Being the Farmers Market junkie that I've become in my old age, I don't find myself in supermarkets all that often these days, especially with Waitrose's online shopping supplying the vast quantities of Moo needed to sustain my lumbering bulk. Still, I'd be a berk not to realise how important supermarkets are to many when it comes to getting in the groceries, so it's been good to hear about recent campaigns by various stores to be more right-on (or at least be seen to do so). From fair trade to free range to locally sourced goods to eco products, it's about bloody time and means that those without the means to buy direct from suppliers don't have to compromise quite so much at the shops, unless all they give a damn about is price and nothing but, in which case we're all fucked. Here in Scotland, much like other stores, Tesco's have made a big deal about sourcing products from Scottish providers, and in 2006 they held their first annual Scottish food fair/showcase/exhibition in Edinburgh, called Enjoy the Taste of Scotland (not to be confuddled with the Taste Festivals). This year, it headed west and is currently plonked in the middle of George Square in Glasgow all this weekend. Attendance is completely free, with a nice big range of suppliers (some of whom we've already met at markets) giving samples and stories about their various products, plus a load of cooking demonstrations. So it's free, but is it worth your time? Being at the cutting edge of new media (ie we've got blogs), the missus-to-be and I managed to shuffled our scruffy selves in yesterday for the press day. You can read the good lady's review here - as you'll see below what hers lacks in alcohol mine shall truly make up for...
As soon as we were through the main doors I was, with crushing inevitability, drawn straight to the Tunnock's stand, but to be fair it was quite near and there was no mistaking their colours or design. Ah, Tunnock's, how I love thee! Unlike damn near every other product out there that struggles to be modern, cool and up to date (most failing in the process), Tunnock's products look just as you'd imagine they did a century ago (well, ISBN numbers and arabic-language ingredients aside) and they'd be absolute fools to ever change it. The nostalgic vibe goes all the way to the Tunnock's van parked outside the venue, a beautiful old thing from yeeeears back that shined as though it were brand new. It all harks back to a time when we used to, y'know, make things in this country, and it's strangely pleasing to know that all that Tunnock's goodness still comes from Uddingston, just as it has since 1890. Of course, all this wouldn't matter a jot if the actual products were rubbish, but I've never met a Tunnock's I didn't like. You know how with most chocolate bars the first couple of bites are the best, yet by the end you're rather regretting it? Never happens with a Tunnock's - if anything, they become progressively more addictive as you go through them, and a 6-pack of the teacakes in my possession does not last long in this world. The fellow at the stand, kitted out in the same white coats as the factory staff in the promo video, was a wonderfully affable bloke who shocked us with the revelation that there's a year-long waiting list for the Tunnock's tour (which I have to take, sketchbook in hand). There was something nice about discussing in all seriousness the use of dark chocolate in the Tunnock's line, trying samples of the bars and enthusing about the way the dark chocolate plays off against the sweetness of caramel, and when he gave us two 8-packs of bars to take home I could've hugged him. Tourists, forget all that bollocks about deep fried Mars bars - if you're in Scotland and want a real taste of the place, get yourselves some Tunnock's. And if anyone needed just one reason to go to the food fair this weekend, they're selling this tea-towel for £3. Come on!
However, we can't live on nothing but teacakes (though not for want of trying) so let's look at some of the other exhibitors we saw. Rather intriguingly, a Bothwell-based board-game company was there selling Scottish Quest, a Trivial Pursuits-style romp through Scottish history, culture and geography. It looked genuinely educational (for example, did you know that the 9 of diamonds card is known as the curse of Scotland? Well, no-one told me. Anyway, here's why) and I can imagine it being of interest to Croila and other Scottish parents of young 'uns - English, Welsh and Irish versions of the game are apparently due out soon in their respective territories.
It was good to see the Really Garlicky Company in attendance - they used to come along to the Edinburgh Farmers Market and their garlic is the best we've ever had. They've a wide range of garlicky products that you can order online or find at numerous stores across the land - I can particularly recommend their garlic bread and the relish - and there's a dizzying number of free recipes on their site. We've also seen Oleifera before, purveyors of rapeseed oil, comparable in quality to extra virgin olive oil. Equally suited to cooking and dressings, the low saturate fat level (compared to olive oil) in rapeseed oil makes it a healthier choice, and the Lass finds it far more agreeable. It's also beautifully presented in distinctively lanky bottles, which look good and make it easier to locate when in the middle of a busy cooking session. We came away with two new bottles of the good stuff and will catch them at future markets, but you can always buy online or from your local stockist. Plus, more free recipes - that soup sounds particularly tasty...
A regular at the market, I was glad to see Scarletts Honey getting more attention and distribution since they've been one of our favourites at the market for months. The blossom honey shown is good and smooth, but I have eyes only for the heather honey, a wonderfully rich honey from bees buzzing around the Grampian moorlands. The heather really does give it a distinctive taste that just makes all others pale in comparison, whether it's spread on crusty bread or added to a pre-bed cuppa. If you can find their honey in the shops, treat yourself to the heather - it's a wee bit pricier than the others, but worth every penny and then some.
JG Ross, bakers of all sorts of bread, cake and biscuit goodies, had a stand dominated with this humungous 'buttery' which, to them what don't know, is a bit like a flattened croissant (there's a recipe to make your own here). Goodness knows what the whopper itself tastes like, but the normal sized ones were nice and would go nicely with some fresh jam. Handily, we were given some butteries to take home, where fresh jam awaited them. Hurray! Also sampled were their syrup cookies which, despite the name, aren't remotely sticky and actually remind me a bit of ginger biscuits, good and crunchy with a spicy taste floating in the background.
Now, the booze! I went to four different brewery stands and one distillery stand, after which one felt somewhat tipsy, so it's probably best I didn't try to do them all. Besides, those four were enough to open my eyes to some quality drinks I'd never had before and by the time we left I was laden down with bottles of beery goodness. First up, probably the most well-known, was Belhaven Breweries, whose Best is available on tap at pubs across Scotland. It's a good enough drink when there's no guest ales to be had, but I found their bottled beers to be far more interesting. The Fruit Beer, which I'd never tasted before, was a particular surprise, more reminiscent of Belgian beers than anything on this side of the English Channel. The fruitiness is palpable but not overpowering (unlike some on the market) and it was particularly nice to hear it was made using Scottish berries. It's a good light flavoursome drink at 4.6%, best suited for warm spring and summer afternoons.
Next up, a brewery completely new to me, Brew Dog, based in Fraserburgh, but they've only been around since 2007. In just that short period of time they've already pulled in awards, and are exporting to USA, Sweden, and Japan, so I really should have been paying more attention to the beer world. Most of their beers are becoming available across the UK, so I'll be keeping an eye out for them, but I was immediately taken by the bottles of Paradox. Firstly, the gold/black design is a beauty and immediately eye-catching. Secondly, it promised the coming together of ale and whisky, being a stout that's aged in whisky barrels - indeed, like whisky, it was even produced in a range of expressions by using different barrels for different batches. Curiousity piqued, I took a sip of a poured sample... and was damn near floored. It was superb. The whisky angle is no gimmick, those barrels clearly leaving their mark on what is a light-devouringly dark, thick stout rich in taste, and at a thundering 10% it's a shock to the system, making even the mighty Skullsplitter look light by comparison. Much to my horror I learned that these were produced just for export, but I was able to buy one bottle, Islay, for future consumption. They can be bought from their online store in batches of 6 or 12 and, while they might seem pricey for a 330 ml bottle, on the strength of that sample they'd be worth every penny for a malt-loving stout-drinker.
While the speeches were going on I checked out the stand for the Williams Bros Brewing Co, a microbrewery based in Alloa. Most likely you'll have seen their Fraoch heather beer - there's even a review of it on YouTube - and they've won Tesco's 'Best Beer' competition two years in a row with the two beers I tried here. Previously only available through Tesco, Seven Giraffes and Midnight Sun clearly deserved their awards, despite being very different beers. Seven Giraffes, shown to the right, uses a blend of seven varieties of malted barley, with elderflower and lemon zest in the ingredients alongside the usual suspects. It's a really fresh tasting beer that goes down easy, a tangy fruitiness there in the background. Midnight Sun, by contrast, is a suitably thick, dark Porter beer with a spicy undercurrent. Much like Black Isle's Hibernator III, it's the kind of beer that's made for cold nights or a good book - I'm looking forward to enjoying a bottle of it with an Aubrey/Maturin book in the next fortnight.
Despite knowing that mixing drinks is never a good thing, my next stop was a stand promoting whisky - in particular, the Glenlivet in it's 12, 15 and 18 year old forms, and the Chivas Regal blend. The opportunity to have even the slightest sip of an 18 y.o single malt is rare indeed - those buggers aren't cheap - so I relished the chance to do so here. It was as good as I'd imagined, a lovely smooth dram, rich in flavours but never overpowering, with none of the peaty aggressiveness of a Laphroig for example. A fruity, deep malt with all sorts of good things going on under the surface, it tasted like a good all-rounder, the kind of dram you could enjoy at any time. Sadly I'm far too illiterate in the ways of whisky-writing to say any more, so I'll just point at Dr Whisky and say "ditto".
Next to that, two bottles of Chivas Regal, a blend whisky. To be honest, up until now I've always been rather sniffy about blends, as though they somehow didn't count or were cheaper inferior cousins of single malts. On the strength of the Chivas Regal 18 I sampled, it would appear I've been thinking bollocks. Imagine that! Before even tasting it, I couldn't help but marvel at the deep rich colour - the photo I took really doesn't do it justice. The taste is notably different to that of a single malt, it seemed to be smoother and more consistent, easy-going and very, very tasty. The representative helpfully explained that nature of making blends, comparing the selection process that goes into blending with that of an orchestral conductor. Looks a little trite on screen, but he made a convincing case, as does Dr Whisky's review of the same. A real treat, it showed me that I'd seriously underestimated the benefits of blends.
Back to beer, courtesy of the Cairngorm Brewery Company. I've already had their Trade Winds and Wildcat beers over the last few years, the latter in particular being a cracking ale, and the delicious Black Gold stout, a treat on tap. However, they also had one that was new to me, Blessed Thistle, brewed using - yes! - thistles. Apparently, this was done in the days before hops were used - with this beer, "thistles are boiled in the wort giving bitterness." There's more to it than thistles or bitterness though, the final product being a smooth beer filled with flavour that went down all too easily. I've now got a bottle of the stuff to enjoy at my leisure, and all of the above are available from Cairngorm's online store. And who knows, we might see more of their wares on the 23rd May 2009...
PHEW. So, all in all, a grand afternoon out, especially considering it's free of charge. Many thanks to Craig McGill for sorting us out, it was a real pleasure to talk to all those suppliers and sample their wares. If you're in the central belt, you could spend a good hour or two there on Sunday, discovering a whole range of tasty local treats in the bargain. And if you're far, far away, keep an eye out at your own local emporiums for all these goodies, or use the joy of the internet to buy direct from the suppliers. Whether through supermarkets, through delicatessens or direct from themselves, these suppliers deserve our custom and support - especially when it all tastes so damn good.