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What does Scottish food mean to you?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 12:10 UK time, Monday, 15 August 2011



Ask someone overseas which foods and drinks best represent Britain and the list often goes whisky, Stilton, shortbread and salmon. Three of the four are from Scotland, where food and drink exports last year hit over £4.5 billion, an all-time record. Scotland’s image seen through the lens of food has two sides: one is a picture of quality; the other is the food eaten by many of the country’s 5.2 million population - a daily intake of deep-fried everything, with no veg at all. It’s a diet that’s played a big part in creating a frightening amount of obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes in the old manufacturing areas of West Scotland.

In this week’s episode of The Food Programme we’ve been looking at the divide between the quality produce that comes out of Scotland compared with the poor diet of many Scots. We consider the Scottish government’s radical food policy of attempting to bridge the divide by connecting health improvement with quality food production, tourism and environmental policy. It’s a joined-up approach that seems elementary until you look at Whitehall, where the ministries responsible for trade, health and the environment jealously guard their boundaries, and where the ministers in charge seem to change portfolios regularly, long before they’ve mastered their subject.

But once you’ve identified food and drink as key drivers of the economy and as the royal road to good public health. What then?



On the Isle of Skye, there are a large number of food businesses who are hoping the new policy will help develop a network that’s already working to supply the islands hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfasts, but that has barely touched any of the local supermarkets. When you stay or eat (as producer Maggie Ayre and I did one night) at one of the three MacLeod hotels on Skye, you see the full range and quality of foods produced on the island: salads, vegetables, soft fruit, fudge, chocolates, ranched scallops, farmed mussels, smoked fish, honey, langoustines caught daily in the Minch, mushrooms and oysters. Plus there’s meat, game and cheese which come over daily from producers on the nearby mainland. The network depends on a daily Food Link van. It was bought with a small grant eleven years ago when it carried £6,800 worth of produce annually. Now it’s over £90,000.

Fish and chips


But in Scotland’s ‘rust belt’ there are few tourists to help kick start a new way of eating or provide a market for small producers. The high streets of the towns that once produced Scotland’s wealth are now lined with chippies, burger bars, curry houses and fried chicken joints - all of them with long menus of what they deep fry.

But things are changing. We went to Shotts, a small town between Edinburgh and Glasgow that was once a centre of the mining industry. Now a lot of people are unemployed and what jobs there are bring in low wages. But at the heart of the town is the Healthy Living Centre, a community run enterprise that’s less worthy and much livelier than it sounds. Local produce is sold (and charged 10% above wholesale) in the shop attached to a bustling café where for lunch I had the best lentil soup I’ve eaten in a long time. There aren’t yet any hard figures on how this local enterprise has changed the dire health statistics, but completely unscientifically we noted a lot of clear-skinned, healthy looking people in the centre. And sales of fruit and veg have been rising month by month.

On the outskirts of Edinburgh we went to meet sister and brother Jo and James Macsween who run Scotland’s best-known haggis company. They support a government that can educate people on the links between quality food and health, as well help them manoeuvre their way through EU and Whitehall legislation. Right now EU subsidies make it cheaper to turn beef fat into biofuel rather than sell it to haggis makers (or other food companies). This is driving up producers’ costs at the same time as the supermarkets are attempting to cut the price they pay for the finished product.  

Macsween, like a lot of companies, are getting help on this from the Department for Rural Affairs and the Environment, run by Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead. Everyone we spoke to while making the programme told us how important it was that the minister with responsibility for food, farming and fishing - and for the joined up food policy being really joined up - was a man who understands the food business and who’s made it his central interest almost since he became a member of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. When I interviewed the cabinet secretary, his grasp of the importance of food to the economy and the way that quality food production can transform public health and the environment gave me hope for Scotland’s food culture.    

So what do you think? What does Scottish food mean to you? How might government policy encourage Scots to eat more local produce and fewer deep-fried pizzas? And is Scotland's radical policy one that might work for the whole of the UK?

Sheila Dillon is the presenter of Radio 4’s The Food Programme.


  • Comment number 1.

    I am Scottish (from Skye incidentally) and fully resent articles like this where authors think they are doing us a 'favour' by pointing out the well known fact of how lucky we are up here to have such a wealth of fabulous produce while reinforcing cultural stereotypes. To say that 'many' of Scotland's population eat fried food on a daily basis is not only wrong but deeply offensive to the 'many' of us who don't! I am in no way arguing that parts of Scotland don't have horrendous health problems and low life expectancy however there is more too it than simply diet i.e poverty, education, unemployment.

  • Comment number 2.

    I couldn't agree more with the the comments made by "Iheartfood", parts of the article made my blood boil. I am Scottish and have lived predominantly on the West Coast and whilst I agree there are many chip shops and fast food outlets it is certainly not true to say that most people eat there on a daily basis. I'm only surprised that the deep fried mars bar didn't find its way into this article, of which I have not only never eaten one I don't know anyone who has or indeed seen a shop make one. You may also be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the UK doesn't have an obesity problem or have chip shops. I can only hope that the author looks next to English food so that she can lift her nose at people from the northern counties where presumably eat nothing but pies all day!

  • Comment number 3.

    I live in Shotts and had never heard of this Healthy Living Centre. I would also love to see these clear skinned folk that the article talks about. Are you sure you were in Shotts?

  • Comment number 4.

    Gaia here is a link to the Healthy Living Centre.

    I am a westcoaster living in the east coast for 40 years, I have never
    had a deep-fried pizza or Mars Bar. Never seen them advertised either.

  • Comment number 5.

    I am a Londoner born and bred living in Rural NE Scotland for 21 years, and as one might expect as a member of a food board I am fond of good food and cooking so you won't get a particularly broad spread of views. However......

    Firstly, I wonder how in depth the research was on what foreign people think constitutes British Food. Most often I hear: Roast Beef; Fish and Chips; Pies; Potatoes, Chicken Tikka Masala, Pizza and a few throw up Eels (yes, I might also!).

    Scottish Food to me says fresh flesh from land sea and air. Wonderful fish and shellfish from our lochs, rivers and offshore; game birds in season, and wonderful farmed or wild beef, venison and lamb. All of these can make easy, tasty, healthy meals though not always cheap. Or readily available everywhere.

    They also require a small amount of knowledge and experience to cook them at all - and then choose to cook them healthily. It is equally easy to make these lovely healthy basics unhealthy by the way we cook and serve them.

    Education, especially about recognising, handling and cooking good foods simply - (healthily??? which means lots of different things) and well is sadly lacking in many homes, schools and eateries generally.

    It is not unique to Scotland.

    p.s. I live near the home of the Deep Fried Mars Bar (other chocolate confections are available - and yes, they will batter and fry those also.

    We (Husband and two sons) decided we had to try one, just once. Between 4 of us we could not swallow a whole one. We a were also pretty aghast to discover that if you order a pie (meat/macaroni etc) in a chipper it will be 'fried' unless you tell them not too.

    Let's face it, as one gets further north, the body requires more fat to insulate it against the weather.

  • Comment number 6.

    I am also Scottish (west of Scotland) and slightly surprised that a radio presenter is perhaps not more enlightened about food produce here!!
    What about Smoked Salmon, Scallops, Venison, Lamb, an array of fresh vegetables, raspberries, rhubarb, brambles, oats, and an loads of other products that come from Scotland! I have never in my life had a deep fried chocolate bar, but I have had plenty of healthy meals from fresh food!!!

  • Comment number 7.

    Living in the Highland and Islands is not as simple as Ms Dillon would have you believe.Culture,customs,logistics,finance and a host of other factors play a huge part in the way we choose or are foced to live our lives.Crofting is a huge part of the way of life little more than a hand to mouth existence,a love and a passion for a way of life. Every thing has to get here by road,fuel, time ,weather and the same going back south salmon venison shellfish white fish,to where the money and the lucrative markrts are. I have spent the last 20 years cooking some of the finest for for some of the wealthiest people in the highlands and at the other end of the scale driven 44 ton artics all over the north in the finest of summer days and the worst of total whiteouts at Drumochter when taking organic carrots to Cumbernauld for M&S for onward distribution to the rest of Britain. also tubed prawns that came from Achiltibuie and were to be flown from Edinburgh to Turin Milan and Barcelona.Local businesses rely so heavily on the added value of markets in the south. It is possible to grow a lot up here but it usually has to be done in polytunnels which are expensive and unheated ,fine in mild areas and then there is day length,short growing season which is partly people grew and relied on potatoes carrot cabbages swedes onions kale ,and other tough reliable veg that if you put precious time effort andmoney you could sure of a return for your efforts and would also last through the long winters.So many old habits that die hard and so many temptetions via the media that have to paid for on meagre incomes. Many pros and many cons ,all in all a huge quandry.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hoots, lassie, in some respec's yir elbow's oot the windae...We Scots are not all of the "vegetables are what's left on your plate when you've finished your dinner" persuasion.
    As long as our producers get higher profits from selling our "wonderful" produce abroad so then will we continue to eat what gives us most energy for lowest price. Biscuits are an extreme example, followed, I suspect by high fat foods.
    Show me a source of cheap home grown all the year round ripe fruit and vegetables and we will buy them, yes we will ...but that knocks out supermarkets.... even their reduced offers.
    What do I eat? I had a poached egg, a bowl of porridge and an orange for breakfast this much healthier can I get?
    I have to tell you that up here we do laugh at the "What's a balanced diet?..Answer..A Gregg's pie in each hand"...
    Now may I suggest you go into one of London's less desirable areas, study their diet and see if you couldn't help bring about an improvement a bit closer to home.


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