own seed bank and have planted hedgerows with around 76 different plant species to boost biodiversity.
And then there’s the Pig Club. They also rear rare breed Berkshire and Mangalita pigs. You can sign up for a Whole Hog or Half Hog membership. For a monthly payment you receive a packet of home-smoked bacon, string of sausages and various joints, delivered the middle weekend of each month. After a year you’ll have bagged either half a pig or the whole hog – and can rest easy that no nitrates have been used during curing, the smoking has used windfall timber from the farm and the journey, from their field to your plate, hasn’t notched up unnecessary food miles