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Andrew Fairlie speaks at Slow Food Edinburgh

04 April 2008 by

As part of its commitment to Scottish produce, Slow Food Edinburgh last month invited Andrew Fairlie and his brother - and lamb supplier - Jim to address chefs and restaurateurs in the Atrium restaurant, Edinburgh. Tom Vaughan attended

"There's not a day goes by that I don't get a press release from a restaurant claiming that every item on their menu is locally sourced, and frankly I don't believe it," says Donald Reid, the leader of Slow Food Edinburgh, the local branch of the international food-promotion organisation.

"But out in that farmers' market," he continues, pointing in a vaguely north-easterly direction from our location in the city's Atrium restaurant, "is good food, real food - small family businesses, working hard and believing in what they're doing."

The crowd he's addressing is just shy of 100-strong, made up of Scottish chefs, restaurateurs and suppliers: chef-patrons such as Martin Wishart and Tom Lewis, respectively of Restaurant Martin Wishart and Monachyle Mhor restaurateurs such as Martin Irons and suppliers ranging from bespoke bread makers to a Highlands buffalo farmer. Behind Reid, sitting comfortably on two facing sofas, legs languidly crossed in a fraternal mirror image, are brothers Andrew and Jim Fairlie.

Andrew is the more celebrated of the siblings, running Scotland's only two-Michelin-starred restaurant at his eponymous site in the Gleneagles hotel. But Jim, a farmer by trade, has made his own mark on the country. It was he who, a decade ago, following the BSE crisis, saw the need for farmers to market their own produce rather than rely on Government subsidies. After returning from a holiday in France, where he was "blown away" by the local markets, he set up Edinburgh's much-celebrated monthly farmers' market, which now attracts as many as 10,000 visitors.

The intention of the trio on the platform is to galvanise the gathering with the idea that, in Reid's words: "You go to Tuscany to eat Tuscan food you should go to Edinburgh to eat local Scottish food."

Appreciation of this attitude has, over the past decade, improved dramatically. "Ten years ago, if we'd put together this event, there'd have been maybe a dozen people here, at most," says Jim. In fact, the extent to which his own understanding of his produce has burgeoned over that period illustrates the change farmers have had to make, while his professional relationship with his brother is emblematic of the growing synergy between chefs and suppliers.

Ten years ago, when Andrew was head chef at One Devonshire Place and Jim a farmer at Glenearn Lamb in Perthshire, Jim wanted to market his produce. With his brother being a Michelin-starred chef, he realised it would be a fantastic platform for his meat.

"I phoned Andy and asked him if he'd like to take some of my lamb," Jim says. "‘Nae problem,' he answered, ‘I'll need 20 French-trimmed racks, 20 loins of lamb,' and so on. ‘What?' I thought - and it was then I realised we were poles apart, and I needed to go away and understand my product."

The problem, and the predicament that Edinburgh's farmers' market was designed to combat, is the effect that Government subsidies have had on farming. "It meant we didn't have to worry about the end product so long as we were growing it," says Jim. "Then, after the BSE crisis, we started being seen as ‘subsidy junkies' and we had to change. But how does a community who have spent 50 years being held by the hand market their way out of it?"

The answer was by understanding their product better and taking it to market themselves. The hardest job in getting the Edinburgh farmers' market started, explains Jim, was convincing farmers that it was their own responsibility to market their produce. But the feeling when he sold his first lamb face-to-face made the struggle worthwhile.

"That feeling of taking my product out of the farm and to the customer was the most amazing buzz I've had in my career," he recalls. "And the customer coming back to tell me how good it was made it even better."

It has, as a result, greatly improved his understanding of the animals he farms. "I started to learn what you can do with a neck fillet, what a French-trimmed rack of lamb is," he says. "I now know 10 times more about lamb than I did before - and I thought back then that I knew enough."

What's needed, he says, is a better understanding between farmers and suppliers. "I can't produce enough lamb fillet to supply all the people here," Jim says. "People need to understand that it's only a small part of the animal. I have restaurants taking whole lambs off me now, and they are loving it, loving the challenge."

Andrew adds: "For most people, 15 or 16 years ago it was a case of picking up a phone, leaving a message and expecting the meat to turn up. But I came back from [working in] France for five years, spoilt for choice with producers, and went about surrounding myself with like-minded producers when I started at One Devonshire."

This included people such as his vegetable supplier, who, says Andrew, back then was quite "out there" in terms of his methodology, which included planting by the moon. "But his produce was mindblowing," he adds. "It had an enormous effect on my cooking."

Andrew continues: "The most important thing to us chefs is produce. We've been talking about it for years and years and years - you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Shortly after Jim started Edinburgh's farmers' market, and Andrew moved to his restaurant at Gleneagles, the pair found a working relationship that would let Andrew take Glen­earn lamb. Using a local butcher, who sent Andrew the cuts he needed, the product has been a mainstay of the menu ever since.

In the past year Jim has moved to a new sheep farm, and Andrew is again looking to use his meat.

"The only way this is going to happen elsewhere is if there is a meeting of minds, a collaboration," says Andrew. "There has to be a will on our part [chefs] and on theirs [suppliers] to make this happen. In France, Italy, Germany, they get local produce into the local community and are proud of it. The only way for that to happen here is by like-minded suppliers and chefs getting together to make it work. I don't have the answers for that, but the fact that there are so many people here today shows we want it to happen."

Andrew and Jim Fairlie are living proof that such a system can work. In the Atrium forum, a small selection of market stalls have been set up to showcase their produce to the attending chefs and restaurateurs, encouraging a dialogue that the Fairlies have demonstrated can be to the mutual benefit of all parties.

"The chef has this vital role in between the producer and the supplier," Reid says in summary. "They're using their skills to show the diner just how great food can be. They are, if you will, the interpreters of good produce."

Slow Food Edinburgh

Slow Food is an international non-profit organisation that addresses people's dwindling interest in the food they eat - where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.

It takes its name from its opposition to the fast-food culture, and encourages people to take more time to understand and appreciate the food they eat, highlighting the idea that eating good food should be a pleasure.

Founded in 1989 in Rome, as a protest against the opening of a McDonald's outlet in the city, Slow Food now has more than 83,000 members in 107 countries, with 2,000 members and 35 local groups, called convivia, in the UK. The Slow Food Edinburgh convivium is the second-largest in the UK after London's, with more than 220 members.

While Slow Food offers an alternative to fast food, it isn't about slow cooking and long, leisurely meals. Instead, it promotes an attitude to food that values locally grown produce, eating food in season, small-scale artisan producers and non-industrialised farming.

Slow Food sets itself against fast-food culture by creating meaningful links between those who eat food and those who grow, farm, produce, sell and cook it. Locally and internationally, the organisation gets involved in projects aimed at spreading taste education, increasing our appreciation of local food producers, and protecting threatened breeds of animal, varieties of fruit and traditional food-related skills.

After a sell out debut in 2007, the Taste of Edinburgh Festival returns from the 29th May - 1st June and gives hospitality professionals a unique opportunity to sample the culinary delights of 20 of the city's top restaurants including the Michelin-starred Restaurant Martin Wishart, Scottish Restaurant of the Year 2008, Dakota and Forth Floor at Harvey Nichols. As well as offering up great-tasting dishes, top chefs will be on hand to share their culinary expertise in the Taste Theatre and the Taste Kitchen, whilst the Edinburgh Food and Whiskey School will allow visitors to learn from the experts, as they taste a variety of Scottish produce. In association with delicious magazine and the Edinburgh Farmers' Market, the producers' market will feature everything from traditional cheeses to organic meats and will be the ideal place for caterers to source new ideas and purchase local specialities. Don't forget - hospitality professionals can also take advantage of a special 4 for 3 deal simply by stating where they work.

By Tom Vaughan

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