CASE STUDY: local food needs local supply chains
2nd February, 2008
'I can tell you what farm every cow came from, how long it's been in the family, where it's been killed and if it had a name.' Laura Sevier meets an inspirational Orcadian food supplier
Unless you grew up on a farm or by the sea you’re unlikely to know about rare breeds of sheep or when scallops are in season. In the UK, four-fifths of the population live in cities, with only the occasional weekend or one week’s holiday to get even a glimpse of a field or a wood.
But now a new, eco-conscious generation, fed-up with their office jobs in cities, is being drawn back to the country, to find their calling and to set up their own sustainable businesses. In Rose Grimond’s case, it has been to support farmers, fishermen and artisan food producers on the Orkney Islands, off north-east Scotland.
‘Being in your 20s you have time to take risks, to learn – you have lots of energy,’ says Rose, who set up Orkney Rose two years ago at the age of 26. Her aim was to create more sales for the islands’ producers by opening up the London market to them, as well as providing Londoners with high-quality food that is not mass produced. Although she grew up in Orkney, she had no background in farming or the food business. Previous jobs included acting, temping and work in the social change and reform sector, all based in London.
‘My learning curve has been very steep,’ Rose admits. ‘From what’s in season and when, to rare breeds of sheep, cows and pigs and cuts of meat. I can tell you what farm every cow came from, how long the farm has been in the family, where it’s been killed – and if they had names I’d know it. I know all the farmers, and that animal welfare is very high.’
Orkney Rose represents 20 producers across a wide range of products, including organic pork, lamb and beef, award-winning cheese, smoked kippers, handmade oatcakes, a 5,000-year-old type of barley, wild rhubarb jam and diver caught scallops, which are some of the biggest and juiciest scallops available. Finding the producers proved fairly easy.
‘Many Orcadians work in farming and fishing, and there are lots of high quality artisan producers who are passionate about what they’re doing,’ says Rose. ‘Often they’re carrying on a family tradition and so have generations of experience.’
Orkney supplies most of its own food to its own people. Producers are unsurprisingly wary of shipping out all the best produce only to import cheaper food from the Continent. Rose is keen to point out that ‘the first priority is to the local market and the second to export.’
What she sells is also affected by the seasons and sustainability. ‘We may only be selling the produce of seven or eight of our producers at any one time,’ Rose says. ‘For instance, we don’t sell scallops in July or August. They should be left to spawn and grow in the warmer waters, so the divers won’t dive for them during this time.’
Then there’s the weather to contend with, which, from May to November, can dictate whether or not lobster fisherman Ian Deyell heads out in his traditional ‘North Ronaldsay pram’, a banana shaped boat designed to stay close to the shore. It is a form of ‘conservation fishing’ that doesn’t affect vulnerable stocks out at sea. Orkney Rose sells only sustainable fish, such as herring and mackerel. ‘We don’t and won’t sell anything on the Marine Conservation Society’s Red List,’ says Rose. ‘Even if we could get cod, there’s no way we’d sell it.’
Produce is transported by train from Inverness to London, where Rose sells from a stall at Borough Market two days a week. She also supplies some of London’s top restaurants, including Roast, the River Café and the Anchor & Hope, ‘places where the chefs care enormously about the produce and flavour.’
So what makes the produce so good? Rose reckons the magic ingredient is the sea. Orkney waters are some of the coldest and cleanest in the UK, so you get giant prawns (some over a foot long) from Scapa Flow – ‘it’s a prawn heaven,’ says Rose – and no part of Orkney, which comprises more than 70 or so islands, is far from the sea. Due to the low hills, the lack of trees and the abundance of wind, Orkney’s fields are also constantly lashed with seawater. The sea brings with it high levels of calcium and sea minerals, so the soil is high in micronutrients.
Helping to keep one of the wildest, most unspoiled areas of the UK alive and thriving by supporting its producers is an impressive cause to be championing. But Rose is cautious about taking too much credit. ‘I don’t want to blow my own trumpet too much because many were doing fine before I set up Orkney Rose – but some I know I’ve helped significantly in terms of sales.’
In season: Rose recommends... North ronaldsay hogget: A rare-breed sheep from the most northerly of Orkney’s 79 islands. As a result of the sheep’s seaweed diet, its meat has a tasty, complex flavour. The hogget meat (lamb over a year old but not yet 18 months) is dark, the colour of red wine, rich in Omega 3 and very lean. Slow-roasted, the flavour is so good you don’t need extras such as rosemary, garlic and salt. Serve with roast potatoes and root veg, or with the traditional ‘neeps and tatties’ (mashed turnips and potatoes).
Lamb: It is still a great time to eat lamb. The spring lamb season starts in August in Orkney, which means that a lamb eaten in February will be about 10 months old and therefore bursting with flavour.
Scallops: Some of the UK’s finest scallops are caught off Orkney in their peak season. Winter is the best time to eat them, as they spawn in summer. Being diver-caught, however, supply is even more sporadic, as the sea can get very rough (not to mention cold).
Other Orkney specialities...
Bere meal: An ancient variety of barley that has been cultivated in Orkney for more than 5,000 years, ground by a 100-year-old working water mill-stone. Bere is used to bake a flat bread, bere bannock, which is an ideal accompaniment to cheese.
Grimbister farm cheese: Made from unpasteurised milk from the family’s own herd of mainly Friesian cattle, the cheese is a delicious, crumbly, moist, fresh-tasting cheese.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2009
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